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Lights, Camera, Astoria

Lights, Camera, Astoria

Three Years and $67 Million Later, the Museum of the Moving Image Opens Anew

The Wall Street Journal 1/13/11


On Tuesday the Museum of the Moving Image invited members of the press to Astoria to survey its transformed environs in advance of a public unveiling on Saturday. The museum’s renovation and expansion—under the leadership of founding director Rochelle Slovin and trustee board chairman Herbert S. Schlosser, and with the design acumen of architect Thomas Leeser—has added some 47,000 square feet of space to the city-owned building that has housed the museum since 1988.

“We’ve doubled the size of the building,” Ms. Slovin said from the front of the Museum’s new 267-seat main theater following Mr. Schlosser’s introductory remarks. “The parts of the building that aren’t brand new have been redesigned and reinstalled.”

It was Ms. Slovin who re-directed the mission of the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Center Foundation—a nonprofit created in 1977 to reclaim the Astoria Studios complex, Paramount Pictures’s 1920s East Coast production headquarters—toward the creation of the Moving Image museum complex.

“We wanted to add some glamor to the building,” she said, standing in front of an enormous multicolored curtain created by textile designer Cindy Cirko. “We are in a glamor field and felt as if we never communicated that as well as we might.”

The museum’s three-year, $67 million evolution ($54.7 provided by the City of New York) was, Ms. Slovin said, also firmly rooted in practical realities of reaching the public. “We were bursting at the seams,” she said. “We needed behind-the-scenes space, of which we had absolutely none. You couldn’t even so much as build a pedestal. We wanted to bring our exhibition spaces and especially our screening spaces up to the state of the art.”

The museum’s senior deputy director, Carl Goodman, who will succeed Ms. Slovin when she steps down at the end of February, struck a similar note. “I believe the word of the day is ‘more,'” he said. “More [film] programs, more exhibitions and more education programs.”

The threefold nature of MMI’s mission—film screenings programmed by David Schwartz, education initiatives overseen by Christopher Wisniewski, and ongoing and permanent installation exhibitions and acquisitions—are all poised to benefit substantially from the museum’s makeover. Mr. Wisniewski offered that the physical needs of the museum’s education programs were “one of the impulses for this expansion project in the first place. Education has been a central part of the museum’s mission since it first opened. We’ve been booked to capacity with school kids for years, and normally we have to turn people away.”

A new education center within the building, including a student entrance for school groups, will, Mr. Wisniewski said, “allow us to double the amount of kids we see.”

The museum’s re-vamped exhibition floors represent a mix of the old and the new, re-purposing portions of the core installation “Behind the Screen,” from MMI’s previous incarnation, and displaying some 14,000 individual pieces from an in-house collection of film, television and digital media technology, tools, memorabilia and ephemera. The gallery space also incorporates interactive displays designed to lift the veil on the creation and presentation of what was repeatedly referred to on Tuesday as “screen culture.”

To that end, a new 4,100-square-foot temporary exhibition space has been given over to a alternately bewildering and enchanting compendium of commissioned installations curated by Mr. Goodman and gathered under the title “Real Virtuality.”

On Tuesday, as employees worked furiously to connect wires and glue placards onto displays, Mr. Goodman sat beneath an angled interior wall separating a café area from the sloping theater seats on the other side. He was sanguine about MMI’s unique positioning within the museum community and the visual culture the institution celebrates.

“People say, ‘Why don’t you collect films?'” Mr. Goodman said. “There are so many institutions that are already doing that.” Instead of acquiring and preserving film prints, MMI seeks out, in Mr. Goodman’s words, “objects involved in the process of production.”

Potentially specious terminology like “new media,” Mr. Goodman noted, comes sharply into focus when seen from a sympathetic curatorial and historical distance. “We have a collection of gadgets dating back from the early 1900s that today are museum pieces,” he said. “At the time [of their creation] they were ‘new media.’ In a way a lot of our 12,000 technological artifacts can be thought of as old new media. It’s that continuum that we’re interested in.”