Interview with director Glenn Lowry: Commercial company to be launched by the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Gallery

Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA, discusses the new internet alliance that marks the first time museums will use their expertise and reputations for online commercial ventures

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The Museum of Modern Art in New York and London’s Tate Gallery have announced that they have formed a partnership to create a for-profit website to sell goods and services from the two institutions. Programming, in the form of live webcasts of lectures, symposia, concerts and performances, will also be included on the site, as well as virtual reality tours of exhibitions and collections. It will also be possible to purchase tickets for events and advertising will be prominent.

Internet portals, such as museumnetwork.com, which provide merchandise, exhibition tours and other services from a range of museums, are already online. The remarkable feature of this newest venture, which will see curators from the Tate and MoMA advising on the selection and creation of products to be sold on the site, is that it is the first time that museums will use their expertise and reputations for online commercial ventures.

The two museums already oversee retail operations with $50 million in sales per year and they believe this site will generate much greater revenue. Currently the MoMA site alone generates online annual revenue of $30 million.

Because of the tax-exempt status of the museums, the new entity will be independent, with its own board of directors, staff and offices. The new site, still unnamed, will be separate from www.moma.org and www.tate.org.uk. The site will launch either late this year or early 2001.

Eventually, this joint commercial company may go public. The Tate, which needs an endowment fund to finance its £6 million p.a. deficit at Tate Modern, could then cash in a percentage of the shares to this end.

MoMA director Glenn Lowry discussed the venture with The Art Newspaper.

What will be the site’s core area of interest?

Glenn Lowry Much like its partner institutions, the site will be based on the visual arts, performing arts, video and music events taking place all over the world. It will be the major online destination for anyone interested in contemporary culture. Our selective approach will ensure the quality of the programmes.

What else are the two institutions contributing that will distinguish your site?

We bring a strong audience in terms of demographics—educated, culturally literate, and affluent. We will fuse our five million a year visitors to the MoMA collections with the Tate’s five million visitors, with the additional two million who currently order products from our catalogue and visit the internet site. This built-in audience will make us one of the few e-commerce ventures that will begin with a pre-existing audience. That is very powerful and the possibilities are enormous.

Will other institutions be involved?

Yes, we are approaching other cultural institutions to be partners. In this way, we will be a major cultural site not just for the US but also England and Europe.

When and where was this concept developed?

I had been thinking of putting together a core team to develop such a comprehensive site. At the end of last year, I learned that Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, was thinking along the same track. We concluded that we should not be developing similar sites in competition. Between January and the second week of April, we worked out the details.

To what extent will the merchandising aspect of the site be an expanded MoMA store?

At the moment, thirty full- and part-time staff are involved in the site. We are in the process of hiring a chief executive officer.

Will the merchandising aspect of the site be limited to those items now sold in the MoMA store?

We will expand upon the MoMA store and commission hundreds of objects from artists. Architects will also be enlisted in designing household objects. The visitor to the site will be able to shop for a wide range of objects including furniture, fabrics, flatware and ceramics. Of course, books and catalogues will be offered. Original prints and photographs will also be available.

So, in essence, you will be the MoMA version of the Pottery Barn, Conran’s and Sears?

We are trying to be different from any pre-existing site. We will attract visitors through content—events and exhibitions—thereby providing a community. Then we will give them the opportunity to take home an exclusive product. But the site will also raise revenue from advertising, licensing, syndication and pay-per-view for some events.

With the Tate opening a new $208 million building and your own $650 expansion, what will be the relationship of the site to the financing of the new building and other areas of development?

Both institutions are aware of the importance of revenue for future planning. The alliance between the two institutions will give us added benefits across the board, from publications and membership, to educational and curatorial endeavours.

Who is in the management team at present?

James Gara, MoMA’s Chief Financial Officer; the deputy director for marketing and communications, Elizabeth Addison; curators including Mary Lea Bandy, chief curator of film and video; Terence Riley of architecture and design; Paola Antonelli, also a curator of design; and Deborah Wye, a curator of prints. The steering committee is composed of David Rockefeller, Tom Weisel, Leon Black, Sid Bass, Jerry Speyer, Donald Marron, and Robert Menschel. They meet frequently.

But the site will have a separate board?

We want to control the content of the site and two members from the museums’ boards will also be on the board of the new venture. To protect the independence of the new entity and avoid conflict of interest, no trustee or staff member of either institution can invest in the company, if it should go public.

Will the magazine portion of the site be an expanded version of tate, the art magazine produced by the gallery of that name?

While it will be very different from that publication, as yet it is too early to detail the contents. Of course the circulation will be vast (tate currently has a circulation of 45,000).

What are the costs involved and what is the timetable for completion?

It will take $50-60 million to get launched. While making an Initial Public Offering is not our goal, it is one possibility. A group of philanthropic individuals have already committed free capital of close to $10 million. To the extent that we can, we shall look to venture capital; Tom Weisel is the leading investment banker in the city focusing on technology. We are close to completing a business plan.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Museums enter the art and culture industry market'

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