an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Glowering at Lowry: MoMA Director’s Renegade Proposals for Collection Management

While supervising the Museum of Modern Art’s second major expansion (here’s the first) during his 23-year tenure, director Glenn Lowry has been thinking about how his soon-to-be reconfigured institution should change with the times. If his ideas gain traction elsewhere, he could be a daring (or, to my mind, reckless) disruptor of bedrock principles of museum stewardship.

Glenn Lowry

In his eyebrow-raising interview earlier this month with Charlotte Burns for “In Other Words”—an online Sotheby’s house organ, aspiring to be journalism—Lowry made several highly debatable observations that were particularly startling, coming from an eminent museum leader.

He maintained that “the public reaction [as distinguished from the artworld reaction] was not particularly concerned” about MoMA’s current expansion, “or even the fact that in the process, we were going to take down the former Folk Art building [my links, not theirs].”

I wonder how officials of the then financially challenged American Folk Art Museum, who successfully struggled to regain their footing in much smaller quarters, regard this insensitive remark about the public’s purported indifference to the MoMA-facilitated closing of their flagship facility.

The separately preserved façade of the American Folk Art Museum’s flagship facility, demolished to make way for MoMA’s expansion
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Lowry also told Burns that “the experience of looking at art in a public space is a fundamentally public and social experience.” For me, it’s “fundamentally” about the one-on-one interaction between viewer and art. I think that’s still true of many museumgoers, notwithstanding (and withstanding) the distractions of shopping, dining and texting.

New tech-friendly lounge that’s part of MoMA’s recent renovation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Glenn’s most subversive (and most commented upon) “did he really say that?” remark was this:

I do believe that one should deaccession rigorously, in order to either acquire more important works of art or build endowments to support programming. Because for me, in the end, it’s all about being sufficiently well-capitalized to program intelligently and to have as few works of art in storage as possible.

It doesn’t benefit anyone when there are millions of works of art that are languishing in storage. There’s a huge capital cost to that, which has a drag on operations. But more importantly, we would be far better off, in my opinion, allowing others to have those works of art that might enjoy them, but even more importantly, converting that to endowed funds that could support public programs, exhibitions, publications….

I’m an outlier in that respect. I’ve come to terms with the fact that many of my colleagues see it differently.

Lowry’s sentiments must have struck a chord at Sotheby’s, Burns’ employer, which has a Museum Services department that (like Christie’s department of the same name) is a consignments-driven engine: Fewer strictures, more fodder for the hammer.

American art deaccessioned from the Berkshire Museum, on view at Sotheby’s until taken down due to legal challenges to the sale
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

When I questioned Lowry on how his “outlier” position applied specifically to MoMA, he replied:

My comments were not a change in policy but questions to consider in light of a range of issues. To be clear: We have only deaccessioned to acquire other works of art, as per the Association of Art Museum Directors’ guidelines [my link, not his].

I have previously reported on a couple of the most egregious examples of MoMA’s aggressive deaccessioning under Lowry. The museum’s most recent annual report (p. 7) shows that its disposals are continuing big-time, with some $27.38 million in deaccession proceeds in fiscal 2017 (ended June 30), up from $17.23 million in FY16. (For perspective: The Metropolitan Museum’s proceeds from art sales [p. 86] in FY 2017 were $13.41 million, a big jump from $4.09 million the previous year.)

When I asked a director of another major NYC museum what he thought about Lowry’s deaccession declaration, he agreed that museums are under-capitalized for programs and education, but worried about the “slippery slope” that might lead to diversion of art proceeds to pay for salaries and capital expenses related to programs, education and other mission-driven pursuits. He said he was “still thinking” about what position to take.

I suspect there will be a lot of thinking about the unabated deaccession crisis at the midwinter meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which begins next Monday in San Antonio. The evident impotence of AAMD’s censures and sanctions (most recently in the cases of the Berkshire Museum and the La Salle University Art Museum) suggests that government laws or regulations are needed to accomplish what the professional associations sadly can’t.

Museums are averse to such forms of outside interference, arguing that they are capable of regulating their own activities. But recent history has shown that they can’t. In too many instances, the association’s interventions haven’t worked.

AAMD may have the last laugh, when its warning that quick fixes won’t solve the underlying problems proves to be correct. But it’s a very hollow vindication:

A former gallery, virtually “staged” to attract buyers of former home of the National Academy in New York

Another of Lowry’s transgressive ideas is to reinvent permanent-collection displays as temporary, rotating exhibitions—a notion that MoMA has floated previously but that Lowry doubled-down on last week at the museum’s press breakfast. He said he hoped to “turn the collection itself into a series of temporary exhibitions…so that the distinction between a loan show and collection show vaporizes.”

I’m of the time-honored (old-fashioned?) belief that permanent-collection galleries should give regular visitors the reassuring certitude that most of the museum’s finest objects—its touchstones—will be there to be savored whenever people choose to drop in. And those who are one-time or infrequent visitors should feel confident that the masterpieces for which a museum is best known will, for the most part, be on view in its galleries—not in storage to make way for sweeping rehangs and not sent away in large numbers for months-long loan shows.

Am I a Ghost of Museums Past? Or does permanency still have pertinence?

A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you value my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column. Contributors of $10 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notifications of new posts.

an ArtsJournal blog