Lowry redefines modern art

Often misunderstood and generally underappreciated, the broad genre of modern art occupies an uncomfortable and largely inaccessible space in the cultural landscape. Glenn Lowry ’76, director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, expressed similar sentiments in his lecture, “Pursuing the Modern,” which he delivered to a packed audience in the Brooks-Rogers Auditorium on Monday evening. This lecture, the first in the Class of 1960’s Art Scholars of the art department lecture series “Art in 4 Dimensions,” was a compelling dialogue about both the MoMA and the state of the art world today.

After graduating from Williams, Lowry got his M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from Harvard University, and went on to work as a medieval Islamic art historian, published multiple books and served as director of several museums.

To Lowry, directing the MoMA poses a unique challenge of maintaining accessibility and relevancy for esoteric subject matter, allowing it to be “engaging and interesting to a local audience.”

In particular, he cited the difficulty of expressing the principles the MoMA is founded upon: “Modern art is every bit as important as art of the past,” he said. It is not only the collection that manifests this idea, Lowry said, but also the space where people see and experience the collection.

Initially, the MoMA had no competition in the market for modern art, and between the enthusiastic Rockefeller family and the brilliant Alfred Barr, the museum was able to collect a number of notable pieces that at the time were truly “progressive.”

Taking on the position of the sixth director of the MoMA in 1995, Lowry he said that being museum director at the beginning of a new century and a new millennium allowed him the liberty to redefine the definition of what art is “modern.” For his answer, Lowry quoted the mission statement of the MoMA, stating that modern art is “the progressive, the challenging and the difficult.”

This definition can be directly linked to four major changes in the art world, detailed by Lowry, all of which relate to diversification and expansion of modern art and its audience. First, there is no singular epicenter to the art world, but rather multiple locations where creativity flourishes and art originates.

Additionally, the audience for modern art has grown so much as to double the number of visitors to the MoMA since the beginning of Lowry’s tenure as director.

Lowry also attributed the increasing popularity of modern art to fairs that encourage flexibility in appreciating the artwork, as well as the mobility of artists to have a more global perspective in their creations. The combination of these factors has resulted in museums like the MoMA trying to appeal to these audiences and provide them with a more diverse and “non-hierarchical” experience.

In this shifting world, Lowry sees the MoMA’s role as that of a “disruptive innovator” that must strive to stay current and open to change. “If the MoMA is going to remain disruptive as an institution, it’s only going to do so by being willing to [. . .] undermine its own core ideals,” Lowry said.

Because, as he explained, “it is the present which informs our understanding of the immediate past,” museums need to “make space, intellectually and physically” for new art in a way that does not diminish the importance of what was achieved in the past.

In order to do this, Lowry said, “the very space of the museum needs to be rethought to make room for these new ways of thinking.” Ultimately, Lowry expressed his hope to the audience that the MoMA will remain a place where art and its audience can have a “fair exchange” – a place where “the viewer has to come to his or her own terms with that object, and the object makes the best argument for itself.”

Lowry ended his talk by quoting a remark of Gertrude Stein: “A museum can either be modern or a museum but not both at the same time.” “Our challenge,” Lowry encouraged the audience, “is to prove her wrong.”

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