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The Secret Lowry Dowry: What’s Wrong with This Picture?

I’ve been deeply troubled from the moment I read the NY Times’ revelations about Glenn Lowry‘s secret side deal to supplement his compensation as MoMA’s director. That’s because I knew I had to come out swinging, but I didn’t want this assignment. I have sometimes strongly disagreed with Glenn, but I’ve always admired his energy, vision, talents and, yes, his integrity.

Let me start by saying that MoMAgate is not the Gettygate: There are no allegations of misappropriation of museum funds, although we now have to worry about what Sen. Charles Grassley‘s exhaustive investigation may yet uncover. Jason Kaufman‘s article for The Art Newspaper this month (not linked) reveals that Grassley sent a letter to MoMA, dated Nov. 29, asking for every possible shred of information about MoMA’s governance. I suspect (but don’t know) that Grassley’s investigators might have been the initial source for Stephanie Strom‘s exposé in the Times.

According to Kaufman, who obtained a copy of Grassley’s letter:

The [Senate Finance] Committee…asks for comprehensive information, going back up to 10 years, about gifts, tax filings, lobbying efforts, employee compensation and the awarding of no-bid contracts….In addition, the committee will review the museum’s policies regarding conflicts of interest. The inquiry also reaches into how MoMA invests in endowment and how its money managers are selected and compensated.

I formerly thought that this was an unwarranted and unreasonable fishing expedition—Grassley’s retaliation against MoMA for leading the museum charge against recent changes in the tax law regarding fractional gifts of artworks.

Now I think that Grassley may actually have something to fish for. The potential conflict-of-interest problems inherent in Lowry’s convoluted compensation are troubling, as Time magazine critic Richard Lacayo observed yesterday in his blog, Looking Around:

[Lowry] was quietly beholden to museum trustees who are also major collectors. Which in turn could raise other questions, for instance, about decisions the museum makes about which works to highlight in its exhibitions or permanent collection, especially works or artists that might be important to those collectors.

It’s likely that the four individuals (David Rockefeller, Agnes Gund, Ronald Lauder and Laurance Rockefeller) who funneled funds and real estate to Lowry, through the enigmatically named New York Fine Arts Support Trust, did so with the best of intentions.

The museum’s director of communications, Kim Mitchell, told me yesterday:

The donors were determined to recruit Glenn Lowry for the position, yet they were also cognizant of exerting a dramatic change to the existing museum culture, especially related to compensation. They chose the mechanism of the Trust to make these funds available for the museum in order to accomplish the recruitment goals.

Maybe, as Mitchell further asserted, “Glenn was not involved in the donors’ decision to provide their donation through a Trust mechanism.”

Nevertheless, the machinations of this “mechanism” were designed, in part, to keep the full extent of the director’s munificent compensation out of the public domain, where such information, by law, belongs.

What’s even more troubling is the possibility that the full extent of Lowry’s compensation may not have been known even to the museum’s own trustees: One of my written questions yesterday to Mitchell was:

Did the entire board know, in advance, of this [Trust] arrangement and did the board formally approve it? If not, why not?

Mitchell informed me that the proposed funding by the Trust was not brought before the museum’s full board but only to its executive committee:

The compensation negotiation and recruitment was handled by the executive committee, including Donald Marron, who later became head of the Compensation Sub-Committee of the Board, a new committee initiated by Glenn.

But what’s most disturbing about this questionable arrangement is that the funders of the Trust and the museum’s then attorney, whom Mitchell said approved the deal, should have known better. And if they didn’t, a smart museum professional like Glenn certainly should have. It’s hard to turn down a generous compensation offer, but it should have been made and accepted the open way, not the sneaky way.

Mitchell noted that “since 2004, all of Mr. Lowry’s compensation has been fully undertaken by the Museum and reported on the Museum’s tax forms.” Fine, but it should have been that way from the get-go.

MoMA disputes the Times’ assertion that the trust “paid him [Lowry] a total of $5.35 million.” Lowry actually pocketed about $2.24 million, Mitchell indicated. Some $760,000 in Trust funds went to the museum’s capital campaign and $150,000 went to former MoMA curator Gary Garrels. Substantial money also went towards the purchase of Lowry’s former apartment, which was later sold in arrangement that Mitchell described as follows:

The Museum sold the Gracie Square apartment for $3.4 million in 2004, of which Glenn retained $1.3 million, in lieu of any future deferred compensation to which he would have been entitled. This was part and parcel of the renewal of Glenn’s contract, which resulted in the Museum absorbing all of his compensation into the operating budget and requiring that he live on premises in Museum Tower [the Cesar Pelli-designed building adjoining MoMA].

We don’t yet have the full story on this. For one thing, the accounting of Additional Compensation Information, detailing the Trust’s payments to Lowry, which MoMA provided to the IRS after the NY State Attorney General’s office initiated an inquiry, is incomplete. It goes back only to 1999; the deal was struck in 1995. When I asked Mitchell why the crucial first years were omitted, she replied:

The Museum proposed the posting dating back to 1999 and Attorney General’s office agreed.

The Attorney General’s office should NOT have agreed. And MoMA should make public the complete accounting.

The bottom line is that the Trust’s secret mission, and Lowry’s acquiescence in it, violated the public trust. As a member of the public, and a longtime chronicler of Lowry and MoMA, I feel personally violated: I’m a natural skeptic and cynic, but I had trusted Glenn, in matters of museum ethics, to do the right thing.

Will he now resign? Here’s Mitchell’s reply:

Glenn is not contemplating stepping down. He was not involved in the formation of the Trust and his compensation is not excessive, given the leadership role he has played over the last 12 years. He has the full support of the Board of Trustees.

SHOULD he or any of the implicated trustees, who have worked so long and tirelessly for MoMA’s benefit, now resign?

I just can’t bring myself to say yes.

Should they give a complete public accounting of what happened, why it happened and how procedures will change going forward?


[My previous posts on this subject are here, here and here.]

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