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Museum for African Art, 36-01 43rd Avenue, Long Island City, Queens, (718)784-7700 "

Another museum on the move

The Museum for African Art, based in Long Island City for the last two years, is moving to Harlem


BY CLAIRE SERANT Claire Serant is a freelance writer.

  Three months after the Museum of Modern Art left its temporary Queens home to return to Manhattan, another borough cultural organization is pushing ahead with plans to leap across the East River.

Officials at the Museum for African Art, located at 36-01 43rd Ave. in Long Island City, expect to break ground on a new $50-million, three-story building in Harlem early next year. The move will return the 21-year-old museum to its Manhattan roots after a two-year absence and help bolster Harlem's appeal as a cultural destination, said Elsie Crum McCabe, the nonprofit museum's president. The city's Department of Cultural Affairs will contribute $8.5 million in capital funds toward the new building project, according to a department spokeswoman.

"We loved being in Queens," McCabe said. "We hope we can bring our new audience with us when we move to Manhattan."

Relocations and renovations

The Museum for African Art was established in 1984 to bring the visual works of African artists to New York City. The nonprofit institution was located at 593 Broadway in Soho for several years until escalating rents in the trendy neighborhood drove them to Queens in 2002. Around the same time, Long Island City's underutilized industrial spaces attracted The Museum of Modern Art because the well-known institution needed a temporary site while its permanent midtown Manhattan home underwent a major renovation. MoMA QNS set up shop at 45-20 33rd St. near Queens Boulevard.

A year before, The Noguchi Museum relocated to the same 43rd Avenue building as The Museum for African Art due to renovations on its permanent site at 32-37 Vernon Blvd. in Long Island City. The upgraded Noguchi Museum re-opened in June, and MoMA returned to its midtown Manhattan home on West 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue in November. Both relocations have been felt by the Museum for African Art, which has experienced a drop in visitors, McCabe said.

"We get some Queens tourists and school groups, but with public schools having sparse resources ... We need something that will be accessible to every one," McCabe said.

Now, McCabe hopes to bring the Museum for African Art to "the top of Manhattan's Museum Mile" - Fifth Avenue between 109th and 110th Streets - to continue offering performance-based and visual exhibits to patrons. The Museum for African Art established a relationship with The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine earlier this year to hold live performance-based art exhibits to keep in touch with its Manhattan audience. The museum offers an exhibit called "Personal Affects: Power and Poetics in Contemporary South African Art," which has brought several visitors to the museum's temporary Queens headquarters.

"To be honest, we liked being near MoMA," said Jenny Dixon, director of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. "MoMA brought people from the suburbs to do a day visiting MoMA, us and the Museum For African Art. But MoMA leaving had no impact on us."

Patrons have always flocked to The Noguchi Museum, which was founded by the late Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi and housed at its present site since 1987, Dixon said. The museum also attracts patrons familiar with Socrates Sculpture Park, at Broadway, Vernon Boulevard and 11th Street in Astoria. She added MoMA still has a Long Island City presence through its affiliation with the PS 1 Contemporary Art Center on Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue.

Future focus

Despite less foot traffic directly from Noguchi, the Museum for African Art remains patron-focused, McCabe said. It plans to bring 100 art pieces, including several African masks and sculptures, from the New Orleans Museum of Art to Queens in mid-February.

"If you ask the average 8-year-old to describe Africa, all they can tell you about are jungles and giraffes," McCabe said. "They don't know that Egypt is on the continent or that there are castles in Benin ... We introduce kids and grown-ups of all ages to African art."

The museum has a staff of 20 and an operating budget of approximately $3 million, said McCabe, a Harvard-trained lawyer who took its reins seven years ago. McCabe is no stranger to New York City or Harlem. She served as the chief of staff under former mayor David Dinkins. She is also the widow of the late Eugene McCabe, who was the founder, president and chief executive of North General Hospital in Harlem until his death in 1998.

"If you want to bring a second renaissance to Harlem, you need to bring money from outside of the community," McCabe said. "You can't do it with the Magic Johnson movie theater or the Gap alone. You need cultural institutions people will travel to see. We'll be a good complement to the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Schomberg Library, The Museum of the City of New York and the Museum del Barrio - cultural institutions that are already there."

Claire Serant is a freelance writer.

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