Uh Oh

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The New York Times has a front page story today that’s going to rock New York’s Museum of Modern Art for some time to come. It appears that MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry, who is already one of the best paid museum officials in the U.S., was even better paid than we knew. For more than eight years he was also getting compensation from a fund created by two of the museum’s trustees, David Rockefeller and Agnes Gund, and supported by them, by another trustee, Ronald Lauder and by David’s late brother Laurance.

According to the Times, the fund, which paid Lowry a total of $5.5 million betwen 1995 and 2003, was described by MoMA in its IRS filings in ways that obscured its main purpose, which was, well, to quietly funnel money to the museum’s director. Lowry’s acknowledged salary, bonus and benefits for the year that ended June 30, 2005 was already $1.28 million.

It takes money to tempt museum directors into the high cost world of Manhattan. (Lowry came to MoMA from Toronto, where he had been director of the Art Gallery of Ontario.) The question involved here is not so much about whether the museum was right to sweeten Lowry’s compensation package. It’s about whether they structured the payout in ways meant to conceal it. For one thing, that would raise questions about whether Lowry was quietly beholden to museum trustees who are also major collectors. Which in turn could raise other questions, for instance, about decisions the museum makes about which works to highlight in its exhibitions or permanent collection, especially works or artists that might be important to those collectors.

According to the Times, the trust, which was given the innocuous name the New York Fine Arts Support Trust, filed tax forms describing its purpose as support for “charitable and fine arts organizations in the New York City metropolitan area.” Hmmm.

We can expect to hear more from MoMA and Lowry in the days to come about all this. We had better.