By Dustin Brown
As the Flushing-bound No. 7 train rounds the bend that leads it into the 33rd Street station, passengers can catch a glimpse of a Manhattan cultural icon that is staking a claim in Queens.
Etched onto the black boxes lining the roof of the former Swingline staple factory are the fractured pieces of four letters — M, O, M, A — which from most vantage points look like nothing more than a garbled jumble of shapes.
But for an instant during the subway’s rickety journey, the three-dimensional sign “snaps together into a readable logo,” said its architect Michael Maltzan — spelling MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art.
The rooftop logo offers subway riders an early introduction to MoMA QNS, a storage and study facility for the Manhattan-based museum that is now under construction in the building formerly occupied by Swingline at 45-20 33rd St.
The main Manhattan branch of the museum will close in May for a three-year renovation; it will operate for that time exclusively out of Long Island City, where plans call for 25,000 square feet of exhibition space.
The move to Queens was “precipitated in large part by a need to solve a storage problem,” museum director Glenn Lowry told a presentation last week. The museum’s extensive collection, which until now has been spread among 18 sub-standard storage sites around the city, will be stored in the 160,000-square-foot MoMA QNS facility starting in April.
Next summer, the gallery space at MoMA QNS will open its doors to three inaugural exhibitions: “Collection Highlights,” featuring seminal works by Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, among others; “Tempo,” dealing with the theme of time; and “AUTObodies,” showing off the museum’s car collection.
Although the Long Island City site will continue to feature public art exhibitions once the Manhattan space reopens in 2005, the gallery area will be gradually be converted for storage as needed, Lowry said.
City Councilman Walter McCaffrey (D-Woodside), who represents the district where the museum is moving and was instrumental in attracting it to the site, said MoMA’s presence will “aid the move to make Long Island City a new home for the cultural interests in the city of New York.”
The neighborhood has already evolved into a bustling arts community, home to P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, the Socrates Sculpture Park, the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, the American Museum of the Moving Image, and other institutions.
Agnes Gund, the president of the museum’s board of trustees, said the move into Queens presents “a wonderful opportunity because we have people who don’t know this museum so well that we can show this museum to.”
Museum officials plan to partner with local schools and civic associations to offer educational programs.
The museum entrance is being constructed out of the former factory loading dock along the side of the building, where the MoMA logo will be sandblasted into a glass wall “almost as a kind of veil,” Maltzan said.
The factory building will maintain its enigmatic blue skin, which has already been reapplied in a more vibrant coat.
Inside, meanwhile, workers have installed a steel skeleton that is being transformed into a network of ramps and multiple levels of gallery and storage spaces.
Although the function of the building will be transformed by the arrival of MoMA, Lowry stressed that the museum’s intention is “not to simply eradicate the memory of Swingline,” which occupied the site for years. “This building is still part of that landscape,” he said.
The rooftop sign, meanwhile, is in the preliminary phase of construction, a tedious process that will require repeated trips on the No. 7 train as designers eyeball the rooftop letters to make sure they come together correctly.
Currently outlined only in white, the letters will be filled in with a reflective paint “so it will catch light in many different ways over the course of the night,” Maltzan said.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.