Glenn Lowry as AAMD’s Improbable Expert on “Public Trust”

Sometimes wrongly, but sometimes rightly, Glenn Lowry has a major public-trust problem. That’s why I did a double take when I saw he was one of the panelists for the “Conversation on the Public Trust” at the Association of Art Museum Director’s midwinter meeting in Mexico City (ending today).

Left to right: Lisa Phillips, Jacob Weisberg, Glenn Lowry Photo from Twitter feed of Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization

“Public Trust” panel, l to r: Lisa Phillips, director, New Museum; Slate chairman and political journalist Jacob Weisberg; Glenn Lowry
Photo from Twitter feed of Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization

I did another double take yesterday, when I followed AAMD’s live-tweets from that panel, and read this:

In my follow-up tweet, I asked (rhetorically) if Glenn was speaking as “the voice of experience.” Glenn’s pronouncement, as tweeted by AAMD, hit me personally: I had lost my trust in Glenn eight years ago, and never fully regained it, although I still value his insights and admire his achievements.

Many of the beefs people have against Lowry were aired in what, to my mind, is an unfair, wrong-headed article in the February Vanity Fair, in which the magazine’s “special correspondent,” Bob Colacello (better known as a partygoer and celebrity chronicler than a museum expert), provocatively cast the relationship between Lowry’s Museum of Modern Art and Tom Campbell‘s Metropolitan Museum as a battle for supremacy that Campbell (who explicitly denied the existence of such a contest) was winning. Conflicts make good copy.

I regard Lowry as a resourceful, articulate director who has rubbed people (including some curators) the wrong way when his vision for MoMA’s momentum clashed with theirs. Because I held him in esteem, a 2007 NY Times exposé by Stephanie Strom—Donors Sweetened Director’s Pay at MoMAhit me like a ton of bricks—an impact from which I’ve never fully recovered. When it comes to lapses in ethics and integrity, forgive-and-forget isn’t one of my strong points.

The offending misstep was Lowry’s acceptance of largesse secretly funneled to him (unbeknownst to most of MoMA’s board and, for many years, unreported on its tax returns) by four megabucks donors: David Rockefeller, Agnes Gund, Ronald Lauder and Laurance Rockefeller.

I explained here why what I termed “the Lowry Dowry” was “not just unorthodox, but potentially unethical.” In a follow-up post, I explained how this episode could potentially damage the public’s trust in all museums. I did this more in sorrow than in anger: I felt betrayed.

When Amy Eddings of WNYC surprised me at the end of our detailed conversation on this issue, right after the news broke, with a question on how I felt personally regarding the NY Times revelations, I told her this:

I felt very heavyhearted. I’ve had a long professional relationship with the people at MoMA and with Glenn in particular. I’ve always thought he was a conscientious, very able director. I’ve had some disagreements with some of the things he did, but it really felt like a sock in the stomach to me, just to hear about this.

You can listen to our entire conversation here:

I later learned one reason why those payments had for many years been made secretly, rather than transparently. This did nothing to restore my trust.

Presided over by New Museum director Lisa Phillips, AAMD’s “Public Trust” panel was entirely New York-based. (Its third member was political journalist Jacob Weisberg, chairman & editor in chief of the Slate Group at Slate magazine.)

They ought to have looked further west: Mr. Public Trust, Graham Beal (misspelled in this tweet by Kaywin Feldman of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), was one of eight retiring art museum directors at the meeting who (according to Feldman’s tweet) received a standing ovation from their AAMD colleagues. The Detroit Institute of Arts’ outgoing director could have taught everyone a thing or two about earning the public’s trust.

Sotheby’s Raises Its Buyer’s Premium. How Much Is Too Much?

In the midst of a flurry of publicity about how the Big Two auction houses are self-sabotaging their profitability through cutthroat competition to win top consignments, Sotheby’s today announced an attempt to bolster its profits—yet another hike in the fee it charges to buyers. If things go true to form, Christie’s will soon follow the leader.


Here are Sotheby’s new charges (with old ones in parentheses), effective Feb. 1:

Buyers will be charged 25% of first $200,000 (previously $100,000) of the hammer price; 20% of amount above $200,000 to $3 million (previously above $100,000 to $2 million); 12% of excess over $3 million (previously $2 million).

Let’s look at a specific example of how this will work: If your winning bid on an object was $10 million, you would have previously paid $11,365,000 million, including the buyer’s premium. As of next month, it will cost you $11,450,000 million.

Bill Ruprecht, Sotheby’s soon-to-depart president and CEO, issued this statement about the hike:

This will improve Sotheby’s revenue, strengthen the company’s profit margins, fund innovation, help us continue to make interesting and exciting investments in the business, and support our growing online and traditional engagement with clients around the world.

The “clients around the world” who will not feel “supported” by this fee hike are the buyers. They may well declare: “Enough is enough! It’s the sellers [who, in some cases, are charged no commission and even get a cut of the buyer’s premium] who should be footing more of the bill.”

When one of the Big Two raises the buyer’s premium, the other invariably follows suit. They once engaged in an illegal price-fixing scheme to arrive at synchronized fees; now it’s presumably just a matter of “great minds think alike.”

The last time they bumped up the buyer’s premium, Sotheby’s followed Christie’s. Then, six months later, Christie’s upped its fee again, matching Sotheby’s higher fee. It’s a bit like leapfrog.

None of this solves the bigger problem: In order to snare choice offerings, both sides appear to be cutting dicey deals with consignors, thereby compromising the auction houses’ take (as was thought to have occurred with Sotheby’s $101-million Giacometti and with Christie’s $58.4-million Koons).

In any effort to stop this mutually destructive battle of excessive guarantees by the auction house, third-party guarantees, irrevocable bids, and even transfers of some of the buyer’s premium to the sellers of highly desirable works, collusion between the auction houses is clearly out of the question. Only government regulation can put an end to the confidential, convoluted side-deals that make a mockery of the “level-playing-field” concept of auctions and make the art-auction business seem increasingly shaky, even as the dollar volume of sales is rising.

A mere change in CEOs at both houses is unlikely to provide enough of a jolt to solve these underlying challenges. And there’s just so much that you can extract in fees charged to buyers before they start to balk.

The definitive article enumerating the reasons why the auction market is ripe for tighter regulation was Robin Pogrebin‘s and Kevin Flynn‘s 2013 piece in the NY Times—As Art Values Rise, So Do Concerns About Market Oversight.

In light of recent developments, their report should be reread and, at last, heeded.

AAMD’s Midwinter Meeting: Cultural Property, “Public Trust”

AAMD members boarding the buses in balmy Mexico City (Michael Conforti, Clark Art Institute, in foreground)
Photo from @MuseumDirectors Twitter feed

The Association of Art Museum Directors hasn’t released many substantive details about topics and possible actions being considered at its midwinter meeting, which began Saturday and ends tomorrow. While those of us in the Northeast are bracing for a blizzard, the directors, with a talent for being in the right place at the right time, are gathered in balmy Mexico City, where today’s official opening was preceded by two days of preliminary committee meetings and visits to museums and cultural sites, including the National Museum of Anthropology:

Graham Beal, Detroit Institute of Arts, center; William Griswold, Cleveland Museum, left
Photo from Twitter feed of National Museum of Anthropology

The association’s Cultural Property Committee met in closed session yesterday, but if the persuasive Timothy Rub couldn’t conspicuously move AAMD’s needle on this issue when he was the association’s president, I’m skeptical about future progress. (Still, individual museums have been increasingly proactive about analyzing the problematic pasts of certain antiquities and relinquishing some of them to countries of origin.)

In his indispensable Cultural Heritage Lawyer blog, attorney Rick St. Hilaire recently suggested that there may be “a new policy direction” at AAMD, in light of its recent opposition to the renewal of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) restricting imports of “endangered heritage objects from Nicaragua. The group’s objection follows a sequence of opposition to MOU’s begun in 2014,” St. Hilaire wrote.

Actually, AAMD’s skeptical approach to MOUs is not as new as St. Hilaire suggests: In 2011, AAMD issued a strongly worded statement asking the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee not to support an agreement with Greece unless that country agreed to several substantial changes in its own antiquities-related policies. Similarly, AAMD asked for significant changes in the scope of the MOU with China before its adoption in 2009 and again in 2013,when it was up for renewal. (Unfortunately, most of the links in my 2009 post on the China MOU have become non-functional.)

An AAMD discussion today on which I wish I could eavesdrop is the three-way “Conversation on the Public Trust,” which “will provide a larger philosophical, legal, and cultural framework for considering the idea of ‘public trust’ and its twin, ‘public good.'”

Somewhat counterintuitively, this colloquy features two participants who themselves have endured unfavorable public trust-related publicity—moderator Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum and chair of AAMD’s Professional Issues Committee, whose “Dakis Fracas,” in connection with the 2009 “Skin Fruit” exhibition, which I wrote about here and here; Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, to whom four megabucks donors had transferred funds and real estate, secretly supplementing his MoMA-budgeted compensation package.

Directors in glass houses might not be the best choices to throw words at the “larger philosophical, legal, and cultural framework” surrounding questions of public trust. (Is this a case of: “Don’t do as I did; do as I say”?) A better candidate for this panel might have been the guy in blue slacks at the center of the above photograph.

The other “public trust” pundit on the panel is Jacob Weisberg, a political journalist and chairman of the Slate Group (which publishes the eponymous online magazine). I’m not sure why AAMD regards Weisberg as an authority on museum governance: As far as I can determine, he’s written little on that subject, other than a 1998 Tom Krens-bashing piece.

Katie Luber, director of the San Antonio Museum of Art, yesterday tweeted a clue as to other topics in the air at Mexico City:

For more updates, you can follow the proceedings on Twitter: @MuseumDirectors and #aamdmex.

“Translucent Complementary Contrast”: Steven Holl’s Alluring Expansion of MFA, Houston (with video)

It’s about time that architect Steven Holl got another shot at a major art museum in the U.S., given the nearly universal acclaim that greeted his 2007 addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City.

Judging from his preliminary renderings (presented an NYC press lunch last week) for a suavely handsome, 164,000 square-foot-building for 20th- and 21st-century art—just one part of the architect’s master plan to enhance and unify the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston‘s 14-acre campus—this project’s planned 2019 completion will be well worth the wait and will make Houston a must-see destination for avid art-and-architecture buffs.

Here’s a view of the entrance to the new gallery building at night, when it will appear as a “luminous canopy” (the architect’s words):

Entrance to Kinder Building at night Photo TKTK

Entrance to Kinder Building at night
Photo courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Here’s the entrance in daylight:

Another view of the entrance Photo TKTK

Photo Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

As you will hear in my CultureGrrl Video below, Holl says that each of the 25 galleries in his new building “will have natural light”—a feature in many museums’ preliminary renderings that often gets scaled back in consideration of the sensitivity of many pieces and the qualms of lenders regarding exposure of their treasures to sunlight. An example of such second thoughts was the final design for Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum. It was initially envisioned by its architect, Moshe Safdie, as having natural light throughout, but the built version dispensed with the proposed skylights.

What had most astonished me about Holl’s Nelson-Atkins intervention was how complementary (despite being so radically different) his ultra-modern addition was to the museum’s traditional, monumental temple to art. The challenge to get along without just going along will be even greater in Houston, where Holl’s buildings will cohabit on the MFAH’s campus with diverse structures by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Rafael Moneo, Isamu Noguchi and William Ward Watkin (architect for the original 1924 Neoclassical building).

In my video, Holl describes as “translucent complementary contrast” the guiding principle for his new Houston buildings. (That is also an apt description for his achievement in Kansas City). He describes the skin of his gallery building as “a cool jacket,” composed of “sandblasted glass tubes” that “allow the building to be a glowing, translucent, matte-finish presence.”

Those tubes are also intended make the facility energy-efficient: The “chimney effect” of the tubes, open at both ends, allows air flow that should cool the building in the hot sun, Holl said. “I think it’s never been done before.” (We can only hope this experiment succeeds.)

Steven Holl, presenting his Houston designs Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Steven Holl, presenting his Houston designs
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Houston being Houston, more than $330 million of the $450-million goal for the capital project and endowment was already raised when Holl and Gary Tinterow, the MFAH’s hit-the-ground-running director, unveiled the plans to NYC’s art-and-architecture press. (A Houston presentation occurred a few days before ours.) Having been passed over in 2008 for the Metropolitan Museum’s directorship, Tinterow left his long-time professional home in early 2012 for the new gig in his native Houston, and never looked back.

The “silent phase” for museums’ capital campaigns typically raises about 50% of the total goal. The MFAH has already snared more than 73% from local philanthropists, most notably $70 million from Fayez Sarofim (giving him naming rights for the entire campus) and $50 million from the Kinder Foundation (with naming rights for the new gallery building, pictured above, going to board chairman Richard Kinder and wife Nancy).

The last $120 million may be the hardest to raise, given the possible impact of plummeting oil prices on Houston’s economy.

The capital project will also include a new Holl-designed replacement-building for the Glassell School of Art, and a 30,000-square-foot Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation, designed by Lake|Flato Architects. The latter will unify the museum’s widely scattered conservation facilities under the auspices of David Bomford, named early in Tinterow’s tenure as chairman of the MFAH’s conservation department. (Bomford also assumed the title of interim head of European art, after the retirement last month of Edgar Peters Bowron.)

Sarah Campbell Blaffer Center for Conservation Courtesy Lake|Flato Architects

Sarah Campbell Blaffer Center for Conservation
Photo Courtesy of Lake|Flato Architects

Let’s hear directly from Tinterow and Holl, to learn more about this project and to see many more renderings (including the graceful, flowing museum interiors, beginning at 6:50 in video). These in-progress designs seem destined to fulfill the architect’s mission that Holl, who teaches at Columbia University, once learned from a professor:

A building has to be more when you go in it than when you look at it.

KUAF Public Radio Gets Crystal Bridges Officials’ Response to Kevin Murphy’s CultureGrrl Lament

After I published Kevin Murphy‘s candid appraisals (here and here) of his frustrating stint as American art curator at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR, I invited the museum to respond.

I received no reply. But Sara Burningham of KUAF, the Fayetteville, AR, public radio station, did get the museum’s reaction, as part of her “Ozarks at Large” segment today about A Year of Mixed Headlines for Crystal Bridges, in which she interviewed Rod Bigelow, the museum’s executive director, and Mindy Besaw, its new curator.

Ron Bigelow

Rod Bigelow


Mindy Besaw











Early in her 18-minute interview segment, Burningham hit Bigelow and Besaw with this:

Kevin Murphy…told ArtsJournal blogger Lee Rosenbaum that he was “still recovering from the post-traumatic stress of that place.” He found it “hard…to acclimate” to life in Fayetteville. My facebook feed was filled with people talking about this—people who I don’t think read the ArtsJournal on a regular basis. [Of course they do!]

Bigelow’s response to Murphy’s blunt critique was this:

Everyone has their own opinion about where they live or what they do, and I’m proud of Northwest Arkansas and the arts and cultural scene here….Crystal Bridges is just one exciting note, along with the Walton Arts Center, TheatreSquared and others that have been doing amazing work in Northwest Arkansas. [Links are mine.]

Besaw added that one thing that had attracted her to Crystal Bridges was “the impact on a national scale—a different perspective, perhaps, than Kevin’s.” She added that she is now rethinking the installation of the permanent collection, to “highlight some different stories.” She will be Crystal Bridges’ coordinating curator for its showing of From Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic: Landscape Painting in the Americas (Nov. 7-Jan. 18), an exhibition organized by the Terra Foundation, Chicago; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, Brazil.

Successful from an attendance standpoint was State of the Art, the Crystal Bridges-organized national survey of recent contemporary art (closing tomorrow).

Bigelow noted that the reinstallation of the collection will include “some fantastic new acquisitions, both inside the museum and out. We’re not going to announce them today. Sorry!”

Might this be among them?

Georgia O'Keeffe, "Jimson Weed" Sold by Georgia O'Keeffe Museum at Sotheby's on Nov. 20 for $44.4 million (presale estimate: $10-15 million)

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Jimson Weed”
Sold by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum at Sotheby’s on Nov. 20 for $44.4 million (presale estimate: $10-15 million)

Crystal Bridges could certainly use an O’Keeffe of this importance (but the O’Keeffe Museum should never have disposed of it).

One new acquisition expected to be on view at Crystal Bridges beginning this summer is Frank Lloyd Wright‘s 1954 Bachman Wilson House, rescued by Crystal Bridges from its flood-prone site in Millstone, NJ, and now in the process of being reassembled on the Bentonville museum’s grounds.

“We just poured the wonderfully luscious red concrete as the floor of the building,” Bigelow informed Burningham.

If they can get the place to look as it did when I visited its original site, as part of an architecture bus tour that I took several years ago, it will indeed be luscious!

Living Room of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman Wilson House Tarantino Studio ©2013, Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum

Living Room of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman Wilson House in New Jersey
Tarantino Studio  ©2013, Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum