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The Robert A.M. Stern-designed Museum for African Art in Harlem
The Robert A.M. Stern-designed Museum for African Art in Harlem

MUSEUM FOR AFRICAN ART DELAYS OPENING

June 15, 2011

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The beleaguered Museum for African Art (MfAA) has hit another stumbling block, postponing the opening of its new Robert A.M. Stern-designed space on 110th Street and Fifth Avenue from late this year until late 2012. The museum has an impressive $86.3 million in hand, but needs $92.5 million to enter the final stage of construction. With the announcement, the museum’s respected communications firm, Jeanne Collins & Associates, also announced that it was “taking a hiatus in its work with the museum.”

The Museum of African Art has been something of a PR nightmare in recent years. In a Village Voice story last year, Wayne Barrett accused museum president Elsie McCabe-Thompson, wife of former New York comptroller and mayoral candidate William Thompson, of using insider connections to NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg to reap between as much as $51 million in public and other subsidies for the museum. Her husband, by the way, has just been appointed by New York governor Andrew Cuomo to head the New York State Judicial Compensation Board, and plans to run for NYC mayor again in 2013.

Despite the setback, McCabe-Thompson remains determined to bring back to life a museum that has been, as Artnet Magazine reported last year, an ephemeral presence for nearly a decade. Founded in 1984, the museum closed its SoHo gallery space in 2002 and moved to temporary quarters in Long Island City. It’s now been four years since it broke ground for its new 90,000-square-foot facility, housed on the first three floors of a 19-story mixed-use residential tower. The museum delay has not affected the apartments, some of which are already sold and occupied.

“I’m only going to be party to doing construction once,” said McCabe-Thompson. “I don’t want to do a half-hearted job and then have to come back and do it again.” Indeed, the design spares no expenses. The curving, copper-toned “dancing” window mullions, for instance, meant to evoke an African basket weave, are much costlier than rectilinear ones, but “Africa deserves the best we can give it -- it’s waited for a long time.”

Without a building, McCabe-Thompson’s museum has still managed to organize some impressive exhibitions. “El Anatsui: When I last Wrote to You about Africa,” the retrospective that the MfAA organized and that premiered to rave reviews at the Royal Ontario Museum in October 2010, may still show up in New York in 2013. According to a MfAA spokesperson, both its basketry exhibition, “Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art,” and the West African-themed “Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria” are also good to go in the new museum, whenever it opens.

In the meantime, “El Anatusi” is on view at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, Mar. 30-June 26, 2011, and is scheduled to appear at the Blanton Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art,the Denver Art Museum and the University of Michigan Museum of Art, through 2013. The Ife show is being hosted by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, July 8, 2011-Jan. 16, 2012.

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