Press release

The Metropolitan Museum of Art to Renovate Its Michael C. Rockefeller Wing

A gallery with a sweeping windows and wooden sculptures in cases. Guests walk around the gallery.

$70 Million Project Will Reconfigure and Reimagine the galleries featuring art of sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania and the ancient Americas

(New York, November 19, 2018)—The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced today that it is embarking on a plan to completely renovate, redesign, and reconfigure The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing—the galleries devoted to three separate collections: the arts of sub-Saharan Africa; Oceania; and the ancient Americas.  The galleries—40,000 square feet on the Museum’s south side—will be overhauled and reimagined to reintroduce each of the three major world traditions, displaying them as discrete elements in an overarching wing that is in dialogue with the Museum’s collections as a whole. The Met has selected architect Kulapat Yantrasast of the firm wHY and Beyer, Blinder, Belle Architects LLP are overseeing the $70 million project, which is funded by numerous individuals and the City of New York. Renovation will begin in late 2020 and completion of the project is expected in 2025.

“By ushering artistic traditions of three-quarters of the globe into The Met, the building of the Rockefeller Wing helped define us as an encyclopedic fine arts museum. Its expansive and diverse character uniquely resonates with our global city. Our Africa and Americas collections alone represent the heritage of a quarter of the U.S. population and half of New York City’s residents,” said Daniel H. Weiss, President and CEO of The Met. “The renovation of this suite of galleries will at once make a unique and timely civic contribution to our community and immeasurably enrich and deepen appreciation of a vast swath of the world’s artistic dynamism.”

“Only at The Met can one move from galleries devoted to the ancient Greek and Roman traditions that inspired the Renaissance into galleries filled with the non-European traditions that gave birth to Modernism,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met. “Within The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing alone, there is the potential for highlighting parallels and contrasts that consider how societies across hundreds of cultures, five continents, and 5,000 years have addressed issues of authorship, patronage, trade, governance, state ideology, and ancestral commemoration. This major reinstallation of a core part of the Met’s global collection and the extraordinary design by Kulapat Yantrasast will be a manifestation of our ability to further advance the understanding, appreciation, and contextualization of the world’s most significant cultures.”

With over two million square feet at its Fifth Avenue building, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the world’s largest art museum. The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing renovation joins other large infrastructure projects, including: the replacement of the skylights in the European Paintings galleries (a project that began in 2018 and will continue through 2023) lead by Beyer Blinder Belle; and the complete reimagining of the modern and contemporary wing—the Oscar L. Tang and H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang Wing— for which design is about to start with architect Frida Escobedo, and the galleries for Ancient Near Eastern and Cypriot Art with NADAAA. 

"This is an opportunity to reconceptualize and reframe for the public the most significant fine arts collections relating to three major fields within the history of art," said Alisa LaGamma, Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge of The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. "The curatorial team has been in the vanguard of developing groundbreaking exhibitions of non-Western art that reflect new research, and this direction will now be reflected in our permanent galleries. To highlight the artistic virtuosity found in each of the three regions of the world that our department encompasses, the redesign will resituate the three suites of galleries in relationship to one another and to the Museum’s other collections. We  seek to foreground the authorship of these works and invoke a sense of place through light, materials, color palettes, and references to the distinctive cultural landmarks and architecture of each area.” 

The reenvisioning of each of these suites of galleries builds on international planning workshops and consultation with dozens of local and international leaders in the arts and humanities.  Recorded interviews with an interdisciplinary cohort of experts will be featured in audio guides, podcasts, and new digital content. Also, in collaboration with The Met, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) will create a digital resource that will be featured throughout the Africa galleries.  This rich layer of content will provide visitors and online audiences with a more expansive view of the artistic and architectural expression on the continent and provide deep context to the Museum’s collection of sub-Saharan African art.

Filtered daylight from Central Park will enter the galleries through a custom designed, state of the art sloped glass wall on the south façade, which the Museum expects to reduce energy consumption in this area by approximately 70 percent. Stone and metalwork from the ancient Americas will be concentrated in galleries adjacent to the Park, while a new gallery devoted to light-sensitive, ancient American textiles will present a 2,000-year history of exceptional achievements in tapestry and other fiber arts. The new galleries for Oceanic art will include signature monumental works from New Guinea as well as a suite of  more intimate spaces dedicated to island cultures. The Africa galleries present a survey of major visual traditions developed across sub-Saharan Africa.  Their interface with the Greek and Roman galleries provides an opportunity for new considerations of Africa in antiquity.  

History of the Department
As early as 1893, Mexican stone sculpture and Peruvian ceramics were gifts to The Met from diplomats and artists, including one of the Museum’s founders, the American painter Frederic Church. During the 1950s and 1960s, the American statesman and philanthropist Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller assembled a fine-arts survey of non-Western art traditions that included the ancient Americas as well as areas of the world not represented in the Museum’s collection, notably African and Oceanic art. In 1969 it was announced that Rockefeller’s collection would be transferred to The Met as a new department and wing. Opened to the public in 1982, the addition was named after Nelson Rockefeller’s son, Michael C. Rockefeller, who was greatly inspired by the cultures and art of the Pacific and pursued new avenues of inquiry into artistic practice during his travels there.  Among the wing’s signature works are the striking Asmat sculptures he researched and collected in southwest New Guinea.

The launch of what was at the time indisputably the world’s most spectacular showcase for the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the ancient Americas spurred a surge of art historical studies that have subsequently contributed to a major paradigm shift in the field.

Since The Met’s landmark 1984 exhibition Te Maori: Art from New Zealand Collections, curators in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (as it was then known) have mounted influential innovative and scholarly presentations both in the wing’s focus gallery and in the Museum’s special exhibition spaces. Topics have included: authorship, in Master Hand: Individuality and Creativity in Yoruba Sculpture; how sacred matter has been the catalyst for creativity, in Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Reliquary in Central Africa; the reception of African art in New York City, in African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde; what constitutes a portrait, in Heroic Africans; how artists have visualized immaterial spiritual forces, in Kongo:  Power and Majesty; and how societies measure value, in Golden Kingdoms:  Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, the legacy of West Africa’s medieval states in Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara; how societies measure value, in Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas; and indigenous Pacific perspectives on the material and genealogical networks that bind Polynesian gods and chiefs with nature, in Atea: Nature and Divinity in Polynesian Art

Overview of the Collection
Since the transformative gift of Nelson Rockefeller’s collection in 1969, The Met’s Africa, Oceania, and the Americas holdings have tripled in size through gifts of other major collections and strategic acquisitions. 

The largest and earliest of the Wing’s collections is that of the ancient Americas—works by indigenous artists created before the period of colonization in the 16th century, pertaining to some 234 distinct cultures in regions now part of 21 modern nations.

The Met’s collection of Oceanic art comprises more than 2,800 works that reflect the rich history of creative expression and innovation emblematic of the Pacific Islands.  Key amongst these are the collection of Asmat art, more than 600  artworks assembled by Michael C. Rockefeller during two field expeditions  to New Guinea in 1961. One decade later, the visionary curator and first head of the department Douglas Newton commissioned 245 paintings from contemporary Kwoma artists in New Guinea during a series of visits to the Sepik River (1971–73). Their dramatic installation in New York evokes the interior of a men's ceremonial house, and is acquired directly from the artists who made them.

The collection of arts of sub-Saharan Africa given by Rockefeller have been deepened through gifts of Dogon sculpture by Lester Wunderman, the courtly arts of Benin by Klaus Perls, and textile traditions from across the region funded by William Goldstein. Today, works from sub-Saharan Africa relate to some 206 distinct cultural traditions identified with 39 nations.  Currently, 21 masterpieces of sub-Saharan African art are paired with 21 masterworks of art from ancient Egypt in The African Origin of Civilization (gallery 136). 

About The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met presents over 5,000 years of art from around the world for everyone to experience and enjoy. The Museum lives in three iconic sites in New York City—The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Breuer, and The Met Cloisters. Millions of people also take part in The Met experience online. Since it was founded in 1870, The Met has always aspired to be more than a treasury of rare and beautiful objects. Every day, art comes alive in the Museum's galleries and through its exhibitions and events, revealing both new ideas and unexpected connections across time and across cultures.


Updated September 21, 2022

Contact: Meryl Cates

Image: Arts of the Ancient Americas Galleries, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image by wHY.

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