In 2019, Glenn D. Lowry the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York was named the most influential person in the contemporary art world by British publication ArtReview. He’s the sixth and longest-serving director of MoMA and has overseen a US$450 million expansion and renovation of the museum, which has recently reopened to critical acclaim. Lowry will be in Singapore to give a talk on the future of museums on 17 January 2020. Here are some thoughts he shared with us ahead of the event, on modern and contemporary art in Southeast Asia, and the role of museums.
What do you think of modern and contemporary art museums in Southeast Asia?
I am impressed with the growing number of museums in the region devoted to modern and contemporary art, as well as the number of galleries and not-for-profit spaces interested in this field.
Do you have a favourite Southeast Asian artist or artwork? Or, is there a particular kind of Southeast Asian art that you enjoy or are familiar with? If so, please tell us more about it and why you like it.
There are many artists from Southeast Asia that I am interested in and have always found new artists that I was previously unaware of when I have been in Singapore and elsewhere in the region. I remember, for instance, seeing Dinh Q. Le’s The Farmers and the Helicopters at the Biennale in 2008 and being so impressed that we ultimately bought the work for MoMA.
How do you think social media (in particular, Instagram) has changed the viewing public’s expectations towards the art museum experience? Do you think these are good or bad changes?
I am not sure it matters at this point whether social media is a good or bad thing in terms of enhancing the experience of visiting a museum. It is a reality that is here to stay; the challenge is to find ways of working with it intelligently. From my perspective, social media enables an extraordinary range of connections to occur between anyone interested in the museum on-site and online, and those conversations can lead to a deeper and richer engagement that is important.
You’ve been referred to as “probably the most accomplished museum director in the field today.” What would you say has been your greatest professional accomplishment so far?
I am extremely proud of the staff we have brought together at (MoMA). Nothing that we have done, from building the new museum to expanding the collection and our public programmes, to reimaging how to interpret the collection, would be possible without their dedication and hard work.
Under your stewardship in 2017, MoMA reconfigured part of its permanent collection galleries to showcase contemporary art from the Middle East, making way, as was reported in this New York Times article, for the showcase of contemporary art from Iran, Iraq, and Sudan. This was said to be in response to Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel and rescinding visas for citizens of several majority-Muslim nations. Are those Middle Eastern works still on display, and what was the reaction from your various stakeholders when the museum took such a stand?
Work by some of the artists, like Ibrahim el-Salahi, who were highlighted in the 2017 installation is currently on view. The reaction to that installation and to this one was on the whole, extremely positive.
Following on from the previous question, do you think such an act was possible because MoMA is privately funded? Do you think the museum might still have been able to adopt such a stance if it were funded extensively by government agencies?
Although it was possible to read the installation as a political act, its impetus was to underscore the importance of artists from around the world to the making of modern art and to remind our audiences that we have always been a place that welcomed immigrants and refugees. These are issues that I believe any museum could address.
If you had to pick just one reason why modern and contemporary art museums are important, what would it be?
That is an impossible question to answer! But, for me, the importance of modern and contemporary art museums lies in their ability to enable the public to see and experience the art of our time–and through that art to engage with the most important issues and ideas of the day.
You’ll be speaking in Singapore about the future of museums and “the way in which a museum of the 20th century can transform into a museum for the 21st century.” Can you give us a brief preview of what the audience can expect?
My goal is to discuss at some length MoMA’s recent building program and to examine how and why we have radically changed the way we present our collection. In doing so, I hope to underscore what I see as some of the most critical issues which museums of modern art need to address.
The National Gallery Singapore’s Gallery Keynote | Reimaging the Modern: The Museum and the 21st Century by Glenn D. Lowry will take place on Friday, 17 January 2020 from 6:30 PM – 07:45 PM. Get your tickets here.
EDITORIAL UPDATE: The talk is now fully sold-out.