Tuesday, February 20, 2007

MoMA and Museum Accountability

It was not a good weekend news cycle for Museums in the context of public accountability.

Stephanie Strom of the NY Times lambasted MoMA for its covert executive compensation scheme. According to the times, two MoMA trustees established an independent foundation for sweetening the compensation for Director, Glen Lowry. It seems odd to step outside the Museum's bi-laws and structure for compensation since it is the trustees themselves who define and approve salaries for the Director. What possible reason could the trustees have had for this action except seeking to obscure the size of the Director's compensation package as reported in the Museum's public tax record - its 990's.

This behavior sounds familiar doesn't it - like the various excessive compensation schemes, creative accounting, back-dating options and general tomfoolery that has run amok lately in the corporate sector. It would seem MoMA's latest gaff points directly to the sad thesis of Paul Werner's book Museums Inc. - that Museums are increasingly corporate and as a public institution have served their purpose in society and are now in decline.

The proof is in the pudding here - there is a cost to slipping Museum accountability. In another NY Times article, this one by Carol Kino, the newspaper explores the rising trend of private art museums. Wealthy collectors are abandoning the obscured decision-making and politics of major museums in favor of a more grassroots and democratic approach. In order to get their art collections to the public, individuals are creating their own galleries and spaces. One of the most insightful quotes here is that "this new crop of exhibition spaces suggests a power shift within the art world — one that is leveling the playing field between collectors and museum professionals, driving up art prices and allowing wealthy private citizens an ever greater say in terms of how their gifts will be used."

Who can blame these collectors?

Museums seem increasingly insulated from their public roots. As Modern Art Notes reported, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have chosen to host the privately-sponsored King Tut exhibition. The question of accountability here turns on the exhibit's educational and cultural significance. Tyler Green, like other art critics, claims "The AEG Tut show has no scholarly merit. It doesn't belong in a respectable art museum". So what then is it doing at a major museum? Where are the museum's executives and trustees in defending this decision?

It is disappointing, in both of these cases, that the mechanism for public oversight is silent. Trustees are meant to serve as the oversight and will of the public in insuring institutions are accountable and pursue their missions. At MoMA, Tyler Green has made some suggestions for first steps. Each of the suggestions, start at the very top of the institution.

While I agree with these steps, there is something more fundamental that needs to be achieved. Before the cycle of blame, finger-pointing, scape-goating and spin - these Museums need to engage the public in a full and transparent dialogue, and then seek to make amends. I would like to see these institutions embrace an executive blog. While this is perhaps not the most elegant or theatrical devices for social accountability, that's OK. They would be a start and one that would last beyond the initial binge and purge of PR cycles.

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