Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tyrants will fall?

Late yesterday afternoon I saw the Carole Vogel article (link is below), announcing the departure of Thomas Krens, in my email inbox and I must say I was surprised. Vogel is a bit like PRAVDA, she announces the things museums want to announce, yet she does raise questions from time to time. In any case, I thought Krens had dodged the bullet. Imagining the perspective of someone who had once lived under a dictator's yoke, I had waited for John Elderfield or better yet, Glenn Lowry to depart MoMA. The former is "retiring" while the latter has re-upped for FIVE more years. There are at last count at least two dozen museums seeking new Directors, so perhaps the MoMA trustees decided that the devil they know is better than.... Many observers had been convinced that Lowry was to go to the Met, but apparently the messy situation involving congressional inquiry into "bonuses" added to his obscenely huge paycheck scared off the museum. Recent conversations I have had on and off the record as well as articles about the recent history of both the Gug and MoMA have led me to begrudgingly question some of my, conventional, wisdom - the commas of course to indicate that I was parroting the prevailing artworld orthodoxy.

What if, as many claim, Lowry was brought in to clean house? If his authoritarian methods and the ruthless back-stabbing, paranoia, territorial competitiveness and lack of collegiality that prevail in some (but not all!!!) curatorial departments since he joined the museum are actually a reaction against his efforts to change the Museum's culture, and not an outgrowth of his highly hierarchical corporate management model? On the one hand, the museum has become more and more corporate, but one could argue that so have most museums, and this one is the most powerful so by extension it should be the most corporate, especially given the Forbes 500 composition of its board. Might some of this corporate re-organization be part of his mandate to make the museum more centralized and to dilute the power of individual Chief Curators (who many have compared to dictators of small Eastern Bloc nations) by creating a massive layer of middle-managers in administrative departments that are organizationally above the curatorial departments like some kind of bureaucratic superstructure?

And what about Krens? Hated for his crass corporate rhetoric and brash marketing strategies designed to promote the museum as a global franchise, despised for popularly-successful exhibitions and financially risky undertakings, other museum curators and directors gleefully cited him as the example of the ethical quagmire museums have become. But might he have been, with all of his admittedly problematic fiscal tactics, a convenient scapegoat for those who perhaps with more subtlety, emulated many of his activities? Have not most museums privileged crowd-pleasing exhibitions over other programming? And what is wrong with crowd-pleasing exhibitions, if they are also scholarly as is the case with many organized by the Guggenheim. For every "Art of the Motorcycle" you have a "Russia!" or a "Norman Rockwell" and many others that shed light on less examined areas of art history that other museums ignore. And as far as the fiscal issues: many museums have created branding/franchising agreements with museums abroad? MoMA and Mori to cite just one, and Vogel mentions the Tate and Louvre's recent activities as well, are examples of such agreements, and look at what is happening in the UAE..... Krens was perhaps too transparent, by using words like "branding," his arrogance led him to be brash, but isn't it better to see someone be frank about their strategy over the hypocrisy demonstrated by many other museum directors doing similar things?

What about the Guggenheim's scholarly focus, survey and historiographic exhibitions featuring their collection and the institutional history of the museum? Few talk about those programs which may attract less critical attention or even perhaps attendance, but one could argue that their curators have more opportunity to work with and research their collection than the hypercompetitive, hierarchical and scleorotic MoMA, whose collection after MoMA 2000 has gone back to business as usual? There, junior curatorial staff no longer get the chance to curate small shows from the collection, thereby learning more about it and being mentored by senior staff. The focus is largely on temporary shows, although there is now an emphasis on collecting contemporary art, by which they mean, as they do when they program Projects (formerly created to showcase emerging artists) "artists that appear in Chelsea and in the art fair/biennial circuit." Where are many of the works that appeared in Robert Storr's brilliant "Modern Art Despite Modernism"? Where are works by US artists from the 1930s - 1940s that are figurative? Where are the Latin American works that don't fall into the new canon of Southern Cone abstraction?

Interestingly, the situation inside these museums is not known to the general public and falls outside the scope of most art writers. Who cares about the rank and file museum workers? What about the strike at MoMA? Has anyone thought to follow up on the status of workers since? The rates of promotion, or lack thereof? The fact that most entry-level curatorial staff (women by and large) are now apparently let go after 3 years as a way to keep to the letter of the union contract, intended originally to protect staff that had gone years without evaluations leading to promotion, but now means there is no chance of a promotion.

At the Guggenheim, however, staff are apparently evaluated annually, not just by their supervisor, but by colleagues, and they have a chance to respond. They are regularly promoted, and have opportunities to curate even at junior levels. So ironically, at the evil, corporate, mercenary, dysfunctional Guggenheim, staff are treated with respect and there is a level of collegiality across the board that is found at MoMA only in small pockets of the institution.

So ironically, I now wonder, is it a bad thing or a good thing that Krens goes and Lowry stays?

Guggenheim’s Provocative Director Steps Down
Published: February 28, 2008
The move comes three years after Thomas Krens won a showdown with the foundation’s biggest benefactor.

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