Is Glenn Lowry’s, the MoMA director, a story of success? I am saying this because even though that institution’s board of trustees has decided to celebrate his 20 year tenure by extending his contract for five more years, some of the most influential critics have raised their voice to ask for his resignation. ‘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. More recently, 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’. Klaus Biesenbach who is the director of MoMA PS1 and is MoMA’s chief curator-at-large has been singled out as one of the most immediate causes for critical discontent, especially, after Björk’s monographic exhibition proved to be a failure.
The fact that Glenn Lowry decided to answer these accusations in an interview published in the last edition of The Art Newspaper shows the seriousness of those accusations and should be understood in the context of an industry where criticism tends to be dismissed as ‘inelegant’ or ‘inappropriate’. Lowry’s obsession for attracting more and more visitors is presented as anti-elitist. In his own words: ‘We were never founded to be a club’. And he continues: ‘Alfred Barr (its founder) talked about the museum being both popular and populist. Of course, 80 years ago it was a much smaller public’. From a strictly quantitative point of view, Lowry’s tenure has been a success with annual attendances rising from 1.3 million to three million visitors and its endowment growing from $200 million to $1 billion. I think, however, that putting the discussion in terms of whether the museum is elitist or popular raises more questions than answers.
Glenn Lowry’s philosophy can be read between the lines of his greatest legacy, the MoMA’s expansion which, completed in 2004, almost doubled the size of the museum and after the works are finished will add a further 40,000 sq.ft. of exhibition space. From an aesthetic point of view, however, Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi’s design has been dubbed as an icon of corporatism. I’ve been on holidays with a Tate Modern trustee (Franck Petitgas from Morgan Stanley) who could not give me one good reason to justify the gigantic cost (and commitment) of its many extension projects. This might be also the MoMA’s case. The synergy between trustees, donors and museum bureaucracy (directors and curators) seems not to be too far away from that of addicts. In fact, their behaviour seems quite addictive which on one hand, aims at consolidating a vanity project (that of trustees and patrons) while on the other, crystalises a corporate bureaucracy of directors and curators who, like in any corporate bureaucracy, aims at perpetrating its own power.
This might be the reason why, at the end of the day, the only ones who defend Lawry are his colleagues. As a matter of fact, in the Art Newspaper those who dismiss Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith’s comments are no other than Marie-Josée Kravis (MoMA’s president who is as responsible as Lowry for the current state of affairs) and Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It must be born in mind that the Whitney had to time the rather expensive tickets to access its brand new Renzo Piano’s venue to avoid overcrowding. Can art be enjoyed like this? Do we need shows like Björk’s in an already overcrowded situation? Is anyone thinking about these issues or the only things accepted is more and more? Biesenbach’s obsession with celebrities seemed a defect of his character but Lowry’s institutional support of those shows reveal a rather corporate self perpetuating drive to consolidate his power. J A T
IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN MY REVIEW OF THE LYGIA CLARK SHOW AT MOMA, THIS IS YOUR OPPORTUNITY