The Museum Is Closed, but Its Tomato Man Soldiers On

The halls of the Guggenheim Museum are fairly quiet as of late, with largely simply its ghosts and a few safety guards as firm for the artwork.

“I went out once to a comedy bar, but that’s it,” he said.

The museum has been closed since March 13, but Mr. Litvin still walks across Central Park every day around noon from his rental on the Upper West Side to tend to his flock. “When you grow tomatoes on Fifth Avenue, you want to have the perfect tomatoes, there’s no room to mess up,” he said. “If I have ugly plants, I’ll hear it from the neighbors.”

These days, you can’t visit the mummies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or soak in “The Starry Night” at the Museum of Modern Art. But you can still stand in front of the Guggenheim and get a good look at a thicket of cherry tomato vines and a really big tractor.

The tomatoes, housed in what looks like a radioactive shipping container on the sidewalk, were on view as part of the exhibition for just three weeks before the city folded in on itself. But they’re still growing, their vines snipped every Tuesday and donated to City Harvest, at least a hundred pounds at a time.

“This tomato-growing module couldn’t just be turned off with the lights,” said the Guggenheim curator Troy Conrad Therrien, who organized the exhibition with the architect Rem Koolhaas, and Samir Bantal of AMO, the research arm of Mr. Koolhaas’s firm. “We brought the exhibition to the street, and the street is still accessible.”

The tractor is a top- of-the-line Deutz-Fahr 9340 TTV Warrior. It has a computer in the cab, can lift more than 26,000 pounds and looks completely out of place on the Upper East Side. But the tomatoes look nice there. The shed’s color matches the Guggenheim’s bone-white facade, and neat rows of vines — along with Mr. Litvin, when he’s there — are visible through a plate-glass window, bathed in a neon pink light that spills onto the sidewalk after sunset.

Mr. Litvin works for 80 Acres Farms, a company that grows organic produce including cucumbers, leafy greens and herbs at giant indoor farms where controlled environments allow for year-round harvesting. They’re close to making it work for strawberries, too.

While at the museum, Mr. Litvin prefers to work in the afternoon and evening to avoid crowds in Central Park, and because of the bees. The tomatoes need to be pollinated, so he has two small hives going in the module at a time, each living out of a specially designed cardboard box with little doors that open and close on a timer. This way, he can confine the bees’ working hours to the morning so he doesn’t have to share 700 square feet with 100 agitated co-workers.

“I get them shipped to me here at the museum,” he said of the beehives. “The guards are like, ‘What the hell is that humming noise?’”

The technology Mr. Litvin is using at the museum is the same as in his commercial work. He controls the temperature, humidity and amount of “daytime” the tomatoes get. The light’s color maximizes energy efficiency, because the plants absorb only certain light from the spectrum. Raised on a diet of sunshine and rainwater they are not, but they taste (and smell!) like the best juicy ones found in backyards in August.

Inside the museum’s rotunda, the rest of “Countryside” is closed off even to Mr. Litvin. He goes in through an employee side entrance once in a while to use the bathroom or buy something from the vending machine. The exhibition includes a spider-like robot that can harvest food, Joseph Stalin’s plans to plant 14 million acres of trees and an examination of climate change through Siberian permafrost that emits methane and anthrax as it thaws.

But Mr. Therrien hopes that the outdoor portion is even more relevant now.

“The supply chains are not just being disrupted but being reconfigured,” he said. “Cities are battlegrounds in the pandemic, and the ability to move agriculture into cities is no longer just a flight of fancy for agriculture students who want to put gardens on top of skyscrapers.”

Indeed, the tomatoes are being put to use. Every Wednesday, a City Harvest van is loaded with about 3,000 tomatoes that Mr. Litvin has snipped, still on the vine. Last week, the van also made pickups at a Gristedes, a catering company and a Momofuku restaurant before heading to La Jornada food pantry in Flushing, Queens.

Other museums are also finding ways to help feed people during the coronavirus crisis. Café Sabarsky, a couple of blocks south of the Guggenheim inside the Neue Galerie, has been sending goulash, bratwurst and strudel to the staff at Mount Sinai Hospital nearby. The Brooklyn Museum opened its kitchen for a time to Great Performances, a catering company that has been providing nearly 40,000 weekly meals to health care workers and the elderly. The Pérez Art Museum Miami partnered with its caterer, Constellation Culinary Group, to provide tens of thousands of meals per day to people in South Florida.

Mr. Litvin said that several people walking by have asked if they can buy some of his tomatoes. But he gently told them no.

“City Harvest gets them all,” he said. “Well, my wife gets some, too. She deserves some.”

Zachary Small contributed reporting.

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