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MoMA, African museum prepare to put roots in LIC

They are temporary visitors to a bustling artistic landscape, prominent settlers putting down retractable roots before they retreat back to their home turf in a few years.

But by the end of summer, a stretch of four blocks in Long Island City will be home to the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum for African Art and the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, giving those few streets what is likely to be the borough’s highest per capita collection of artwork.

And though the museums plan to venture back to their permanent, renovated facilities by 2005, the effects of their stay are likely to last well beyond their anticipated departures.

MoMA closed the doors of its Midtown Manhattan home May 21 in anticipation of its June 29 opening at 45-20 33rd St. in Long Island City, in the blue warehouse that once housed the Swingline staple factory.

The building will provide a permanent storage facility for the museum as well as a temporary exhibition space expected to display artwork through 2005, when a major addition to its main facility should be completed. About 100,000 pieces of art are being transported there from storage sites across the city.

The Museum for African Art, meanwhile, plans to move by September into a temporary space on the third floor of 36-01 43rd Ave., where the second story has been used since February by the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum during the renovation of its Vernon Boulevard home. The 18-year-old African museum, which comes to Long Island City from Soho, also is planning to move by 2005 into its new permanent facility on top of Manhattan’s Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue and 109th Street.

“These institutions may be planning short-term stays, but their presence here for however long will bring lots of arts visitors and tourists who have never come into the neighborhood,” said Dan Miner of the Long Island City Business Development Corporation. “They will come to associate Long Island City with art both through the newer and temporary facilities and the existing arts institutions that have already been here for a very long time.”

Indeed, the neighborhood has been flourishing as a home for independent artists for decades, attracting people with the low rents and abundant spaces that are vital to an artist’s livelihood.

“People often ask me how many artists do I think are here. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to estimate it,” said Kenny Greenberg, a neon and technology artist who has had a studio on Vernon Boulevard since 1980. “Easily we’re talking a couple of thousand would be a low estimate.”

As the community of artists has grown in Long Island City, it has gradually been joined by prominent institutions, including the American Museum of the Moving Image, the PS 1 Contemporary Art Center — which now is affiliated with MoMA — the Socrates Sculpture Park and Noguchi. But the arrival of MoMA is a coup unlike any other.

“In effect MoMA coming here is the jewel in the crown,” Greenberg said. “It’s really putting the stamp on the area that says, ‘Voila, here’s a really interesting neighborhood.’ ”

MoMA’s relocation not only adds a legitimacy to Long Island City as an arts center but also promises to enrich what already is there and spur a much faster rate of growth.

“I cannot remember in the history of this area an institution making a more vigorous and real attempt to interface with the community and really become part of the community,” Greenberg said of MoMA.

The 25,000 square feet of gallery space at MoMA QNS will open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. June 29 and June 30 with free admission to its five inaugural exhibitions: “To Be Looked At,” a display of collection highlights featuring seminal works by Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, among others; “Tempo,” dealing with the theme of time; “AUTObodies: speed, sport, transport,” showing off the museum’s car collection; “Projects 76: Francis Alys,” a video showing a ceremonial procession commemorating the museum’s move; and “A Walk Through Astoria and Other Places in Queens: Photographs by Rudy Burckhardt.”

Anne Stark, the deputy director for the Museum for African Art, said MoMA’s move to Long Island City played a role in her institution’s decision to join its ranks.

“It’s not an area that a lot of people are terribly familiar with, but together we hope that because it will be such a critical mass of institutions that we can call attention to it and get people to try something new,” she said.

The museum, which presents traditional tribal African arts as well as contemporary works, will inaugurate the Queens space with an exhibit called “Facing the Mask.”

“It’s a great point of entry through which to introduce people to African art and culture, because through the mask you learn about music traditions, dance traditions, war and gender traditions in African cultures,” Stark said. “We think it will be a real crowd pleaser and therefore a great way for new people to discover us.”

The African museum and MoMA alike also are planning significant outreach efforts to expose students and community residents to the world of art.

The Queens museums, temporary and permanent alike, are joined together by a shuttle bus service called the Queens ArtLink operating every weekend. For more information, visit www.queensartlink.org.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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