Glenn Lowry appointed Director of the MoMA

The announcement comes after more than a year and a half of searching for a new director


New York

After more than a year and a half of searching for a new director, officials of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced that they had finally found one, in Canada.

Glenn Lowry, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, will begin the job in New York on 1 January and assume full-time duties in July. An American trained at Harvard in Moghul art, the forty year old Islamicist has an expertise that could hardly be more distant from the museum’s mission to collect and show the art of the twentieth century.

In public statements, MoMA’s curators have praised the appointment. MoMA has often been described as five museums under one roof, and the naming of a director without a speciality in modern art is likely to ensure that curatorial power there will remain within its separate departments, where autonomy has been fiercely guarded.

Announcing his appointment, Agnes Gund, MoMA’s chairman, stated that one factor which had won him the directorship was that Lowry actually wanted the job.

This curious observation reflects the year-long quest on the part of the museum for a new leader, which tested the skills of two executive search firms. None of MoMA’s own senior curators wanted the post, Mrs Gund said. The list of outsiders who turned down a chance for the position includes such museum directors as John Walsh of the Getty, James Wood of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Peter Marzio of the Houston Museum of Art. Anne d’Harnoncourt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Nicholas Serota of the Tate are each said to have turned down the job twice.

Their reluctance was perhaps not surprising, given the size of the task facing Mr Lowry. At the very least, the museum’s new director will be expected to raise more than $100 million to bolster the institution’s endowment. He will also lead a campaign to buy or build a new building somewhere in Manhattan, ideally one large enough to allow the display of the many huge contemporary works that are now in MoMA’s collection.

While the museum’s trustees have not yet determined where that structure will be, museums officials believe that adding more gallery space is urgent. Many potential donors of important works of art are likely to proceed only if they can be assured that the works will be shown, says outgoing director Richard Oldenburg, and wall space is virtually used up.

Mr Lowry will also have to build morale. MoMA’s employees (including many curators) earn surprisingly low salaries, given their stature in the museum field. Recent labour negotiations have been bitter, complete with street demonstrations in which staff members have underscored the disparities between their own meagre pay and the huge prices the museum has spent on works of art.

In his four year tenure at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Mr Lowry has met considerable management challenges. Soon after he arrived there, from the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institutions, the AGO’s public funding was slashed, endangering a C$58 million expansion project. Mr Lowry responded by closing for seven months and sacking more than half his staff.

After the expanded galleries reopened, Mr Lowry deployed private and public support (from local and provincial tourism agencies) to raise the more than C$3 million fee required to make the AGO a stop on the international tour of works from the Barnes Foundation.

The Barnes exhibition is now on view in Toronto, and it is expected to turn a profit for the museum, thanks in great part to a marketing blitzkrieg (“never before, never much art, so little time”) that even New Yorkers might find tasteless. Nevertheless, Lowry’s coup is hosting the exhibition gave the AGO the kind of attention it had never received before, and no doubt piqued the interest of MoMA’s trustees.

Lowry will surely be called upon to raise funds to enable MoMA to host the future blockbuster retrospectives which have become a fixture at the museum and an essential source of revenue for the institution, which receives practically no public money.

A much awaited Picasso exhibition, “Picasso and portraiture”, curated by William Rubin,

director emeritus of MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, will be held in 1996.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Lowry Barnes-storms MoMA'