MoMA slipped a major announcement about its central mission into yesterday’s press preview for the museum’s new $50m renovations and the unveiling of the final $400m expansion. What’s so interesting about the announcement isn’t really the museum’s new but vaguely described mission but the fact that the museum and its leadership has received very little scrutiny at a time when the city’s other major cultural institutions have been through significant upheaval.
It’s true that the New York Times didn’t go after Met director Tom Campbell’s scalp until after the museum admitted it was unable to fund its aggressive expansion ambitions and was running a deficit. That gave the newspaper the opening to question the museum’s leadership first the director—though the newspaper missed and had to double back upon the most eye-catching example of Campbell’s management failure—and then the board.
MoMA may be getting a free pass on scrutiny because the museum’s finances seem to rock solid. Though the press announcement would have been a good moment to examine how MoMA has financed its expansion. The museum says it has already raised the money for the $450m expansion.
The New York Times says that fundraising was helped along by David Geffen’s $100m gift to the museum. But its own report in 2016 said that Geffen’s gift would mean that his name would go on the galleries being built in the super-tall Jean Nouvel condo tower that is part of the expanded complex (and surely contributed substantially to the museum’s ability to quickly meet the fundraising objectives.) The Times, which usually abhors any suggestion that commercial interests might benefit from cultural institutions, was silent on this aspect of the story. (Though this residential tower is not the first time that MoMA has funded its expansion through the luxury real estate market.)
Having said that, there are two other important questions about MoMA, its future and leadership, raised by the announcement that are worth exploring further.
The first is simply to wonder about Glenn Lowry’s successful tenure and how much longer the director will lead the museum. This expansion, let alone the re-focusing of MoMA’s mission, is often the capstone to a museum director’s tenure. Lowry is 62 and has been at the museum for 22 years. Institutionally, the museum is not necessarily well-served by a director who becomes too ensconced in his role. MoMA doesn’t have a mandatory retirement age but crossing the dual barriers of 65 years of age and 25-year tenure in the job might not be the best of ideas for MoMA developing a deep bench.
Lowry got the job at a very young age because few established museum directors wanted to fight the multi-front wars of running the museum, managing expansions and dealing with the politics of MoMA’s ultra-heavyweight board. If Lowry has to retire or gets hit by a bus, does the museum have a succession plan? Seeing how quickly the Met’s situation went from aggressive to defensive, is it reasonable to believe that the museum can always count on Lowry to steer it successfully in the new world where art has become a major industry and a museum like MoMA plays a unique role?
Lowry’s patron on the board, David Rockefeller, died recently. It was revealed a decade ago that he was paid a second income stream from a trust funded by Rockefeller, Agnes Gund and Ronald Lauder. There’s no indication that fund has been institutionalized.
If we presume, for a moment, that current expansion combined with the re-orientation of the museum’s mission is the capstone to Lowry’s extraordinary career, what’s the succession plan? Considering the size of the physical and intellectual changes coming to MoMA in the next few years, wouldn’t it make sense to have the next leader of the museum be intimately involved instead of passing it off in a transition where any number of factors could cause the baton to be dropped?
What of the museum’s new mission? The Times gave some space to acknowledging the ways in which MoMA has begun to re-think how it presents art. But mostly the newspaper shrugged off those changes with quote from one of its critics about “dead white males.”
One can only conclude from the stale catch-phrase, that the Times is unwilling to engage with the subject simply because it approves of the “inclusiveness.” But MoMA is unique institution. It isn’t an encyclopedic museum like the Met. Nor is it a museum of contemporary art like so many that have sprung up around the country and, indeed, the world.
Central to the reason for MoMA existing has been its mission to define the Modern. The museum self-consciously tells a specific ‘story’ of the development of Modern art. Now we’re told the museum will re-orient its presentation of art and artists. Is that move toward inclusiveness a repudiation of the Modern? Does it involve a negotiation between telling the ‘story’ of the Modern and telling other stories alongside? Or is the museum simply paying lip-service to a critique it must accommodate without actually re-thinking its mission of defining and promoting Modern art.
That’s huge challenge in the 21st Century. MoMA is a beset by challenges created by its unimagined success. For most of its existence, MoMA has been happy to be selective and singularly-minded in focusing on its definition of modernism. Even when that mission caused to pass on artists who did not fit into the story MoMA was telling about modernism, the focus served it well.
The Whitney Museum confronted its own version of what MoMA is facing when it opened the new museum downtown with a show with the title “America is Hard to See.” In 2017, one might usefully entertain the question what would a show titled “Modernism is Hard to See” look like and include. Which artists? What kinds of works?
There is no doubt that MoMA should go forward as an ‘inclusive’ museum. But the discrimination MoMA has to confront isn’t only about race and class and gender, it’s about how to deal with the idea of the Modern and the museum’s relationship to it.
Beyond that intellectual problem, there are other questions about MoMA’s leadership role in Contemporary art and the museum’s role in contemporary culture. As New York Magazine’s Jerry Salz has made an issue, the new building is a massive expansion of public spaces and performance spaces but a relatively modest increase in gallery space.
Forget whether that is a good or bad choice on the part of MoMA’s leadership. Assume they know their constituents and the needs of the museum, its members and its visitors. How does that new role get expressed in MoMA’s mission and communicated the broader museum-going public and the city and the culture at large?
Let’s close this by acknowledging that none of the questions are attacks on the museum. It is clear that MoMA is moving through a moment of important transition. It is doing so in the context of big shifts in the surrounding museum world. Clearly there’s a great deal more to come. We should all pay closer attention.