‘MoMA was never founded to be a club’

Glenn Lowry stands by exhibitions that engage with popular culture and take some risks

by Charlotte Burns  |  27 April 2015
‘MoMA was never founded to be a club’
Glenn Lowry stresses that MoMA is listening to its critics. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Glenn Lowry’s 20th year as the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York should have been cause for celebration. Last year’s programme included critically acclaimed exhibitions on Magritte, Matisse, Sigmar Polke and Lygia Clark, among others. It was also very popular: eight of the top ten best-attended shows in New York last year were at “the Modern”, according to our annual survey.

Under Lowry’s leadership, the museum’s annual attendance has risen from 1.3 million to three million visitors, its endowment has grown from $200m to $1bn and it regularly makes important acquisitions. MoMA’s expansion, completed in 2004, almost doubled the size of the museum, and a new scheme will add a further 40,000 sq. ft of exhibition space.

And yet there are calls for Lowry’s head. “Long-term MoMA-watchers find it mysterious that Lowry… has not been let go,” claims the New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz. The American essayist Michael Wolff has accused Lowry of megalomania, branding him a “villain” and a “faceless enemy” in an article for the Guardian newspaper.

“Disdain for its core audience”

The flashpoint has been the current exhibition dedicated to the Icelandic singer Björk (until 7 June). It is proof, its critics say, that the museum panders to celebrity—and to tourists. The New York Times critic Roberta Smith accused the institution of “disdain for its core audience… frequent curatorial slackness and… indifference to the handling of crowds”. The show’s curator, Klaus Biesenbach, who is the director of MoMA PS1 and is MoMA’s chief curator-at-large, has been singled out for particular criticism.

After a period of dignified silence, Lowry and others at the museum have spoken to us about the criticism the institution is facing.

“I was actually happy that nobody challenged us on doing Björk—that artists like her, who cross disciplines, have a place in a museum like ours,” Lowry says. The problem, he says, is that “we just didn’t do the show we should have done. Fair enough. We just need to find a way to do those shows better.”

The board’s members are united in their belief that “they don’t want to play it safe, and that’s part of our history”, says Kathy Halbreich, the museum’s associate director. “They really trust the staff and Glenn.” Indeed, Marie-Josée Kravis, MoMA’s president, tells us: “We have to take risks. That’s very much in our DNA.”

They invoke the museum’s founding director, Alfred Barr, and his self-declared “radical” vision for an institution with “an active and serious concern with the practical, commercial and popular arts, as well as with so-called ‘fine’ art”. Hence the museum’s multi-disciplinary character and longstanding engagement with high and popular culture. Kravis says: “[Barr] used to say that if we didn’t make mistakes, we weren’t doing the right things. Is Björk a perfect show? No. But should we have done a Björk show? Yes.”

The controversy has surprised some in the art world. “Are you kidding?” asks the artist John Waters. “I love MoMA and there’s certainly no backlash coming from me. Its film programme is the tops, and showing my work there in any medium has always been the ultimate thrill.”

Board is united

Meanwhile, the museum’s senior staff have the full support of the board. “We just renewed Glenn’s contract for five years; it’s the strongest endorsement a board can give,” Kravis says. Another board member says that the trustees are “100% behind” Biesenbach and Lowry.

If Björk is the most recent target of criticism, then the museum’s planned expansion is another. There was an outcry when MoMA announced last year that, to gain more space, it would demolish the American Folk Art Museum’s former home, a neighbouring building designed by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien that was completed as recently as 2001.

MoMA’s own architecture is another of its critics’ bugbears, dating back to the 2004 expansion designed by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. Then, the New York Times called the building a “transcendent aesthetic experience”; now, many find it corporate. But the main criticism relates to overcrowding.

“My background is as a historian of Islamic art, so of course I lament the loss of solitude,” Lowry says. “But I am also a pragmatist; solitude is probably gone regardless. Had our attendance grown by 25% or 30%, which is what we figured it would with the 2004 expansion, you would still have had those moments. Will the [next] expansion solve all those problems? No, it’s not going to solve everything, but it will enable us to show a great deal more of our collection and in many different ways.”

A fellow US art museum director, who asked to remain anonymous (as did several people to whom we spoke), says: “People remember the ‘good old Modern’ when it was smaller and more intimate.” He adds: “People wanted MoMA to be the greatest museum in the world, and for everyone to want to go there. Now everyone wants to go, but people say it’s too crowded. One asks impossible things of it.”

Popular and populist

Lowry goes back to Barr’s early vision. “We were never founded to be a club,” he says. “Barr talked about the museum being both popular and populist. Of course, 80 years ago it was a much smaller public.” But Barr faced similar problems even then. When it opened in 1929, the museum was quickly swamped. According to a 1953 profile in the New Yorker, there were so many visitors (more than 200,000) in MoMA’s first two years that other tenants of the shared building complained, and the landlord three times threatened to evict the museum.

“You cannot be elitist any more,” says one US museum director. “Our society demands museums be open, and the measure of that has become attendance. MoMA was the leading light for the promotion of Modern art and helped to create its popularity. Now things have flipped and people have a nostalgia for a time when we weren’t mainstream.”

Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which has just opened its new, larger, Renzo Piano-designed home in New York, has little time for Lowry’s detractors. “I feel strongly that Glenn is a great colleague and that he has worked very hard for the museum to make it a fantastic institution with a very good curatorial staff,” he says. “Glenn has built a wonderful depth in the various departments, and they’ve done a great job of expanding the programme and the collection.”

Under Lowry, the museum has invested in international research initiatives such as C-map (Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives in a Global Age Initiative). “The programme is pure scholarship and research that brings curators, artists, educators, critics, collectors and scholars from around the world to work with our staff,” Lowry says. “I come from a sufficiently academic background that I was interested in the idea of deep thinking with no expected outcomes. The end result is that our curators have a richer intellectual life, and that makes the institution more interesting.”

“Nobody gives MoMA credit for the fact that, from a scholarship point of view, it’s operating at a very high batting average. Nobody else is producing research at that level,” says the art writer Tyler Green.

Getting with the programme

So how does a show like Björk earn its place in the programme? According to Lowry, MoMA has a bottom-up curatorial process. Curators suggest ideas to department heads, who, if they think they are interesting, will ask them to develop proposals to be presented to the exhibitions committee, which meets around six times a year. This is a large group consisting of chief curators; senior curators; Kathy Halbreich, the associate director; Peter Reed, the senior deputy director for curatorial affairs; Ramona Bannayan, the senior deputy director of exhibitions and collections; Wendy Woon, the deputy director for education; and Lowry.

The list is then whittled down by asking a series of questions, Lowry says. “Is this urgent? Does this topic need to be addressed today? Does the artist need to be shown today? Does the project open up a new line of scholarship? Is it adding to the history we want to write? Does it engage the global questions we want to look at? No one exhibition can obviously do all of that, but we try to ask those questions.” Once a project is approved, it goes back to the exhibitions department, where the concept is fleshed out. “I want our chief curators to dream. My goal is to help them realise those dreams, so I don’t micro-manage,” Lowry says.

Accusations that Biesenbach has more latitude than other curators are inaccurate, Lowry says. When PS1 merged with MoMA in 2000, Lowry viewed the smaller institution as an entity analogous to a large department at MoMA, albeit with a bigger footprint. In this sense, Biesenbach (the title of curator-at-large existed before Lowry became director) is like any other department head. “Klaus doesn’t have any more freedom than other chief curators. He follows exactly the same set of conversations and scrutiny,” Lowry says.

Lowry plays a key role in the exhibitions schedule, which he decides with the chief curators, Halbreich and Reed. “That’s when I really start to get involved in trying to compose the menu and think about what should be the right mix for an interesting season,” he says. MoMA tries to create programmes that do not rely on blockbusters. “Everyone wants to have a great exhibition, but the rollercoaster ride of a blockbuster exhibition is murder for an institution,” Lowry says. “When I first arrived, we started thinking about the fact that we could build a seasonal programme that relied on the aggregate of exhibitions. If you get that right, you have a really robust audience, because you’re speaking to a lot of different people.”

This is evident in the current shows. Alongside Björk, there is a major show about Latin American architecture, the artist Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and a rehang of MoMA’s contemporary collection. “They’re fundamentally different exhibitions, each from the other and all from Björk, providing really different ways of thinking about, engaging with and looking at art,” Lowry says. “We are critiqued for this populist dimension, but I really think part of what we’re trying to do is create a sense of invitation.”

With five years to go before he is due to retire, Lowry says his next big challenge is to use the expansion to “bring out the many strands of our collection that don’t get seen across a broader platform. If we can make sure that the institution is even more complex than it already is, I’ll feel great about that.” Lowry accepts that criticism comes with the territory. “Modern art suddenly became hot. We are both a beneficiary of the newfound interest and a victim of people’s discomfort with that interest; MoMA is a pivot point,” he says.  

Kravis says that the museum, historically associated with the New York-centric legacy of Abstract Expressionism, has had to expand its global reach.

“The conversation about art has to be broader,” she says. “Glenn understands that very well.”

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