Q&A with Glenn Lowry, Director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art

March 21, 2013

Director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Glenn D. Lowry, was in Amman this week to deliver a talk at the Columbia University Middle East Research Center. 7iber‘s Sulafah Shami sat down with him for a Q&A on the role of museums in our modern time, and the challenge of creating a dynamic space that engages the public. Lowry, who is a former curator of Islamic Art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington DC, talks about Arab contemporary art that the MoMA has been interested in and examines cultural imports in the Middle East.

(Interview photos by Hussam Da’ana)

In a talk yesterday, Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury said he thinks some museums are cultural cemeteries. What do you think?

The risk of a museum is that it’s always a place where art goes to die, that’s what artists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century accused museums of being. And there’s a logic to that because the predicate of a museum is that it’s permanent and so when a work of art enters the museum it becomes frozen in time and place. I think the whole premise of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and of museums of modern art in general is that they should be places of lively encounter rather than cultural cemeteries and that they’re constantly changing and constantly evolving. And the way to do that and ensure that art is catalytic as opposed to dead is to make these institutions art-centric, that is to concentrate on the artist who made these remarkable objects and to think about ever new ways of engaging the people with ideas of the artists whose objects we have on display.

(C) Marcel Wenzel info@aktuellekamera.deHow do you engage the people and move beyond just merely viewing art?

That’s a central question that we’re thinking about and it’s actually I think the most important question today, certainly in American museums and maybe in museums everywhere in the world. If you think about a traditional experience in the museum, you come in, it’s a nice place, a work of art is placed on a wall, and it’s a very passive relationship. What we’re trying to do is create a very dynamic participatory relationship and to recognize that there are many different ways to look at art. In fact, there are many different ways to create art, and some of the most interesting art created today involves audiences in making the art; it’s not simply something that’s finished and delivered but something that is participatory and ever-evolving. And I think of Roman Ondak’s ‘Measuring the Universe’ and Marina Abramović performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art and Guillermo Calzadilla’s ‘Ode to Joy’, all of these are events in which the audience is invited to participate in the creation of the art itself, and that kind of dynamic creates a very rich relationship between people, artists and objects, and the museum then becomes a kind of arena, a forum, in which these experiences can happen.

What do you think of art coming out of the Arab world, and Arab art that has been showcased at the MoMA?

So there’s a great deal happening today throughout this region, whether we’re talking about Lebanon, Jordan, North Africa, Egypt, the Gulf states, Turkey, and we’ve been trying to follow that carefully. We are about to do a major retrospective of the work of Walid Raad, Lebanese artist, but have [also] been collecting the works of artists like Wael Shawky, a young Egyptian artist. I’m quite interested in the work of Oraib Toukan, who I think is showing here at Darat al-Funun. You know many parts of the world you have to pay a great deal of attention to because there’s a tremendous amount of creativity taking place. There are local centers, like townhouse in Cairo or the Biennial in Sharjah, and now the Biennial in Istanbul, that are showcasing what’s going on in the region. There are a range of artists who have been working for decades who are making art techniques that are to be seen and understood, not just within a regional context but within a much larger context. I think that the challenge is to be up to speed with what’s going on, for me at least, what I’ve seen especially coming out of areas like Beirut are these incredibly intense centers where you’ve got not just artists like Walid, whose got an international reputation, but other artists like Rania Stephan who slides between fieldwork and installation pieces, and they’re making art that really needs to be seen and understood in an international context. I’m very excited about what’s going on.

I should also say that this is not new, there have been artists working in the region for centuries, and certainly the twentieth century saw a great deal of art being made here, largely in response to or in reaction to what was going on elsewhere in the world, but it has its own history and I think it needs to be written.

What is the process that goes into selecting what gets showcased at your museum?

So the MoMA does not try to become encyclopedic, in fact it has no interest in being . What we try to do is follow artists whose interests we think align with our own. And our interests grow out of the kind of radical changes that took place in the European art world in the late nineteenth century that then kind of moved across North America and largely Latin America. And today of course you have to have a global perspective, and so we’re always navigating through that complex territory but not trying to represent everything by everyone, everywhere. We have a large curatorial staff that travels around the world. We debate fiercely which artists to show, which artists to acquire and what works of art by those artists we need to have, and it’s a kind of a rolling conversation, it can sometimes take us months if not years to decide on whether to start collecting an artist. Somebody has to advocate for that artist and then you spend a lot of time doing research, developing dossiers and looking not just at that person’s first or second exhibition, but also tracking them over a period of time until you’re absolutely convinced that they need to be represented at the museum.

IMG_9535If you look at museums like the Louvre in the Abu Dhabi, what do you think of this phenomenon of cultural imports in the Middle East?

Well I think there are many different strategies for both exporting one’s interests and importing a set of ideas. I don’t particularly find the idea of buying culture like a brand that interesting. I think ultimately success lies in the confidence that your own culture and your own interests are sufficiently important to merit a great deal of attention and support. So, while I think it can be interesting to have exhibitions from one museum travel to another museum, the idea that somehow you can take an institution, whether it’s the Louvre or Guggenheim or any number of other places, and brand them into some kind of universal cultural experience strikes me as ultimately misguided because at the end of the day, a work of art either belongs in one place or another. It’s either in Paris or in Abu Dhabi, but it can’t be in both places at once. Therefore, I think there are more interesting ways to go about developing collections, programs and resources. But having said that, I don’t think there’s only one way to engage with culture and after all, there’s a long history of successful civilizations and countries acquiring – however they do so, by warfare, by purchase, by partnership – the artifacts of another culture. So it really has to do with finding the right mechanism to ensure a lively cultural debate is taking place in a given location. And so the kind of debates I’m interested in are not predicated on a kind of either an imperial transfer of power or a colonial structure, but they’re more about equals talking to each other.

What do you think of Egyptian archaeological antiquities for example, being held by museums across Europe such as the Louvre?

The history of colonialism and conquest is a very long one, it goes back not 500 years but thousands of years and there is a complicated agenda clearly that follows from empires that took material from other places. Now, that’s been going on throughout the Middle East for millennia, so the fact that Egyptian artifacts find their way to Paris is no different than Syrian artifacts finding their way someplace else in the Middle East a thousand years ago. Think of the great empires that populated this region and the wars they fought and the booty they took from each other. So I think it makes it complicated in the present to renegotiate what were formerly colonial relationships, and I think that part of what’s taking place throughout, especially the Gulf with the French, is looking how to build on a post-colonial kind of capital. But art has always moved around, and it moves around through trade, through conquest, through purchase, through gift, that’s what makes art. Forget where it goes, that’s what makes art so fascinating.