I enjoyed listening to Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art giving the inaugural Ann Lewis Contemporary Visual Arts Address at the MCA in Sydney last week.
I must admit part of the fascination was seeing the world’s highest paid museum director (a cool $1.3 million per year) in the flesh. And Glenn did not disappoint. He gave an entertaining history of MOMA from its founding in 1929 to the international colossus it now is, describing the challenges of collecting contemporary art.
A former director likened this process to that of a torpedo, always moving forward, gathering art at its front end and shedding art collected in the past that was not standing the test of time. To remain contemporary it only holds onto art that is less than 50 years old. Or that is what I thought Glenn said, though it still holds some of the greatest work of Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Mondrian etc. Not sure how that works but I can understand their reluctance to de-accession such works!
Glenn then moved onto his views on where museums are going. Nothing startlingly new I would say – museums increasingly being used as social spaces, museums no longer being able to go it alone and therefore needing to establish alliances/partnerships with other organisations, museums competing in cyberspace and the importance of building virtual visitors as well as the physical ones.
But it was when he turned to the metrics of MOMA that things got really interesting. Because MOMA is all about money – perhaps not surprisingly given its location. Glenn is building a US $900 million endowment, which currently stands at $670 million. That already generates 31% of their $120 million annual income, (bear in mind MOMA, like most US institutions apart from the Smithsonian, receive minimal government funding). 3 million visitors a year contributes a further 25% of income, followed by 15% of income from their 135,000 members.
By Australian standards these are all mind-boggling numbers, but then it is New York. I came away elated by the benchmark that MOMA sets, and invigorated by the dynamism of its director.
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