GLENN LOWRY with Joachim Pissarro, Gaby Collins-Fernandez, and David Carrier
When we began this ongoing sequence of interviews with museum directors, we knew that we wanted to talk with Glenn Lowry. To be a director of any museum is a complex, highly conflicted job. To be director of MoMA involves special pressures, which seem unique to the flagship American museum dedicated to collecting and reflecting on modern and contemporary art. When the Metropolitan, whose long-time director Philippe de Montebello we interviewed earlier, puts on shows of old master art, inevitably there are controversies amongst the specialists. The authorities on Chinese painting, the Baroque, or Middle Eastern archaeology will debate amongst themselves. But when MoMA displays contemporary art, as recently as in The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World or, even more so, when it transgresses the assumed barriers between “high art” and “popular culture,” in Björk, then inevitably there will be ferocious controversies. This was true in the 1980s, with the famous High/Low exhibition, “MoMA’s New Low” according to one conservative critic; it was true in 2004 according to a leftist critic when Yoshio Taniguchi designed the new building; and it has been true more recently when some commentators critiqued the 2014 Sigmar Polke retrospective, while others had problems with the vast survey of the origins of abstraction in 2013. Should the museum try to play it safe? Even that, it seems, is not possible, not when one intelligent commentator called Joachim Pissarro’s Cézanne and Pissarro: 1865–1885 a “bland blockbuster show,” asking that the museum should present more challenging exhibitions. The museum, it sometimes seems, is like the parent of one of those children in their “terrible twos”—whatever it does, that’s wrong. The director, we infer, must need to have a thick skin.
Lowry, whose original art historical specialization was Islamic art, has been MoMA’s director for almost 20 years. An art world persona’s first experience of museums is often revealing. Consider, then, his marvelous childhood memory:
The first museum that I remember visiting was the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., and I must have been 6 or 7. My parents took me to the museum as we had just moved to Williamstown and it was one of the few cultural destinations there that they thought I might enjoy. What I remember most about that visit was that I somehow became separated from my parents and as I was wandering through the galleries I came upon Bouguereau’s “Nymphs and Satyr,” a large and majestic painting of a rather randy satyr cavorting in the woods with lush, sylph-like nymphs and apparently when my parents finally found me I was sitting transfixed in front of the painting.
What a surprising starting point for his career. But then, it is arguable that because the contemporary art world is so rapidly changing, no historical grounding would prepare the director of MoMA for the challenges of the present. Thirty years ago, in our memory, the museum was quiet and often seemingly half-empty. But if now the galleries are packed full of art-seeking tourists, surely that is a tribute to our educational system, which has made even difficult present-day art popular, and seemingly accessible. Attendance figures are revealing. The Louvre now has over nine million visitors a year, and the Met, more than six million; MoMA has around three million, who enter much smaller gallery spaces. “I’m a type-a person by demeanor, so I’m always restless,” Lowry has said:
I try to compensate for that by breathing in and breathing out as calmly as I can. But we have a policy of senior staff at this institution retiring at or around 65, and I don’t intend to break that policy. I’ll do my best between now and then.
We are thankful for catching him at this moment when, as often in the recent past, the institution he directs was in the process of rapid, forward transition.
David Carrier: Let’s lead with this lovely quote of yours, “MoMA has been called the Met’s worst mistake.” Can you explain that?
Glenn Lowry: Please, understand. That’s not my personal quote at all. I would never say that. In The Museum of Modern Art in this Century, I used it to refer to the fact that during the ’20s there had been some urgency in sort of progressive circles in New York for the Met to collect Cézanne and Picasso and Matisse. And for whatever reasons, the Met either was very slow to react or had chosen not to pursue what progressive circles believed to be the most important artists of the time, which created the opportunity for a place like the Museum of Modern Art to exist. And I think that’s true in the context of a kind of disruption theory, how new audiences and new art find each other when existing institutions are unable to satisfy either those new audiences or those new artists.
Joachim Pissarro: The concept of disruption you just introduced is a term that you have used in other interviews, and it’s one that we would like to hear you elaborate. You’ve been heading this institution well into the 21st century, and in my humble opinion, extremely successfully. But it is, indeed, a succession, a history of disruption. How do you see that today? And you said to me, “we’re building on disruption.” What did you mean?
Lowry: I don’t spend a lot of time theorizing the museum per se. But I do think a lot about how we were created and what it is about the institution that’s vital and essential in terms of thinking about how we might be in the future. And we were created in response to a new need, to show the work of artists that a group of people felt were not seen here in New York. And we were founded by a visionary board and a visionary director that looked afresh at artistic production and practices, that were able to embrace popular culture through film, that looked at design and architecture as integral to a modern vision and a modern aesthetic, that constantly brought into the exhibition program works of art and ideas that might have seemed surprising at the time—Indian art, Latin American art, pre-Colombian—all seeking to frame how we might understand modern and, through modern, contemporary art. If you fast-forward 70, 80 years into the latter part of the 20th century, where so much of what happened during the first decades of the museum’s history had been relatively codified, the question became: how does a museum that’s built on an idea rather than on a period engage the future, if that idea is about progressive tendencies? So it became very clear—and it wasn’t my idea at all, it was a conversation that was vibrant and rich within the museum—that contemporary art and contemporary practices had to be fully embraced. They’d been episodically engaged over the last 30 or 40 years, but they really needed to be fully embraced. In order to do this, we needed to find a way of embracing a notion that disruption should be constantly at play. Of course, there are challenges. We had 60, 70, 80 years of our own history to honor and ensure that we continue to think about, but prospectively, we wanted to be as disruptive as we could in terms of being open to new ideas, new practices, new artists, and new audiences.
Carrier: Right. I suppose disruption, in a way, is built into the fact that MoMA has to find its own origin point, whereas the Met, in a sense, puts contemporary art in relation to everything earlier.
Lowry: Right. And there’s been a constant negotiation within the institution over the almost 90-year run as to where that point of departure should be, and it’s moved around. It isn’t as if the 11th tablet of Moses just came down and said, “Thou shall start here.” It has been a contested and debated issue, as is the whole issue of what the breadth of our collection should be. You know, there were long conversations beginning in the late ’30s and continuing into the ’50s, and beyond about whether we should only collect over a 50-year window, two generations, and at the end of that cycle, begin again by sort of shedding the past in order to collect the future? And, of course, we even tried that, unsatisfactorily. But we’ve constantly been thinking about how to keep the collection, the program, and the ideas fresh, while not abandoning the touchstones that are central to the way in which we think of modern and contemporary art. I think the big difference between a place like the Museum of Modern Art and a more historical or universal institution is that those institutions start with the premise that they are about history and we start with the premise that we’re ahistorical, that history is a byproduct of what we do. If we do it well, we help write a history. But we’re actually trying to be engaged in the present.
Gaby Collins-Fernandez: Your ideas about disruption and progress are interesting polemically, which is especially evident in relation to the Forever Now painting show. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts regarding time, timelessness, and style in relation both to the institutional program and the kind of art that you’re exhibiting.
Lowry: I’m a historian by training, so I tend to see things through the notion of duration. But I also understand that history gets written; it isn’t a fact. History is a negotiation. One of the things I would want to avoid is making this too much about disruption. That’s one dimension of what we do. It’s an interesting component, but there are other things. The Museum of Modern Art is interesting because it’s so large, so complicated, and it’s multi-voiced. There are lots of internal debates and arguments and querying, as Joachim knows well, that take place here all the time. And that very rich environment leads to all sorts of interesting directions. So Laura Hoptman’s look at contemporary painting led her to ask the question of whether we are in an anachronic or atemporal moment? The exhibition makes its arguments. I don’t—I wouldn’t argue that the exhibition reflects the institution as a whole. It’s an experiment. It’s a test. It’s an opportunity to say, okay, does this make sense? I think the best exhibitions are queries that make an argument, come back to it, maybe there’s something to learn from it, maybe there isn’t. What I think distinguished the Museum of Modern Art was that it saw its mission, initially, as trying to help a new public, a new generation, of collectors and museum-goers understand art that was at the time seen to be complicated, difficult, progressive, you can take your pick as to how you want to describe it. It needed to provide a historical background—hence, going back a generation or two from the present in order to make the present intelligible. I don’t think its goal was to frame itself as a history-making institution. I think its goal was to supply the context for the present by looking at the immediate past. In fact, the founding director, Alfred Barr, did not talk about it using the typical language of museology at the time, about being a repository, or a treasure house, or a venue of classification. He talked about it as a laboratory, a very important word. He evoked the language of science—a laboratory to which the public was invited. He had two things in his head regarding the museum: that it was a place of experimentation that could conduct that experimentation with the rigor of science and a language of legitimacy, and second, he understood that it had to deal with the public. That it wasn’t just about the collection. It was also about the public. Those become foundational ideas for the way the place thinks of itself.
Carrier: The shock is wonderful—as you leave the Painting Now show, and then you go to look at the Matisse collages, and then you go downstairs you’re getting completely different views of the world. There’s really a tension. It’s not like one unified history book. It’s rather a book with all these authors that are sort of at war with each other.
Lowry: They’re at war with each other, they’re in conversation with each other, they’re in harmony with each other. When we’re at our best, it’s all of the above. But the hardest possible thing to do if you’re a historian is to deal with the question of simultaneity. Historians want things in order. The present is about simultaneity. One of the things we’ve tried to bring back into the conversation here is that there are multiple competing voices at any one moment that are really interesting. History tends to iron that out, it tends to pick the winners and losers, it tends to look for sequence and succession. What we’ve tried to do is make it interesting again.
Pissarro: I cannot help seeing you sitting, Glenn, underneath the row of Greater New York catalogues. I’m so glad you brought up this notion of lab in reference to Barr. It seems to me that term, that scientific concept he used perhaps applies best in the bigger MoMA picture today to PS1. I don’t know whether you would agree, but certainly Greater New York is a great example. Would you elaborate for us how the two work together? Alfred Barr would probably agree with this, they take 10 risks a minute in terms of their thinking, and so on. How does that gel, how does that harmonize itself, or not, with MoMA, which is a more durable institution?
Lowry: It was a very interesting moment in the late ’90s when the museum made a kind of collective decision, both at the trustee level and at the curatorial level, that it needed to expand, first, to embrace contemporary art to the largest possible extent it could, and to embrace all the complicated questions around that. As I started thinking about it, it led to an observation that PS1 was running this fantastic program that was doing very much what we hoped to be doing. That started a conversation with Alanna Heiss, who was thinking at that very moment that all the things that she had spent three decades building needed somehow to find a structure in which it could be sustained. So she was going from, “How do I keep this thing going?” And we were going from, “How do we embrace what they’re doing?” That led us to think about merging our institutions, which I think has worked out really well for both institutions. There was some initial anxiety with the question of whether the weight of MoMA would stifle the creativity of PS1. But actually there was never a chance that that was going to happen because, from my perspective, and I think from the perspective of everyone else at the museum, it was the energy, vitality, you could even say almost quasi-chaos of PS1, that we were looking to infiltrate back into the museum. And so we found this very nice balance between our institutions. The Greater New York projects came out of a desire, when Alanna and I had perfected the merger, to say, “Okay, how do we celebrate? We’ve done it, but what are the concrete manifestations that the public might see?” We thought we certainly don’t need another biennial in New York because the Whitney does that so well. It seemed to us that what we just accomplished was the creation of this fabulous New York-centric institution that had a leg on one side of the East River and a leg on the other side of the East River so maybe what we should ask is, “What’s happening in New York right now?” We said Greater New York because New York is topographically identifiable, but it’s also an idea. New York is more than just its geography. We took a very liberal definition of what it meant to be in New York. We co-curated that exhibition with Klaus and a few other people. It was a fantastic project. We didn’t know at the time whether we would do it again, but we said we would if there was enough new work to merit it. After five years, it kind of felt right. And then five years later we decided to do it again. So maybe it becomes a quintennial.
Carrier: What about the ferocity of the commentary that MoMA generates sometimes just precisely because you are about the present? I mean, to use an extreme example, the Syrian show at the Met is a beautiful show, but that’s going to have battles among the Syrian scholars, whereas Forever Now, for instance, has and will have a more immediate cultural conversation.
Lowry: Well, look, the fascinating thing about any museum that deals with modern or contemporary art is that you’re dealing with things, with issues and ideas of the moment with people who are alive and well and who have very strong feelings and opinions. So you’re going to engage a very vibrant conversation and so you’re going to have ardent supporters and ardent detractors.
Pissarro: And everything in between.
Lowry: That’s been true for the museum from its outset. It’s had its supporters and its detractors, but the key point is that people feel really invested because they want the institution, in a way, to reflect their reading, their understanding, and their interests.
Pissarro: But, if I may, Glenn, I know this might sound perhaps a bit personal, and you know where I stand on this, I hope, but I’m going to ask the question anyway. I think Barr also, by the way, magnetized this kind of acrimoniousness. It seems to me that you ended a type of vision of history that was codified and have opened the institution up. I think Carrier, too, salutes this decision to include rather than exclude. And it seems that you’ve been penalized, if not chastised, for being more open-minded. I find this personally incomprehensible, but I’d like to know how you respond to it.
Lowry: Any time you change something, you’re going to do so at the risk of people not liking what happens. I never thought of what we were doing as radically, fundamentally changing the museum, but I believe that an open, vibrant conversation—one that has multiple voices from multiple perspectives—is actually what leads to the best of ideas. Maybe it’s because I come from an academic background that recognizes that debate and contention are the essence of thinking and that you can have an institution that can live with debate and uncertainty, and that that should be liberating, not constraining. But I also entered the Museum at a different point in its history than, you know, 20 years earlier and 20 years before that.
Carrier: Well, there’s a kind of generational concern. I think that certain critics my age remember this MoMA that seemed to be deserted—you could walk right up to “Guernica,” there were no lines. But in a sense, if then they criticize you, what they’re really complaining about is your vast success. I mean, when I walk into the Museum, I’m just stunned, you’re so popular. Everyone’s interested, they’re fascinated. And that’s an audience, sort of, in a sense, outside of this audience of the art historians or artists or the professional people. It’s the larger public.
Lowry: The surge in interest that has taken place in modern, especially contemporary art, was something that was happening in parallel to trying to open up the conversation within the institution about artistic practices and directions. We didn’t create that surge, but we certainly understood that there was a newfound interest. Of course, if you remember the institution in one way, and you liked it in that way, and the institution becomes something else, it can create a lot of discomfort.
Lowry: And nostalgia. John Elderfield, who’s one of the most intelligent art historians that I know, often talks about Golden Age theory: “It was always better last generation.”
Carrier: Of course, of course.
Lowry: And then you actually go back and read the criticism of that period and you know—we remember certain exhibitions today as utterly iconic. High and Low. Take Kynaston McShine’s Information, right?
Pissarro: Vilified at the time.
Lowry: You go back and look at the criticism at the time—it was vilified, right? So history has a long view, a long durée. What I do take seriously is that the kinds of intimate and intense experiences that an earlier moment provided more frequently need to somehow still be available, even as we’re in an era of a far more participatory institution. What many who come to this institution and go to the Met and go to the Whitney want—we’re not unique here—is a different kind of engagement. Actually, look at all of the other museums around town. Everybody’s struggling to figure out how to engage the very audience that has found a home here. I think they found a home here because the art’s compelling and interesting. I think our curatorial staff is brilliant and has found ways of engaging both an older and a younger audience, a more traditional and a less traditional audience, go down the line of polarities. But most importantly, it’s a space that people want to be in. And this is something that I think is a really important dimension of it—it’s a combination of the architecture, the works of art, the attitude of the curators, the attitude of the staff. And yes, it’s different. But you know, take a look at 2010 and ask yourself: Is it at all like 1980? It’s only 30 years, but the 30 years from 1980 to 2010 seem to me a far greater leap than 1950 to 1980.
Collins-Fernandez: The way that we’re talking about the institution and a kind of pluralism of experience, let’s say, makes me think about the organization of MoMA’s permanent collection. Because it does actually change fairly frequently, right? Especially from the 1960s to the present, toward the end there are more radical shifts in terms of what’s being shown at any moment. We’ve also talked a bit about how MoMA is seen, especially in New York, as a place to go to learn about the history of modern art, that a visitor who comes here who doesn’t have a background necessarily will come and take away an understanding of Modernism or the history of modern art from the collection. And I wonder if you could talk about the relationship between shifts in the permanent collection and current exhibitions, whether there’s a sense of a theme or different kinds of ideas over time that emerge in concert.
Lowry: The question is actually one we’re constantly thinking about here. Which is: How do you, with the responsibility of this extraordinary collection that only gets larger and better as it is continuously refined and added to, how do you present that in a way that’s meaningful to the public and that does justice to the artists that are represented? Part of it is to recognize that it needs to change a lot. In other words, you can lay out a broad chronological overview, which we do, very consciously. But within that arc, there could be a great deal of change. We’ve made the decision that the rate of change accelerates as you get closer to the present. If you start with an assumption that you’re going to help people grasp modern art by looking at the late 19th century, that part of the collection, post-Impressionism into early Cubism, and extend that through Fauvism and a few other -isms, that part of the collection, it’s going to change. We’re going to have rotations within it, but the cycle of rotation and the impact of the changes is going to be relatively slow and modest. But as you get into the ’40s and ’50s, it’s going to start accelerating. And as you get into the ’60s and ’70s, it’s going to accelerate even more. And as you get into the ’80s, ’90s, and the ’00s, it’s going to be even faster. You can see this as a series of moves built into the way we display the collection that are trying to be true to the responsibility of the breadth of what we have. So was the introduction of Latin American art—the conscious effort to ensure that the many different voices that have been collected over the years find a way to be expressed in a limited amount of space. If we had 500,000 square feet, we might be able to just put everything out and not worry about it, but we don’t. And that’s actually a good thing because it forces us to constantly ask what is most interesting, most appropriate, most important for our public to see and think about. One of those things is different voices within a larger modernist tradition, hence Latin America and, to a degree, Asia and elsewhere.
If you extend that to say, okay, over the last 40 years we’ve separated media—photography here, prints there, drawings there, architecture and design, film, and so on. That was an arbitrary set of decisions that has some virtues but it also has some problems. What happens if we start creating a much more porous and synthetic relationship that allows photography, prints, drawings, film, and especially media and performance to connect to the other practices that are taking place? If you walk through our galleries, there’s still a photography gallery, there’s still drawing galleries, but now there’s a much greater interconnectivity. I don’t think we’ve given anything up by doing that. I think we’ve created a much more interesting and rich experience for our viewers.
Carrier: One of the great pleasures is looking for the changes this morning in the very familiar Matisse room, those monotypes. I’d never seen those before. Who is this, I thought, some contemporary artist? That’s a lovely tweaking.
Lowry: So, we’ve got a Sturtevant show downstairs and have welcomed Sturtevant coming upstairs, so to speak, and you could say “disrupting.” It’s not permanent, but you could watch people walk around, they’re really curious. They’re looking at Sturtevant in a way that they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t encountered her there.
Collins-Fernandez: To follow up, it’s interesting to think about the permanent collection competing with exhibitions in terms of timeframe, right? That as you get closer to the present the idea that the permanent collection has a turnover that seems to compete with the kinds of turnovers of exhibitions in the rest of the museum.
Lowry: The way I would look at it is that that’s a really good observation, but I wouldn’t call it competition.
Lowry: What happens is, as you get closer to the present, the rate of change within the collection starts to parallel the rate of change within our temporary exhibition program. It’s still slower than our temporary exhibition program, but it gets much closer to that because of course with contemporary art, it’s much harder to define the arc, right? I said our goal is to try to remain ahistorical, but it’s an ambition that I recognize is always going to be tempered by the fact that if you look at the late 19th, early 20th century, that history is pretty well developed. So the changes you make there are just adjustments, whereas when you’re looking at contemporary practices, you can’t possibly, I suppose you could, but you can’t practically lay down that history. In fact, you don’t want to. You want to give your audience an opportunity to see a whole range of different ways of thinking about it.
Pissarro: If you don’t mind, I would like to show you a photograph that Carrier and I are very fond of. It’s a picture of this somewhat crazy Italian migrant shoe-stand maker, Joe Milone, who was introduced to Barr by Louise Nevelson. In 1942 Barr decided to present this to the acquisition committee in painting and sculpture, to which Stephen Clark asked him, “Have you lost your marbles?” and they apparently had a furious row, you probably know the story, a row that Barr lost, and the stand was never presented to the acquisition committee. I wonder what would happen today. Then, Barr almost lost his job on this against Clark. Do you think there is currently anything that you or a museum director should have to stick their neck out in this position and risk?
Lowry: I think there are always works of art that galvanize and can polarize institutions, especially when you have a board like ours that is, for the most part, made up of very active collectors. Collectors tend to be extremely well informed, but they also tend to have very strong opinions about the art that interests them and the art that doesn’t, and of course you hope that an institution’s point of view is sufficiently large that it can embrace multiple positions, but that’s not always the case. There are certainly works of art that have been presented over the last 20 years that have been turned down by the acquisitions committee. It doesn’t happen all that often and it can be because they don’t understand the work itself, they don’t believe it’s the best work by that artist, or they have questions about what direction that might be leading the institution. There are any number of reasons why something can be contentious, and certainly the reemergence of performance as an important discipline is challenging for many of our trustees and committee members. For instance, when you bring a Tino Sehgal to the institution, you’re asking for the acceptance of people whose mindset might have been shaped by Minimalism or post-Minimalism and for whom the act of performance is not something they readily embrace. You always hope that reason will prevail and that a curator’s passion for an artist or work of art can override or at least convince a skeptical point of view, but I think actually our trustees and our committees play a very important role through challenging the status quo. It’s not a rubber stamp. I think every curator knows that when he or she goes in front of the committee—as you well know, Joachim—if you’re not well prepared, you’re going to get pounced on, even if it’s a self-evident work. I think it leads to robust conversations. Just because, in a way, we live in this polyphonous moment, it doesn’t mean that everything goes.
Pissarro: It’s interesting that you mentioned the performance situation. Back in 2006, you asked Eva Respini and myself to be part of one of the first teams to arrange a display of the contemporary collection on the second floor and we brought up Christian Marclay. The program of performances was definitely the subject of a robust conversation, several trustees saying this would not happen. Today you have a performance department, so obviously things have moved forward considerably. What do you see the next five or 10 years of the institution bringing forward?
Lowry: I think there are a lot of different forces at play at the moment, and of course there’s the heart of what we do, which is to look at those defining figures here and abroad that we believe are critical to an understanding of modern and contemporary art. I hope that we will have a broader vision of what that means, not in any way to negate what already exists, but on the contrary to put that in a broader, international context. That’s something I think Barr himself was very interested in. Every once in a while, you discover that in the early ’60s we were collecting art from Iran and that has to be because somebody here said, “Something’s going on here. We need to investigate that.” I hope the next decade brings an ever-greater recognition of how important and valuable—intellectually, artistically, programmatically—those traditions from outside the frame of North America are to any understanding of art in general. Latin America In Construction, Barry Bergdoll’s great show, is critically important in this light because it doesn’t seek to look at what was happening in Latin American architecture in the late 20th century from the point of view of how that was influenced by what was going on in Europe or North America, but instead as an autonomous conversation that shared interests with other parts of the world, but wasn’t dependent on them. I hope there’s an increasingly supple mindset that recognizes how important it is to look thoughtfully. We can’t be and won’t be an encyclopedic institution in that respect: it’s a fool’s errand. It’s not about collecting a little bit of everything, it’s being aware of critical traditions and trying to make judicious acquisitions.
I think the museum itself—not just MOMA, but the idea of the museum—is changing dramatically. And I hope that we will be able to keep pace with it and benefit from these changes. Probably the most contested, and I believe the most interesting, issue is the evolution away from the museum as a place of solitary inquiry and contemplation, which it never was entirely, because the space in the museum is first and foremost a public space, so that means it’s a social space. But there was definitely an operating idea of being alone with a work of art in a kind of quiet relationship with that work of art. And, you know, social media is one factor that has transformed how we connect with each other. It also transforms how we think and look at art, the fact that you can have a continuous conversation about art—that the experiential is a catalytic dimension to how most people engage with works of art and with each other when they’re in a museum.
Pissarro: I saw Instagram being part of the equation in Barry’s exhibition.
Lowry: I think we are all looking at how the loop is created. It’s too easy to simply say that museums have become 24/7 operations, but in very real terms, there is an on-site and an off-site audience that are learning how to connect with each other. Ten years ago they were parallel and independent, and I think today they are converging, so the notion of the participatory institution, I think, is a really important one. I don’t know where it leads us but a recognition that this sense of participation, of engagement, is important. People want to have a conversation, they’re not looking only for moments of quiet contemplation—which of course they are—but they’re looking for something in addition to that. I think it will become an important dimension of what we all do.
Pissarro: I want to ask you another question about this, because I do believe social media is such an important vein of our present cultural identities. You have here Kathy Halbreich who, among many other great things, is known for having created, the first ever digital media department when she was the director of the Walker Art Center. It was not only online art but virtual art and digital art. Do you see something like that happening? The same way as the performance department has taken rise here, do you see the social media as not just being an addendum to the perception of a show, but becoming actually a generator and an activator in art production?
Lowry: Well, the answer is we’re already collecting digital works of art. I think the first digital work of art that we acquired was gotten by Debbie Wye, it was a work by Peter Halley.
Pissarro: Really? In what department?
Lowry: It was in Prints and Illustrated Books and it was a program that did acquire digital works. I believe that was the first, and if it wasn’t, it was one of the first programs to do so, and now we’re collecting video games, the ‘@’ sign, digitally produced three-dimensional objects. So the digital is here in the degree to which, ultimately, one feels that it’s necessary to have a department focused uniquely on digital production. I think if you look at how Instagram is being used, for instance, people are inherently creative and they love to post and share what they’re doing and some of it is interesting and some of it isn’t and some of it is brilliant. Searching through all of that and trying to understand what that means is part of what we have to do. I do know that one of the things about Instagram—and I’m not saying it’s only Instagram, but using that as a model for a whole range of social media—is the desire to share, the desire to engage in a relationship with other people, and a willingness and a desire to create, to fulfill one’s own creative potential. How that ultimately plays out, we’ll see, but I think Barry Bergdoll in Latin America In Construction came up with a really terrific idea, which was: if you’re doing a historical exhibition that looks at buildings from 1955 to 1980, how can you bring them into the present in a very live way as opposed to a single photograph? So we actually have an Instagram wall that’s essentially a mosaic of images that are being posted. The interesting thing about that is when we announced it publicly, within the first weekend (this goes back about two months), we had a thousand submissions. Today, at the launch of the exhibition, there are already over 18,000 submissions, so it just shows you the hunger to share and to participate. Some of them are really terrific. Participation is also a mindset: if you think about a visitor to a museum, which is the way we normally talk about going to a museum, the visitor is a guest who has no ownership stake, it’s an invitation to come and visit. Within a participatory institution, the participant feels an ownership, is engaged directly in a kind of coequal relationship with the institution. That evolution from a visitor who is invited to be here temporarily to the participant who is thoroughly engaged is a fascinating trajectory. And we’re not alone—I think every major museum is grappling with how to navigate this change and I think that it’s partially triggered by how social media has altered the way we connect to each other.
Collins-Fernandez: A lot of the way you’re talking about this shift seems to have to do with volume, in a sense—from the quietness of looking at painting, to a kind of louder volume or polyphonic understanding of voices and larger, increased levels of both the number of people talking and also the amount—literally—of audible information. So I wonder in terms of this shift toward more, regarding this conversation, to what extent MoMA functions as sort of the facilitator of greater discussions and to what extent there is a form of editing at work. In that realm, how is it that you make editing choices and how is it that the museum interjects to not just foster conversation, but also direct it in particular ways, and toward what?
Lowry: I don’t think it’s purely a function of volume in terms of numbers of people or volume in terms of numbers of conversations, or even volume in terms of intensity of conversation, because it’s about thinking differently about how the institution catalyzes a relationship with its public. I think our responsibility is to set the table—it’s to make a set of choices about what to show and how to show it, how to foster a relationship between how we’ve set the table and our public. But then to stand back and not try to control that as much as we often try to do. In an older model you would want to have a very tight control: this is what we think and this is how you should think about it. In a different model it’s more like: look, this is what we think and we really want to share with you and learn from you. It’s not simply a one-way relationship.
Collins-Fernandez: Has that happened, or have there been instances where the feedback has influenced MoMA’s future decisions?
Lowry: The answer is not yet and I’m not even sure it’s about influencing future decisions so much as it is about enabling people to think differently about what they’re looking at. So instead of thinking, “I must think about it this way,” it’s, “Oh, isn’t it interesting that the museum has put this before me to think about and has raised these interesting issues about it, but I’m not sure I agree with that,” and having a way of looping that back. It’s the difference between—this is reductive, it’s an example, not a reality—leading a conversation in the galleries where the conversation starts off by telling visitors the date the artist made the work and what they intended, etc., as opposed to starting a conversation by letting people know what the artist was thinking about and asking if they were on to something, allowing for a more open and fluid relationship. I think it’s the same thing intellectually as curators develop their exhibitions. Of course they have a point of view, that’s why they did all that research. Of course we’re going to present that as robustly as we can, but then it’s an invitation to open that up to a wide conversation that might ultimately produce a completely different set of reactions. Social media is the mechanism by which those conversations can happen both inside the museum by people who are navigating at the same time with each other, and outside the museum by people who might only read about the exhibition or see it online but who might still have opinions they want to share.
Pissarro: There is certain material that is more inviting, in terms of exhibition material, than other material. With Barry’s show, obviously, people can go out and just Instagram buildings—I would think most contemporary shows would lend themselves as well to these kinds of dialogues, although maybe not all. However, some works and exhibitions that MoMA is famous for, like the Matisse cutouts, would not spontaneously give way to such dialogues. Do you think the museum will expand this new format to everything it does or just to more of-the-moment events?
Lowry: Let’s park Instagram for the moment [laughter] because it’s just an interesting way, it became a tool, for Barry’s show to bring those historical buildings into the present. And because it’s architecture we experience it in public space and it had a logic to it. That may or may not be pertinent to other exhibitions. The challenge is what is the right strategy—or set of tactics, even—for any given exhibition to enable that sense of engagement and participation to take place. Sometimes it’s just conversations that one generates through symposia, discussions, and gallery talks, sometimes it’s through workshops. I was struck by a comment that Thomas Struth made when he came through the Matissecutouts. He said, “You know, when I see exhibitions by Picasso, I go back to my studio and I don’t really want to work—it doesn’t make me want to work. I go through a Matisse exhibition like this one and I am bursting with ideas. I just want to get back to my studio and produce.” He’s one of the most deeply insightful artists in the world, and I think the general public feels the same way—they get inspired. So, sure, you can create workshops to make cutouts to foster that sense of wanting to take what you’ve seen and apply it practically to what you’re doing—that speaks to the desire of so many of us to be creative. You can stimulate that, you can either put it off in a corner or not do it at all, or you can invite it in some larger way into the conversation, and I think you have to look at strategies like that.
Pissarro: Yes, yes, yes, absolutely.
Lowry: None of this takes away from the fact that at the heart of any project has to be real deep scholarship.
Pissarro: You’re not emulating it, it’s adding to it.
Lowry: It’s adding to it, it’s how you take that scholarship and engage the broadest possible audience with those ideas. It’s not a substitute—it’s the end product of it.
Pissarro: We absolutely agree. There are not many people who don’t know your CV, that you began your career as an art historian through scholarship on the Persian manuscripts.
Lowry: Of the 16th Century.
Pissarro: And that is not the current formation for most museum directors of modern art or contemporary art, for sure. I personally, as you know, truly believe in the dialogue between old and new. And many artists have also commented on this complex and fascinating dialogue. Could you tell us a little bit about that? I would also like to hear you speak about the geographic aspect of this, because this is now the heart of an incredibly new, evolving scene. Not many people know that there are something like 500 contemporary art galleries in Tehran, for example. These are different sides of a similar question—one is more personal, the other one is geopolitical—can you comment on these two dimensions?
Lowry: I fell in love with Islamic art in part because I had a charismatic teacher when I was an undergrad student at Williams who turned me onto it. But also I was stunned to see such beautiful things from a part of the world that I knew nothing about, so I asked myself, “How is it possible that I was so unaware of these rich historical traditions?” And then, the more I looked, the more it became fascinating—particularly with what was going on in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries in Iran, Central Asia, and India. That led to a phenomenally interesting career as a curator, and a very satisfying one. But I was always lucky enough to be able to take courses in a broad array of disciplines, from modern art to the Renaissance, to Chinese painting, so one specialty is not the only one. What made me so interested in India in the 16th and 17th centuries under the Mughals is that it was a culture that had willingly and intentionally tried to bring disparate voices, disparate traditions, and put them under one umbrella: from Hindu, Jain, Muslim and, particularly Christian theological, political, and ultimately artistic traditions. So you look at Mughal architecture and painting under the Mughals during the reign of Akbar and Jahangir in particular, and you realize that the “global” was around long before it was embraced by us.
Collins-Fernandez: Trade routes.
Lowry: Trade routes, the Silk Road, but also deep intellectual curiosity—I still am fascinated by that. The Middle East is a phenomenally interesting part of the world that’s still very poorly understood by most of us, so whether you’re in the Gulf, whether you’re in Iran, whether you’re in Egypt, Turkey, North Africa, Lebanon—right now, those places are on fire, despite all the political turmoil and chaos. The number of artists that are working in Iran doing really challenging and adventuresome work is astounding. Beirut, which has a tiny little community in terms of the size of the city, has produced Walid Raad, Akram Zataari, Rania Stephan, Mona Hatoum. You just go on and list them, and see such an intense concentration of talent. For me, it’s fascinating to try and connect a past interest with current practices.
Pissarro: I’m really interested in hearing you talking about this Mughal tradition, this notion of globality before the era of globalization. That’s really what you are an advocate of today, and very justly in my opinion. It does tend to go against the grain, both in the cultural field and the political field. We’ve seen a counter-example with the Netanyahu and Obama dialogue (or lack thereof), which was definitely not “polyphonic.”
Lowry: Civility is lost in those conversations.
Pissarro: Yes, and the acceptance of otherness, which is, of course, absolutely tragic.
Lowry: I was always struck by Anthony Appiah’s use of the term “cosmopolitan.” It seems to me great museums want to be cosmopolitan—they want to engage in an interesting and civil discourse with disparate voices and positions, even if they have a particular angle that’s their own, but they want to be part of that larger conversation. And they want to be places where people with disparate backgrounds can find common ground and common language, even to disagree with each other. That’s a role we play in civil society, to be a safe harbor for those difficult conversations to occur and to learn about what we don’t know.
Collins-Fernandez: In that vein, and sort of related to something that came up earlier in the conversation, do you feel as though there are taboos in conversation or in an art exhibition today—are there things that MoMA can’t do or will not do or does not do, stepping into the future?
Lowry: I think the issue of race is still hyper-charged in our society, so engaging those conversations is extremely complicated. I think it’s really important to engage them, but you have to. I think that it’s still a challenge for many institutions—how to do that thoughtfully and intelligently and in ways that are not explosive but are also honest.
Pissarro: And you say that just a few weeks after Ferguson and the hate crimes we’ve seen in this very city.
Lowry: Well, you know, we’re about to open a Jacob Lawrence exhibition, the Migration Series, which has become celebrated as one of the great works of American art in the 20th century, but you know it’s a really tough series. He deals with lynchings and mob violence and racist positions, so how do you make that real today? How do you use what was a powerful experience that he created with Migration Series—how do you return that current value, to something that is as searing as it was meant to be? And, at the same time, how do you use that as a way of exploring the Harlem Renaissance in which he lived and the same rich, vibrant culture that is integral to our culture? Leah Dickerman is a brilliant curator and I think she’s done a great job of connecting Migration Series loudly to food, to music, to literature. But race is still a highly charged problem, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we, as an institution, can play a role in enabling thoughtful conversations to take place. So that’s one area, and there are others.
Pissarro: This is not about me, obviously, but when I was a curator here, the real slap on the face I took was when I went to see David Hammons, there was a unanimous consensus among the curators to go and ask him to do something. And you were pretty much ready to give him carte blanche with us at MoMA. I went to tell him about the offer, and his answer was: “Is this a joke or an insult?” and I just, you know, couldn’t take it.
Lowry: You can understand how, for a black man or a woman, it reads differently. We didn’t suffer what they suffered. And there are political issues, too, that are still highly charged. Just look at the debate between our president and Netanyahu. There are still fault lines that are complicated. I don’t think we shy away from them at all, on the contrary, but how you deal with them is very difficult and complicated.
Pissarro: I have never been able to verify this, but I have always been struck by the close parallels between the charter of this museum and the charter of the Louvre in 1795. They seem so resonant with each other in terms of the roles of different parties, the definition of departments by medium, not period, the fact that, as per Michel Laclotte—I’m talking about the Louvre now—the director of the museum is only in charge of the auditorium.
Glenn, you have definitely changed that position, but when you came on board in 1995, the director was really not performing much in terms of curatorial participation. You have a very, very strong voice curatorially, and I think we hear it much more. Do you see this as expanding? Do you see taking a more creative role? How do you see it in the future?
Lowry: I don’t know what the previous relationship was and it certainly was different over different directors, so I don’t have a position on that. Certainly Barr was both the founding director and founding curator, and René d’Harnoncourt was a brilliant curator and a very thoughtful director. My interest is not in having a curatorial voice. My interest is in participating in the conversation and enabling a discussion to occur, and trying to bring up issues and questions to consider. If you’re the director of an institution, you want to do everything you can to create the most robust intellectual life of that institution that you can imagine. You know from being here that exhibitions at this institution—and acquisitions—are bottom-up, they’re driven by individual curatorial interest. So you can talk about the need to look at what’s going on with a certain artist or in a certain part of the world, but if there’s no curatorial interest, it’s not going to happen. I felt very strongly, really from the moment I arrived, that there were practices occurring elsewhere in the world that we needed to, at the very least, know about. Even if we chose not to act on them, we needed to know about them. And so we’ve tried to bring in curators from different parts of the world, we’ve created travel funds, we’ve created an internal research program called Curatorial and Modern Art Perspectives in a Global Age (CMAP) which is a platform for curators from this institution and from elsewhere in the world, along with artists, collectors, scholars, critics, to talk to each other about what’s going on. The idea behind that was we would focus on three areas initially—Latin America, East Europe and Fluxus, and post-war Japan—and that has already produced—it’s a pure research agenda, it doesn’t say you need to produce this or that—but it’s produced anthologies of critical texts, it’s produced acquisitions, and it’s produced exhibitions. And it’s in the process of producing an institutional partnership. That’s the kind of role I’m interested in having—not “You should do this exhibition” or “Why aren’t we collecting that artist?” but rather “What does it take for the institution to be as well-positioned as it can be intellectually, programmatically, artistically for the future?” I don’t know of any other way.
Pissarro: That’s a great answer. To segue into the next question that everybody is posing from outside the museum, what is going to happen to the next expansion? How will the new building interact with the already existing structures?
Lowry: The expansion really has three dimensions to it. The first, and by far and away the most important—the catalyst for it—is to provide more space to show our collection. We have enough space to show—to do the number of temporary exhibitions we want to do. We knew when we built the Taniguchi building that we were going to be in need of a little bit more space. We didn’t know how we were going to find it or get it. But we knew the only way we could get more space was to move west—that was the only direction we could go, because we can’t go across the street—so we put all the infrastructure in place—loading docks, freight elevators—to enable us, when we did expand westward, to really focus almost entirely on galleries without having to put in the space needs of other parts of the institution.
Pissarro: So there will be no temporary exhibitions in the new space?
Lowry: For temporary exhibitions, we’re going to reconfigure some of the existing galleries in the current campus. All of the new space, essentially, will be devoted to the collection, which was the first driver for the expansion. And also to help accommodate our public more graciously. The second driver was to ensure that we had some space—some types of galleries—that we don’t currently have to allow us to do different kinds of programs. As performance and media become more important, there is a real sense that we need a studio—a custom-built state-of-the-art space—for performance and media-based installations and projects.
Pissarro: How big would that space be?
Lowry: It’s still being worked out. It’ll be a gracious space, an intimate space with all the appropriate acoustics and other qualities that you need. The third driver was to make a number of relatively modest changes to the existing building to, we hope, improve it. One was to rethink the actual main entrance to the museum, to make it a little more gracious as you move through. Taniguchi imagined a building that might accommodate 2.5 million people, where we now have a public of 3.1, 3.2 million, so there are a host of small things that will add up to a larger impact. So those are really the three parts to the museum. But the real driver is to provide more space to show more of the collection, it’s very simple. And the amount of space we gain is big—we pick up about 40,000 square feet of new space in total, which, on 120,000 square feet, roughly, of what we have, its over a 30 percent gain.
Pissarro: Let us address one of David’s questions, which I’ll read: “There is an increasing overlap between the ambitious gallery shows and museum exhibits, such as your Forever Now show, which are not unlike some galleries’ surveys of paintings, and Gagosian’s In the Studio could be a museum show. Is this overlap a concern? How do you see this?”
Lowry: I think David’s observation discusses one of the most interesting developments that has occurred, in the last decade, which is, with the advent of a handful of mega-galleries that have the financial resources and the physical space to produce major exhibitions, there is a real blurring of the line between what we do as museums and what those galleries are doing. A decade ago, we talked about museum-quality shows where similar works of art—or sometimes identical works of art—might be in a commercial gallery, but bracketed with the notion that they weren’t presented with the kind of criticality that you would find in a museum exhibition. But with Paul Schimmel at Hauser and Wirth, and John Elderfield or Peter Galassi at Gagosian, and so on, that distinction is becoming moot. So what are the differences? Well, we hope we can locate our exhibitions intellectually in a way that it creates kinds of conversations, provides the educational armature in which to think and learn about these works without the self-evident commercial dimension that occurs in a gallery. But, you know, for the general public, that’s a hard distinction to make. And of course when you do shows of contemporary art like The Forever Now, or any show of contemporary art, you’re dealing with artists whose works are still available, so even if we’re not selling them—which we for sure are not—their galleries are selling them. So I do think that there’s something happening here that’s fascinating that certainly should be of great concern to all of us in the museum world. I’m reminded of an article written in the 1990s by Jonathan Seabrook in the New Yorker, where he makes an observation that the merchants in SoHo were so rapidly embracing or using the techniques of museum display to sell design, to sell clothing, that it became very hard as you went in and out of the galleries, the stores, the museums, to know what the difference was. Already in the 1990s, he was picking up this blurring of the line, that the commercial world can adopt, almost instantaneously, strategies of lighting, strategies of display, strategies of casework, and to coopt those into a commercial environment. So how do we, as institutions, continue to distinguish ourselves from that commercial activity? I think it’s gotten exponentially more complicated as these galleries, like Hauser and Wirth in Los Angeles, and Larry here, and David Zwirner and a handful of others can produce very large spaces, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and can hire brilliant curators to produce exhibitions for them. I think about this all the time. I don’t have an answer to it because, like all phenomena, it’s happening in real time. But I am acutely aware that the challenge for all of us in the museum world is to ensure that we distinguish what we’re doing from what the commercial world is doing—even if we’re often overlapping with the same artists.
Collins-Fernandez: So much of that question seems to have to do with relevance and how it is that the market and galleries determine a certain kind of relevance in terms of what’s visible, how certain things become visible, and by what standards. And the museum, as well, determines a different kind of relevance. Is that something you think about at all?
Lowry: It might be. I’m not trying to be cynical or cast aspersions on any of the galleries involved because they’re all very credible first-rate places, but you have to assume that when a gallery produces an exhibition on an artist, even if it’s generated by a brilliant curator without works of art for sale in it, there’s still an ulterior motive which is to sell works of art and maybe even to capture that artist’s estate or to lure a critical work from an individual collector—who knows what the motive might be.
Pissarro: But the museum is not a not-for-profit institution.
Lowry: That’s what they’re in the business of doing. So, there’s a different currency involved between what they’re doing and what we’re doing.
Collins-Fernandez: But at the same time, when MoMA has a retrospective of a living artist’s work, even though the effect may be distant or distanced, there are still obviously ramifications to who’s shown and who’s not shown.
Lowry: We hope, we believe that when we show the work of a living artist, we’re not showing it because we want to increase or inadvertently diminish their market value. We’re showing it because we believe a public should have an opportunity to see what we think is really interesting. Clearly, when you’re dealing with the work of living artists, you’re connected in some way to the marketplace. Ralph Lemon, who’s a brilliant choreographer and artist, did a series here two years ago now called the Value Series, where he asked artists, curators, and critics to talk about value. It’s a very similar thing. What is the currency value of what we’re doing versus the currency value of what commercial spaces are doing? We already see the blurs, there are places that do both. The Armory shows commercial fairs but it also programs museums.
Pissarro: Right, the MoMA was offered a booth at the Armory eight, nine years ago.
Lowry: And Culture Shed which is about to happen, is going to be 30 to 40 percent commercial and it’s going to use that commercial funding to support not-for-profit funding. But for sure there are going to be moments when it will be very difficult to distinguish which is which. Now, at least, you know if it’s happening here, it’s in museum space, if it’s happening there, it’s in commercial space. I think this is a deeply disruptive moment and I think some of the malaise that I pick up in the art world is generated not out of anything in particular, but out of this sense of being unsettled—you know the norms are shifted, the lines are moving.
Pissarro: This goes back to what we were discussing about this polyphonous sphere, where it’s not just what we’re showing, it’s the entire art world that is polyphonous. I’m looking at it from the academic point of view as well, we’re launching a certificate for curatorial studies at Hunter, and typically the question of merchandise, of the commercial art world, would never have been a part of the equation, five years, 10 years ago. Today, most of our clients or students are either here or in the commercial world. How can we sort of systematically say, “Well those who are in the commercial world don’t belong.” It doesn’t make sense.
Lowry: It’s a reality, you can rail against it but that’s not actually beneficial to anybody.
Collins-Fernandez: It’s also interesting that the way in which you’re talking about the Shed essentially being able to use commercial space to subsidize non-profits is also mirrored in the way in which many galleries will have artists that sell more work and then are able to support the work of artists that don’t sell as much or who are less known, so that there are similar, familiar structures to what you’re talking about.
Lowry: Sure, there are going to be—for sure you’re right. It’s just when you’re dealing with degrees, the first degree is very subtle, and the second degree is a little less subtle, and when you get out to the margins it’s very clear. So what we’re seeing, I think, is an awful lot in the middle and I think, at least most of the people I know, are really unsettled by it. None of us have an answer to this. You can see it happening, you can feel upset by it or angered by it or fascinated by it, but the reality is the norms are being recalibrated.
Collins-Fernandez: Do you mind my asking what in particular is so unsettling about it, or what is the basis of being unsettled?
Lowry: Well, when you can’t tell the difference between what is commercial and what isn’t, if you really genuinely believe in the kind of intrinsic value of art—art for art’s sake—then you think your institutions should be standard-bearers for that position, as I hope they are. It can be very disquieting, for some. And I respect that, I mean, I’m part of that.
Pissarro: Yes, this era is quite peculiar, unlike anything we’ve known. But I do think this repositioning of norms and boundaries is fascinating, and if carefully driven, could lead to stimulating results.
Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.David Carrier
is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.Gaby Collins-Fernandez
Gaby Collins-Fernandez is an artist living and working in Brooklyn.