Even More About MoMA and Money

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I spoke earlier today with John Elderfield, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, who wanted to elaborate on an episode that I mentioned in an earlier blogpost about the very imaginative compensation arrangements devised some years ago for MoMA Director Glenn Lowry, which came to light recently in the New York Times.

First some re-cap. When MoMA re-opened three years ago after its huge expansion, many people — I was one of them — were surprised that the first picture to greet you in the newly re-hung permanent collection was no longer Cezanne’s The Bather — a pivotal work that had long been in that important first position in the galleries — but a relatively secondary picture by Signac, a portrait of the writer Felix Feneon. That Signac happened to be from the collection of David Rockefeller. And Rockefeller happened to be one of three trustees whom we now know had quietly funded a trust that supplemented Lowry’s income by more than $5 million over a period of years.

So in my earlier post I wondered out loud what role if any Lowry might have played in the decision to hang so prominently a picture from the collection of one of his primary benefactors. And even if he had played no role, I wrote at the time, this would be a good example of how the trust could create appearances of conflict of interest.

Elderfield was in touch today to assure me that Lowry had no role in the Signac decision. “I had been pondering that whole issue of what had been on the wall facing the main entrance for a long time,” he said. “What I thought was really interesting about the Feneon painting was that he represented the audience for art. He was a critic, a writer.”

The important point here is Elderfield’s assurance that the decision to substitute Signac for Cezanne was entirely his own. In fact, Elderfield told me, Lowry only learned of it when he saw the Signac placed prominently in a scale model of the galleries that Elderfield and his fellow curators were using as a way to play with ideas for re-hanging the permanent collection. I’m happy to take that on faith. I’ve interviewed John a few times over the years and have never had reason to doubt anything he tells me. (And by the way, he also didn’t insist or even ask me to publish this post with his version of events, though I asked for his ok to do it.)

That said, the problem of appearances remains exactly what I said it was last week. Now that we know about it, that complex and very quietly established fund will continually prompt people to ask questions about MoMA’s curatorial and acquisition decisions, to wonder if they might possibly be of benefit to any of the three trustees who compensated Lowry from their own pockets. Sometimes it’s just easier to be paid as openly and directly as possible.