In advance of The World in 2011, a 3-day event organized by The Economist, and taking place Dec. 2 - 4 in New York, I spoke with Glenn Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on the past, present, and future of the institution, non-profit leadership, and measuring success in a cultural enterprise.
An excerpt of the interview is below, while the full interview can be found here.
Rahim Kanani: What's the relationship between MoMA and the nation, and between MoMA and the world?
Glenn Lowry: I think we've been fortunate enough over the decades to have acquired the finest collection of modern art in the world, and by modern I mean both modern and what today we would call contemporary. So it immediately places us as a national and an international institution. And because so many of our exhibitions and publications are seen and read by so many people, and in the case of exhibitions also travel to other venues, they become touchstones for conversations about modern and contemporary art, It makes us one of the handful of museums of modern art that operate in a truly international arena.
Rahim Kanani: As a leader of a non-profit arts and culture institution, what are some of the unique challenges you face?
Glenn Lowry: Over the last couple of years, anyone involved in a cultural enterprise has had to deal with recalibrating in an environment of substantially diminished resources and flat growth. In this kind of situation you can either turn the process of re-calibrating into a painful financial exercise that's all about eliminating or diminishing programs, or you can turn that into an intellectual exercise about rethinking about how you work, and use the process to become a more efficient, more strategic organization that takes advantage of this new environment rather than is crippled by it. I hope we've managed to do the latter rather than the former.
It's been a lot of work. There is a tremendous effort that has to go into how you staff and organize yourself in a flat environment, how you support what is a very expensive operation, but I actually believe we are a better institution today than we were three years ago because we are more focused and clear about what we must achieve, we talk more to each other, and we are more open with each other about what works and what does not.
Rahim Kanani: In terms of measuring success, and not just in terms of counting visitors, but what are some of the other indicators or metrics you use to gauge how well you're performing?
Glenn Lowry: Attendance, while it is always interesting to know, is not ultimately a particularly satisfying barometer in terms of what we do. So we try to look at information from a qualitative perspective; what did people actually think while they were at the museum? Were we successful in conveying a difficult or complicated idea? Were we successful in taking something that people take for granted and making it suddenly seem unfamiliar and new? Were we successful in taking something that was difficult and unknown and making it engaging and known? We look at, and think about, how our exhibitions and programs have been received not only by our general public, but by more specialized publics, whether they are academics or artists or critics.
The full interview can be found here.