Hey! What’s the Big Deal at MoMA?

At about 5:40 on Friday, May 19, Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry strode out onto the West 53rd Street sidewalk in front of the museum and stood before an assembled group of its striking employees. According to those who witnessed the scene, a smirking Mr. Lowry raised his arms and began to chop the air in front of him as if he were an orchestra conductor leading the angry, cacophonous rabble.

It was not the first time that striking union workers from the Professional and Administrative Staff Association of the Museum of Modern Art had been treated to a Leonard Bernstein impression courtesy of Mr. Lowry, the 46-year-old head cheerleader and fund-raiser for the museum’s $650 million expansion, set to break ground next year and slated for completion in 2004.

As one striking employee remembers it, back in 1996, the last time that PASTA-a hodgepodge union that includes junior curators, bookstore clerks, librarians and educators-couldn’t manage to negotiate a satisfactory three-year contract with Mr. Lowry and MoMA management, the strikers staged a one-day walkout, and Mr. Lowry, just a year on the job, came out to the same sidewalk with his imaginary baton. Three years later, PASTA is on strike again, this time since April 28, trying to negotiate more pay, the right to negotiate the health care package and mandatory union dues payment for any future hires, but Mr. Lowry does not seem to hold the strikers in any higher regard.

“Essentially, it’s like a dog coming out and looking for a fire hydrant to … mark his territory,” Michael Cinquina, a shaggy-haired book buyer and 13-year veteran of the museum, said of Mr. Lowry’s antics, which strikers said have also involved a periodic “cock walk” in front of the picket lines and an occasional heated exchange with strikers.

“He’s burning off any credibility he once had among our professional staff,” Mr. Cinquana said. “Glenn’s going to be here to open the new museum. He’ll take his bows, and then he’s heading off for C.E.O.-ville. Then they’ll bring in a real director.”

Mr. Lowry may not bear any resemblance to the gentleman directors of the past, especially not MoMA’s effete founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., who in the 1940’s was himself kicked out of the directorship when he couldn’t make the trains run on time. Mr. Lowry is, rather, the museum director of the future, a Robo-director you might say, transforming the institution from a museum with an identity crisis and a balkanized collection of strong-willed curators into a streamlined, cash-fueled museum for the 21st century.

Just call it McMoMA.

Art means surreal amounts of money these days, and Mr. Lowry has been resculpting MoMA so that the museum gets its fair share. He has hired a crack marketing team at private-sector salaries and has chosen to oversee projects that include building a Philippe Starck-meets-Amazon.com art and design Web store, and renting part of the museum’s art collection to a billionaire Japanese real estate mogul.

More sketchy is MoMA’s recent decision to deaccession its 1913 Picasso, Man with a Guitar , in order to raise funds for new art. The sale caused a minor controversy when museum officials discovered that one of MoMA’s own board members, Condé Nast owner S.I. Newhouse Jr. was interested in purchasing the painting for $10 million. MoMA reportedly has a rule against such a potential conflict of interest, and Mr. Newhouse, choosing art over prestige, quietly quit the board.

Art dealer Richard Feigen, who is familiar with the work that Mr. Newhouse acquired, told The Transom: “It’s an important picture. I haven’t seen it in years, but it’s a major synthetic Cubist Picasso.” Mr. Feigen added that if the painting is “in good condition,” Mr. Newhouse got it cheap. “But then again I paid $11 million at auction for a 1909 Picasso. They may have been using this as a guidepost.”

Mr. Lowry turned down several interview requests from The Transom, but other MoMA officials and art-world denizens were willing to discuss his five-year stewardship of the museum.

“I think he’s doing a good job,” Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes said, expressing about the same level of enthusiasm that one would use when recommending an accountant. “The director’s principal job is raising hoot,” by which Mr. Hughes meant money. “You raise hoot by scratching the backs of the rich. It has much more to do with fund raising than connoisseurship in the old sense. For connoisseurship, you have the curator. The director is the dude who pulls it all together. It seems that Lowry is doing pretty well in this department, and I know it sounds like a lukewarm endorsement-I’d like to be able to lay my ears back and say, ‘Oh, my God, Lowry’s got the greatest eye since [Picasso's dealer Daniel-Henry] Kahnweiler!’ But that’s not quite the question anymore.”

It took quite a while for MoMA to unearth The Dude Who Pulls It All Together. Back in 1992, MoMA trustees decided that with all of the fund-raising and administrative drudgery, the job of director was becoming too big for then 60-year-old MoMA director Richard Oldenburg. Mr. Oldenburg quit rather than share the helm with a proposed paid president position. The board then embarked on a messy 14-month search that involved offering the job of director to at least five of the greatest minds in the art world-including Tate Gallery director Nicholas Serota, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ Peter Marzio, the Art Institute of Chicago’s James Woods and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Anne d’Harnoncourt, daughter of former MoMA director, René D’Harnoncourt. They all turned it down.

Eventually, the board decided to set its sights a little lower, and rather than hunt down dream candidates, interview those who actually wanted the job.

Nobody seemed to want it more than Mr. Lowry, a Williams College graduate with transparent blue eyes that striking workers have taken to describing as “reptilian.” He is a former college downhill racer and Harvard Ph.D. from Williamstown, Mass. At the time he came to the attention of MoMA’s board, Mr. Lowry was the director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which, though a perfectly respectable museum with a sizable collection of Henry Moore sculptures, may as well have been the Sheboygan Museum of Crafts as far as the New York art world was concerned.

But Mr. Lowry had overseen an ambitious expansion in Toronto, and when faced with huge budget cuts, did what he had to do, and laid off more than half of the staff.

There was at least one drawback. At Harvard in the late 70’s, Mr. Lowry had written his dissertation on Islamic Art. Of the more than 100,000 works of art in MoMA’s collection, not a single one is Islamic.

Still, there was something about Mr. Lowry. “He didn’t shine anybody on,” said Kirk Varnedoe, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture (and by most accounts, the man who acts as MoMA’s chief aesthete). Mr. Varnedoe remembered that when the search committee asked Mr. Lowry to name a building, a museum director and a program that he admired, he knocked them dead with his answer. “He said, ‘You can’t name a director without asking for what institution at what moment in its history. No form of governance is perfect for every institution at every period of time.'”

“I had friends say to me ‘Islamic art?'” said John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator at large. “My answer was always that on the level that Glenn operates, it has to do more with the general lessons of art rather than the specific lessons.”

Just as soon as Mr. Lowry took MoMA’s reins, he began revising how the old place was run. First, he created six deputy director positions. These executives would essentially operate as vice presidents do in a Fortune 500 company.

Before, MoMA had been almost solely controlled by the chief curators of the departments, who operated as warlords, jealously vying for gallery space in the museum, and seldom speaking to one another. But the power resided with them.

That all changed with Mr. Lowry-at least judging from salary information filed in the museum’s tax returns for fiscal years 1996 through 1998. In June 1995, Mr. Lowry made his first appointment, Michael Margitich as deputy director for development. According to MoMA’s tax return for fiscal year 1996, Mr. Margatich surpassed Mr. Elderfield, the chief curator at large, as the highest paid employee at the museum other than the officers.

By 1998, Mr. Elderfield, who that year earned $173,725, had fallen to fifth on the list, behind the fund-raiser guy, Mr. Margitich ($209,408); the money guy, chief financial officer James Gara ($200,784), who once was paid less than Mr. Elderfield, but received approximately $52,000 in raises between fiscal years 1996 and 1998; the physical-plant guy, director of the museum expansion William Maloney ($223,900); and even the tchotchkes guy, deputy director for sales and marketing James Gundell. Mr. Gundell was poached from Bloomingdale’s in 1997, where he was a senior vice president and “merchandising manager” for the department store.

Mr. Varnedoe, with his 1996 salary of $146,042, never made the list of five highest paid employees after that year. If remuneration can be any indication, Mondrian and Miró are taking a back seat to Money at MoMA.

At least among the curatorial staffs, there were a few raised eyebrows. “When Glenn hired the guy from Bloomingdale’s, it went around the building like wildfire,” said one curator who chose not to strike. “You don’t get some guy from Bloomingdale’s to come manage your Italian city-state. It was a knock on the head again, some crass corporate entity coming in.”

Maxwell Anderson, who was at Harvard with Mr. Lowry, followed him as director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and has raised some eyebrows of his own since he became director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, defended his colleague’s decision. “Museums have to be competitive in hiring people who can manage multimillion-dollar businesses, and the salaries that museums pay are now in a marketplace,” he said. “Before, museums could pay capable people to work for less money. It’s a general issue in American society, not just in museums.”

But if the chief curators are holding grudges against Mr. Lowry over their fat-cat business-school brethren, they’re certainly not showing it. Messrs. Varnedoe and Elderfield contend that Mr. Lowry, by holding weekly meetings with the heads of the curatorial staffs, has served to unite a frequently fractious museum. “It’s basically the old fiefdoms,” said Mr. Elderfield who has been at the museum since 1975, “but the difference is basically that all the warlords now sit down at the same table.”

Some say that Mr. Lowry had his first real chance to act like one of those highly principled directors of yore when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tore into the Brooklyn Museum of Art, promising he was going to do his best to croak public funding for the museum’s “sick stuff” in the Sensation show. After the Mayor threatened to evict the museum on Sept. 23, Mr. Lowry-whose museum houses scores of artists considered controversial in their times, but which was also was depending on a one-time $65 million dollar city grant for MoMA’s expansion construction project-was curiously silent.

Only after Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello wrote an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times on Oct. 9, excoriating the Sensation work, but defending the Brooklyn museum’s right to show it, did Mr. Lowry speak. He wrote his own Op-Ed eight days later, a measured, question mark–laden essay that simply lamented that “one of the most disturbing aspects … is the hostility to contemporary art that [the Sensation controversy] has elicited.”

Mr. Anderson, who spoke out against the Mayor at a Whitney fund-raiser the day the Brooklyn museum fell under attack, again rushed to defend his old school chum. “It’s risky to put yourself in another man’s shoes,” he said. “He had an enormous city grant riding on that, and it’s easy to do back-seat driving.”

In the last couple of years, even in the midst of MoMA’s $650-million expansion project, which will take three years and swallow up the old Dorset Hotel on West 54th Street, Mr. Lowry has found time to put Team Marketing to work to extend what the corporate types at MoMA have taken to calling “the MoMA brand.” There are the upsides: Mr. Lowry announced in February 1999 that MoMA would begin what he called “a merger” with P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, a plan that would allow the museum to curate and show contemporary work in a way that it never could on West 53rd Street, which is chock full of work from canonical, mostly dead modern artists.

But then there are the other ideas, the ones that museum purists think are a little, well, sucky. There’s the Mori Art Center project in Tokyo, which breathily promises in a press release: “World’s Tallest Museum to Crown One of Japan’s Largest Skyscrapers.” For an undisclosed price, MoMA curators will consult on the museum, and lend it pieces from MoMA’s permanent collection. The museum is named after Minoru Mori, the largest developer in Japan, who is building the 54-story tower and complex, which will also house a Hyatt, apartment towers, restaurants and a movie theater. MoMA defenders say that the relationship is a cultural exchange, much like the one Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has established with the Foundation for the Arts in Nagoya, Japan. Others are more wary, saying that MoMA, for a chunk of change, has volunteered to be the anchor tenant in a vertical mall.

“The Nagoya thing was different,” said Charles Stuckey, the senior curator at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, and a vocal critic of some of the ways that museums are scaring up cash. “Now this,” Mr. Stuckey said. Then his voice trailed off.

Then there is MoMA’s recent announcement that it was partnering with Mr. Serota’s Tate Gallery to start a for-profit Web site. A press release promised that the institutional duo will “establish the premier destination on the Internet for individuals to access, understand and purchase the best in modern art, design and culture.” The “purchase” part of the equation promises to include “design objects and furniture, books and media, customized art tours, ticketing for arts events and educational courses.” Mr. Lowry has stated that starting a MoMA for profit will be perfectly kosher: that all the appropriate fire walls will be set up between the museum and the site, and that the revenue from the site will benefit the museum, not its employees or board members. The financing-said to be in the neighborhood of $50 million-will, however, be provided by an unnamed “small group of Trustees, who have made philanthropic contributions in order to start the company,” even though philanthropy and for-profit e-commerce seem incongruous to some in the art world.

Mr. Stuckey sighed when contemplating it. “Without being overly critical of a great institution like MoMA, I’d be a lot happier if they could explain to me how couches fit into their goal as an educational institution,” he said.

If the furniture sells, and the lucre starts funneling into the museum, at least one group of people should be happy: the trustees. As far as Mr. Lowry’s job is concerned, they are the only people that he really needs to keep happy. Ronald Lauder, for one, gave $4.9 million to MoMA from July 1994 to June 1998; Agnes Gund and her husband Daniel Shapiro chipped in $8.7 million. (Neither Ms. Gund nor Michael Ovitz, another MoMA trustee returned The Transom’s phone calls.) And S.I. Newhouse? Mr. Newhouse did manage to score an important Picasso, without, according to the Wall Street Journal , completely severing his relationship to the museum. (A MoMA representative told the paper that the Condé Nast owner would remain “active with the museum in an as-yet-undetermined role.”) But in the Journal’s report that Mr. Newhouse had resigned from the MoMA board, Mr. Lowry told the paper that Mr. Newhouse’s relationship with the museum was “warm but distant,” a comment that, to some art-world insiders, sounded like Mr. Lowry had broken out his baton again.