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).
I did another double take yesterday, when I followed AAMD’s live-tweets from that panel, and read this:
Lowry: once you lose the public’s trust, there is no one thing you can do to quickly regain it. #aamdmex
— Art Museum Directors (@MuseumDirectors) January 26, 2015
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 MoMA—hit 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.