After two years of scaffolding and shut doors, Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image reopens to the public this weekend, in its all its newly renovated, vastly expanded, quite improved glory. (Though, alas, sometime during the lull the retro diner across the street closed, replaced by a 5 Napkin Burger.) Now three stories, it’s a glowering, mostly glass and metal box you start to see from a couple of blocks away, seemingly willed into existence in the middle of semiresidential Queens.
The new interior is white—like, gleaming spaceship white, with angled walls, the better to project video installations on. (One, Martha Colburn’s Dolls vs. Dictators, is a stop-motion animation pitting licensed action figures from the Museum’s collection against magazine cut-outs of Mugabe, Kim, etc. Barbies play Gaddafi’s bodyguards.) Benches protrude directly out from the walls, too—it’s supposed to feel seamless, like a movie, architect Thomas Leeser has explained, and it does evoke an appropriately digital-age sense of different platforms converging in an amorphous, inorganic but not antiseptic space. The lobby bathrooms are white, all right angles and perfect spheres, futuristic to hack it in a Thai restaurant; even the catering company had a press release in the materials distributed to members of the press at a preview earlier this week. (The potato chips are thin, airy, the color of John Boehner.)
The MoMI (note the clean, very navigable new website!) received upwards of $50 million in public financing for its renovation and expansion—in the works for a decade, and a dream project of founding, soon-to-retire director Rochelle Slovin, of the snow-white Mary Tyler Moore hair. And I’d guess that a lot of that support, from Queens pols and city agencies over the past ten years, has had a lot to do with the Museum’s education efforts. Having previously served 30,000 middle and high schoolers a year—with tours, moderated screenings in a handsome small screening room, and film and animation workshops on- and off—the Museum now boasts the capacity to do the same for 60,000.
The facilities in large part reflect that constituency. Chris Wisniewski, the Museum’s education director (and one of several long-time Reverse Shot critics with whom I’m friendly), was among those most responsible for the Museum’s expanded, two-story permanent exhibition Behind the Screen, and the results are a very family and school-group-friendly mix of industry and pop-culture artifacts, and interactive postproduction suites, animation station and a TV control-room. (The exhibition also, I’m sure, reflects the interest of the Museum’s trustees, led by former NBC exec Herb Schlosser, who was instrumental in starting the Museum during the late-70s revival of Astoria’s silent-era studio spaces.)
But Moving Image is a cultural anchor for the area in more ways than one. (And, I’m sure, a point of local pride: an essential museum in an ultramodern new facility designed by an Austrian architect.) I, and at least a few other people I know, rejoice in the return of regular film programming at Moving Image (curated by the estimable David Schwartz). Yes, it’s a long way to ride to see a movie, but both the programming and the mostly all-inclusive admissions policies, you can stay all day. The inaugural weeks of programming leave no audience quadrant unmassaged (and I mean that in the best way possible): a catch-all restoration series featuring various foreign and domestic classics, and a matching wide-ranging avant-garde series; a hastily assembled Oscar-courting David O. Russell retro with the director in person, along with other one-night-only appearances; and ongoing populist ethnic and family-matinee series.
The renovated main screening room now seems steeper and narrower (the better for sight lines, I think), with an 8-bit starburst pattern on the curtain (“Is it a magic eye?”, a colleague asked) and slightly curving, cavelike panels of IBM-blue equilateral triangles, for acoustics. (At our preview screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey—in a pretty great new 70mm print that’ll show as part of tomorrow’s big reopening—they also bounced a very noticeable blue light into deep space until some backstage lights were flicked off.)
There’s also now temporary space for exhibitions and installations: first up is Real Virtuality, an appropriately broad topic; a highlight is Cao Fei’s RMB City, two not-quite video games in which the viewer/user tours a city the artist built in Second Life, either as a Wii avatar or a surfer (there’s a controller in front of one of the monitors and a custom sensor pad in front of the other; one of the guest curators demonstrated for us, in her stilettos). Think Feng Mengbo’s Long March, but with urbanism instead of history.
MoMI people also say they’ll expand their commitment to research—or, if you prefer, continuing education—indicated a couple years ago, when they launched Moving Image Source. Their collection catalog’s now online, as well, and, though we didn’t see it on the tours, more than one Museum employee waxed rhapsodic about the new on-site storage space for the collection—it was sweet, and heartening, in the midst of all this high-goss newness, to hear people geek out on pure functionality.