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Lowry’s Secret Compensation: Why MoMA’s Trustees Concocted Their Convoluted Scheme

Now the truth can be told: It was a matter of labor relations.

I caught up Wednesday with Beverly Wolff at the artworld attorneys’ ALI-ABA conclave in Philadelphia. She was the Museum of Modern Art’s in-house counsel when Glenn Lowry was lured to MoMA with an unorthodox compensation sweetener.

So I decided to pop The Question regarding Lowry’s compensation package, whereby some of his income and perks came from a private foundation funded by three Museum of Modern Art trustees. That portion of the director’s compensation was essentially hidden from public view, because it was not reported on the museum’s publicly accessible tax forms. Those forms made no mention of the enigmatically named New York Fine Arts Support Trust.

Wolff assured me that everything about the structuring of this deal was “legal at the time.” (Payments stopped in 2004, the NY Times reported, when the IRS’s reporting rules changed.) I was willing to grant that premise for the sake of argument. But why, I inquired, wasn’t the deal structured in the traditional way, through the museum’s regular budget? In the traditional scenario, the trustees might have donated money to MoMA for the purpose of compensating the director.

Wolff replied that if I thought about it, I could probably figure out the reason. I said that I couldn’t. She then provided an explanation that had previously occurred to me, but that I wouldn’t have presumed to posit without corroboration:

It had to do with the union. It had to do with staff salaries. Staff members used to say, ‘If you have such rich trustees, why don’t they provide more money for our salaries?’

In other words, the total Lowry compensation package, had it been known to the staff, might have fueled the labor-relation fires. With its vociferous and (in the museum field) atypical labor union for professional employees, MoMA has repeatedly had highly publicized strife at contract-negotiation time. In the most recent labor flare-up, striking MoMA workers in 2000 had urged city officials to reject the museum’s expansion plans until they were paid what they regarded as fair salaries.

Perhaps there were additional reasons for the secret compensation arrangement, which also sweetened the deal for former curator Gary Garrels. But this one makes it easier to understand why the museum feels it can’t come clean with a forthright explanation of its misconceived actions.

an ArtsJournal blog