Q&A: Glenn Lowry, MoMA Director

Crazy about our city's most renowned modern-art museum? Here's the guy to thank. (You can also thank him for that $20 admission fee.)

Glenn Lowry
Glenn Lowry

Photo: Dan Eckstein

Glenn Lowry, 53, has helmed the Museum of Modern Art since 1995. While the world has seen a glut of modern and contemporary institutions built in the interim, MoMA is still the original, against which all other such places are measured. On Lowry’s watch, the museum undertook the largest expansion in its history (completed in 2004) and merged with Queens’ P.S.1. Last week, TONY visited the director in his book-lined office to hear about life at the top of MoMA—and to find out where our Jacksons are going.

What exactly do you do, anyway?
Glenn Lowry: It’s essentially strategic thinking. My role is to oversee the relationships of our staff to our trustees, which is very important—they provide a great deal of financial support and the oversight we need to think long-term. We plan major exhibitions three to five years in advance.

Do the trustees have any say in determining what the museum presents?
Glenn Lowry: No. What the museum presents is decided by me, though trustees have the final say on what works of art we acquire.

How do you think the new building has affected people’s experience of MoMA?
Glenn Lowry: The building has a lightness to it that feels like you’re in an ethereal environment. We wanted to make the experience focused on the art. I think the building has succeeded splendidly in that.

Not everyone agrees. In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl wrote that the expansion is “less a building than a life-size architectural maquette, in which you and I fill the roles of little figures.” How do you respond to that?
Glenn Lowry: When you create something as large and different as what we’ve done, it’s going to take everyone a while to settle down and feel comfortable with it. I expect it will take critics and visitors a while to really understand what the building has to offer.

MoMA has already announced a further expansion, as part of a next-door skyscraper designed by Jean Nouvel. Is there such a thing as too much expansion?
Glenn Lowry: Oh, for sure. We’re not thinking, Wouldn’t it be great to have more space? We’re thinking about which of our works not currently on view we would really like to have on view because they’d enrich the stories that we tell in the museum.

More space seems to encourage a trend of ever-larger installations. With blockbusters like the recent Richard Serra retrospective and the upcoming Olafur Eliasson survey, do you worry that there’s too much of an emphasis on huge shows?
Glenn Lowry: Certainly it’s something to think about, and we try to have a balance. We’re large enough so that we can do someone like Serra, and also a very quiet show like “Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings.” You want to show Serra at his best, which means devoting a tremendous amount of space to him, because that’s the nature of his work. Same with Eliasson. The point is not whether a work is spectacular or subtle, but whether you’re showing the most interesting artists, and showing their work well. That’s all that matters.

Admission price is another thing that’s expanded. You’ve gotten a lot of criticism for charging $20.
Glenn Lowry: It wasn’t an easy decision. Ultimately, we decided that having a balanced budget was critical to our success; we didn’t want to be one of those institutions that opened with enormous fanfare, and then as attendance started to fall off—which it always does—find ourselves in a financial hole. We figured out the lowest number we could use and still end up with a balanced budget. And we’ve literally had almost no visitor complaints. When we do, it’s always something about how they were expecting a painting that wasn’t there.

What does the ticket price cover?
Glenn Lowry: Other museums—like the Met—get significant contributions from the city that underwrite the cost of guards or electricity. Our budget is over $100 million, and the government funding that comes in is less than 1 percent. So we have to raise money to cover the cost of security, lighting, heating, cooling, exhibition production, salaries… All of that is covered by the admission fee.

Do you worry about a recession?
Glenn Lowry: I wake up anxious every day. We’re subject to a local audience, a national audience and an international audience. An inexpensive dollar is terrific for international tourism, but the U.S.’s restrictive visa policy has an adverse effect. Price increases on fuel means the cost of flying from California goes up. It’s a very delicate moment.

Your name was floated as a replacement for Philippe de Montebello, who recently announced his retirement from the Met. Would you be tempted to take another job?
Glenn Lowry: Not in the least. I’m honored that my name was mentioned, but I didn’t come here just to build a building. I came here to work with the staff on programs, exhibitions and acquisitions. From my point of view, it’s very early innings.

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