The Museum of Modern Art in New York is one of the world’s premier modern art museums, drawing in millions of visitors every year. But how do you figure out what parts of the museum’s huge collection to see? What highlights should you absolutely not miss? What’s the story of secrecy and intrigue that makes a tiny microchip-sized ceramic tile so amazing? To find out, we spoke to Carly McCloskey, Assistant Director of Tourism Sales and Marketing at MoMA!
Below you’ll find a unique insider perspective on the MoMA collection, its history, as well as its present-day developments. From the museum’s top highlights to lesser-known hidden gems you’ll be grateful you didn’t miss, consider this your behind-the-scenes trip into the best MoMA has to offer.
Meet your MoMA insider
What is your role at MoMA? What does that involve on a day-to-day basis? What do you love most about your role?
I am the assistant director of tourism sales and marketing at MoMA, meaning I’m responsible for promoting the museum to the wonderful tourists who visit New York City. I get to meet incredible people within the tourism industry and the amazing visitors who come through our doors every day. But one of my favorite parts of the job is seeing someone view their favorite work of art in person for the first time. Everyone has a different way of reacting, but it’s always an emotional experience. It makes it all worth it.
The MoMA renovation: What’s new?
MoMA has recently undergone some pretty spectacular renovations! What’s new? What’s improved? If someone has visited the museum before the renovations, what new experiences will they encounter if they were to visit again now?
We have! In addition to 40,000 square feet (or more than 3,600 square meters) of new gallery space, we have added spaces for art making and conversation, a new restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, and a flagship MoMA store. We also reinstalled our collection throughout the entire building—not just the new galleries—so visitors are essentially experiencing a brand new museum.
On that topic: what drove the decision to renovate?
Our museum director Glenn D. Lowry said it best: “The real value of this expansion is not more space, but more space that allows us to rethink the experience of art in the Museum.” With the reinstallation, we are sharing a broad view of the art of our time in a way that will constantly evolve.
MoMA has some iconic works of art in its collection. The Persistence of Memory and Starry Night are some of the most famous paintings in the world. If you had to create a highlights reel for MoMA, what would you feature?
That’s a really difficult question; there are so many icons in our collection. If I have to choose, my highlights include Frida Kahlo’s Fulang-Chang and I, Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, and Kara Walker’s Gone.
Sometimes these famous icons can draw in huge crowds, like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or the Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum. But there’s so much more to be found at both of these places! What do you consider the hidden gems in MoMA’s collection? Which pieces do you wish people would stop and appreciate more?
Henri Matisse’s Swimming Pool is currently tucked away on our fourth floor, and our newly acquired Tarsila do Amaral painting is one of my absolute favorites. In the Tarsila painting, the colors resonate strongly with me. It’s bold and dynamic in person, just like the artist.
I also love that film is much more integrated in the galleries. Did you know we were the first U.S. museum to collect film? We have three movie theaters on site that show a variety of films every day, all included with your MoMA ticket.
Don’t skip these paintings on your tour
of the Museum of Modern Art
Fulang-Chang and I
by Frida Kahlo
This self-portrait by the inimitable Frida Kahlo was given to a friend of hers with a framed mirror (which matched the painting), so that it would appear as if the two were standing right next to each other.
by Jacob Lawrence
Lawrence’s Migration Series is a seminal collection of paintings, all of which depict the ‘Great Migration’ – the mass movement of African Americans from the South to the North near the start of the 20th century.
by Kara Walker
Walker’s signature style features black cut-out silhouettes on a white background, and Gone is one of the most striking examples of her work. The installation depicts scenes from the American Civil War, often with unusual or confronting themes and messages, exploring the artificial constructs of race.
Les Demoiselles D’Avignon
by Pablo Picasso
One of Picasso’s most famous paintings, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon features distorted, angular representations of women at a local brothel. The painting is often said to have kickstarted Cubism, after Picasso showed it to his fellow proto-cubist Georges Braque.
Campbell’s Soup Cans
by Andy Warhol
This iconic Warhol work consists of 32 canvases, all featuring a painting of a Campbell’s soup can in different flavours. The commercial nature of the subject initially caused some controversy, but is now seen as a major landmark in the pop art movement.
Like you said, a lot of works have fascinating stories behind them. Do you have a favourite story related to a work of art in the MoMA collection?
Pablo Picasso essentially kicked off cubism with Demoiselles. Jacob Lawrence powerfully portrays the migration of African-Americans from the rural South to cities in the North. Frida Kahlo gave her painting to a friend with a framed mirror so they could be together. The stories in and behind these works are fascinating to me!
For the hidden gems, the story behind Matisse’s Swimming Pool is fascinating. We also have a very tiny work in our collection called The Moon Museum, which is thought to be the first artwork to travel to the moon. Works by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, David Novros, Forrest Myers, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Chamberlain are all featured on this ceramic tile that measures only 1.4 x 1.9 cm.
Your guide to visiting MoMA
Visiting a museum for the first time can be daunting, especially when there’s so much to see. What insider tips do you have for first-time visitors?
I always recommend that visitors wear comfortable shoes and connect to our free WiFi, so they have immediate access to information about our exhibitions, programs, films, and events. We also provide digital maps and audio programs, completely free of charge.
We even have three restaurants, a coffee bar, and lounge areas, so visitors can stay energized. Most importantly: there are information desks, staff members, and security posted throughout the museum, so don’t be afraid to ask a question. That’s what we’re here for!
Carly’s recommendations for seeing the MoMA collection:
- For the quick and ambitious:
Start on the fifth floor and work your way down with our extremely helpful audio playlist that will help lead time-constrained visitors to our collection highlights.
- For families:
I definitely recommend building in time for a visit to our Art Lab (for younger children) or our Creativity Lab (for families with older kids). They are wonderful drop-in spaces where inspired visitors of all ages can make their own works of art. We also have activities for children at our information desks, as well as audio programs tailored just for kids.
- For art aficionados/history buffs:
We have free gallery talks every day at 11 am and 1 pm that cover a variety of topics. One day, we’ll provide an introduction to and discussion about Mexican modernists; the next, we’ll cover the museum’s architecture. It’s a great way to learn more about our collection from a different perspective.
Finally, one amazing thing about MoMA is its origin story; a small group of progressive art patrons challenging conservative notions of art and museums. They seem to have been quite focused on helping people access and understand modern art, which the audience may not have been exposed to otherwise. In what ways does MoMA continue this mission today?
The three forward-thinking women who founded our museum knew the importance of supporting and showing the art of our time. Creating space for a variety of voices and fresh perspectives is vital to continuing their work. Our hope is that the new MoMA feels like a welcoming place where people of all ages and backgrounds can learn, reflect, and gain inspiration from our ever-changing collection.