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MoMA and Museums’ Public Trust

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There is one important aspect of MoMAgate that I have not yet mentioned in my various posts: the effect that these disclosures may have in tarnishing the entire field. Some enterprising journalist or government investigator will now likely be moved to probe further into how museums compensate their directors. I don’t know if they will hit paydirt.

On Friday, when I asked MoMA whether its side deal to augment director Glenn Lowry‘s compensation was “not as anomalous as [Stephanie] Strom’s article makes it seem,” communications director Kim Mitchell replied:

While it would be inappropriate for us to name other institutions, every organization deals with the issue of accomplishing recruitment and retention goals. We believe that other organizations have used a variety of different mechanisms in structuring compensation programs.

The issue of public trust in art museums was the subject, a few years ago, of a series of lectures that Lowry participated in, organized by James Cuno, then director of the Harvard University Art Museums.

The book that grew out of these lectures, Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust (above), recorded a roundtable discussion among museum directors who participated in this project.

Here’s one interchange from that discussion:

Cuno: I think we all agree that a big part of our job today is to respect and reinvigorate the public trust in our museums, in museums as public institutions….

Lowry: I think this is a topic absolutely germane to our profession. I isn’t an abstract concept, rather something central to the success or failure of our museums and to the museum profession. And we are far from fully understanding its implications and how to respond intelligently to all the challenges we face in keeping the public trust.

Lowry had better “fully understand” the implications of this latest threat to public trust in museums, and he needs to “respond intelligently to all the challenges” he now faces “in keeping the public trust.” He has been uncharacteristically silent so far, choosing to respond to questions from me and from Stephanie Strom of the NY Times and through a spokesperson, rather than directly.

I know Glenn has a busy schedule, but he’s back now from Mexico City, and if there were ever a calendar-clearing crisis, this is it.

an ArtsJournal blog