ArtsATL > Art+Design > Q&A: Directors Michael Shapiro and Glenn Lowry on MOMA/High program and “Fast Forward”

Q&A: Directors Michael Shapiro and Glenn Lowry on MOMA/High program and “Fast Forward”

MOMA's Glenn Lowry and the High's Michael Shapiro conduct a dialogue, "Modern Musings," on October 29.

The High Museum of Art’s “Fast Forward: Modern Moments 1913 >> 2013” is the latest in its ongoing collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It surveys the art and history of the past century by featuring clusters of artworks made in 1913, 1929, 1950, 1961 and 1988. The show was organized by MOMA drawings curator Jodi Hauptman and curatorial assistant Samantha Friedman along with the High’s David Brenneman and Michael Rooks.

We sat down with High Director Michael Shapiro and MOMA Director Glenn Lowry to discuss the themes of this exhibition and museum collaborations in general.

MOMA's Glenn Lowry and the High's Michael Shapiro will conduct a public dialogue, "Modern Musings," on October 29.

ArtsATL: How is this show different from last year’s “Picasso to Warhol”?

Michael Shapiro: “Picasso to Warhol” was a series of monographic galleries of 14 artists. It had a wonderful depth but also an orderliness. It was more easily digestible. As we were organizing it we were also planning “Fast Forward.” We knew we wanted to reflect the messiness of life, the multiplicity, the simultaneity that we experience every day. That’s really captured in this show.

ArtsATL: Some of the 20th century’s greatest hits are here, such as Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” from 1913, as well as lesser-known gems like the ink drawings by Dubuffet. And then there’s Sarah Sze’s new installation “Book of Parts.”

Shapiro: The Sarah Sze project is an opportunity that presented itself because of the collaboration. It led us to think about the artists of our own time. Now we have a relationship with a really great artist, and we’ll see if we want to purchase the piece for our collection.

Umberto Boccioni's "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" (1913, cast 1931), from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

ArtsATL: There are some really thoughtful choices and pairings. Can you talk about the installation?

Shapiro: One of the things I’ve heard from Glenn and others is that it’s been stimulating for our colleagues at MOMA to index, review and see their collection in new spaces and to structure it in new ways.

Glenn Lowry: Here you have de Kooning’s “Woman I” [1950-52] and Kenneth Noland’s “Turnsole” a decade later [1961]. We always think about de Kooning as such a radical artist, but if you think about what it took to get from de Kooning to Noland, that’s a pretty radical shift. Then you realize their colors aren’t that different, and you look around and think about how the Noland harks back not to the ’50s but maybe to Cubism and an earlier generation.

There are all these interconnecting, criss-crossing transgenerational lines. Artists are in constant dialogue with each other. That kind of juxtaposition would be hard to see at MOMA, because of the size of our collection. It would be many, many galleries and floors before you got to other periods.

ArtsATL: How were the works selected?

Lowry: Part of the pleasure of these projects is being able to work with colleagues in Atlanta. Instead of us selecting 33 paintings we think would be interesting, it’s much more interesting for Michael to say, wouldn’t it be fabulous if we had this Rothko [“No. 10,” 1950] or Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel,” which is actually a difficult piece. We’re thrilled to have it be part of a dialogue that connects with the Rauschenberg [“First Landing Jump,” 1961] that connects ultimately to Sarah Sze. There’s a trajectory through the century that’s unexpected.

ArtsATL: This is the High’s second multiyear collaboration with a major museum. How did it come about?

Shapiro: We did several exhibitions with MOMA in the 1990s, hosting “Matisse,” “Picasso” and “Pop Art,” all drawn from its collection, and in 2000 we did a focus show around van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Beginning in 2003, as we were planning the Louvre shows — which involved works executed prior to 1848, some even thousands of years ago — we thought that re-engaging in a new partnership would be the perfect contrast. We wanted a deeper level of engagement. We’ve come to believe that partnership and collaboration may be the way that we could become a truly great museum.

ArtsATL: Why do museums collaborate? There’s often a negative connotation associated with such shows, like that they’re used to prop up an inferior institution or to earn money for the source museum.

Lowry: I think that reveals an inherent New York-centric bias that is utterly myopic and doesn’t recognize the kind of cultural infrastructure we have in the United States and the role that major-collection shows play for the network of regional museums in this country. New York is the outlier, not the standard.

These exhibitions were developed as collaborations. They’re not the exporting of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection to Atlanta. They’re the result of an extensive and rich conversation about how to think about modern art in the context of Georgia, of Atlanta and the Southeast. The exhibitions may be driven by a curator at MOMA for the simple reason that she has immediate access to the works, but she’s in constant conversation with her colleagues here. The result is something that wouldn’t have happened in New York.

If you tried to mount this kind of exhibition independently of the Museum of Modern Art, it would be a monumental task in the same way that the Louvre exhibition would’ve been almost impossible to do if you were going to cherry-pick from a hundred different institutions.

Ashley Bickerton's "Tormented Self‐Portrait (Susie at Arles)" (1987‐88), also from the MOMA collection.

Shapiro: It’s not written in the Constitution that only some people in some cities should have access to great works of art. If you’re one of the, say, 300 million who don’t live in those three or four places, how do you get great art? If you don’t have $20 billion for acquisitions — even if you could actually buy these works of art — then you have to find another way. We brought 450 works here that had never traveled out of France, introducing to our region probably the best-known general museum in the world.

Because we’re a young city, if we can ignite people and form a foundation, a knowledge base, that people can build upon, whether in collecting or understanding or appreciating, then we’re building our own future. The masterpieces of today — if you can figure out what they are — are more accessible than those of the past. I welcome other avenues, if someone has another way.

ArtsATL: What are the benefits for each museum?

Lowry: From the outset, we talked about wanting to use this partnership not just to have a series of exhibitions but to have a conversation with collectors and younger audiences about the energy and excitement around art. That would lead to a culture of collecting that might not bear fruit for 25 years, but when it does will be very significant. It doesn’t matter if they go to New York or London to buy art, it’s that they feel a commitment to their community. The High is already a fantastic place with a good collection, but imagine what happens when people become determined to make it a spectacular collection. There’s no reason why Atlanta can’t emerge as one of a very small handful of major centers.

The presence here of a great Matisse, of the incredible crushed car of Cesar’s or Jasper Johns’ “Man Biting Painting” — these are weird, wonderful objects that ignite the mind. What you want is for somebody to turn to Michael and say, “Why don’t we have something like that?” That’s the moment you know you’ve got a collector who’s going to help you build. If these collaborations can instigate that, how good is that?

Shapiro: There is no question that there has been growth in staff wisdom, knowledge, experience and confidence. It’s just not a visible outcome.

A good example is an evening event we call Culture Shock, which was inspired by MOMA’s Pop Rally, which we didn’t know about until we were engaged with them. We developed a program that gets a few thousand young people here at a time. Discussions about how to build younger audiences are happening in many museums across the country. This partnership with MOMA is a key strategy for us and has been effective so far. The average age of our attendees dropped last year from 46 to 41.

ArtsATL: “Picasso to Warhol” was a huge success and I assume “Fast Forward” will be as well. How does attendance for “Picasso to Warhol” compare to High shows like the Radcliffe Bailey survey?

Shapiro: “Picasso to Warhol” was very substantially attended. It’s our fifth-top-grossing show. Three Louvre exhibitions and the Chinese terra-cotta warriors round out the top five. Radcliffe is a local hero, a great artist. But it’s apples and oranges. We didn’t consider those as attendance drivers but as great projects.

ArtsATL: How is this project different from a typical loan exhibition?

Lowry: It is substantially different on a couple of fronts. One, it’s a program not an exhibition, so we didn’t think about “Fast Forward” or “Picasso to Warhol” as separate shows. We thought about a series of exhibitions over the arc of three years that address a variety of issues.

Two, most loan exhibitions originate with a curator and an institution and are either appealing or not appealing to another party. The High exhibitions started with conversations about what would work and how can we do it. Beyond that there was the professional exchange, of whatever knowledge we had about marketing, communication, younger audiences, development.

The collaboration’s most external manifestation might be an exhibition, but underneath it is deep institutional bonding that will continue long after these exhibitions terminate. The High will have access to MOMA because of the network of friendships that have been built up, which would be very difficult if we knew each other only on a casual basis. We’ve also built reciprocal programs for our members.

ArtsATL: Such as?

Shapiro: At the Patron and Circle membership levels, you can just show your High card and get free admission to MOMA.

ArtsATL: Has MOMA engaged in similar collaborations with other museums?

Lowry: We’re in the midst of an analogous one with the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth. Prior to the High partnership, we wouldn’t have even thought about it. But it made us realize that it’s a lot more interesting to work with one institution for three or five years than it is to go to 20 places and do 20 exhibitions that really don’t have any afterlife.

I think it’s part of our mission at MOMA to build a culture that’s interested in and committed to modern and contemporary art. You don’t do that by giving one lecture or sending one exhibition. You do it by building something that’s embedded in the community, where people feel invested emotionally and intellectually in what’s going on.

I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than if Atlanta decided that the Sarah Sze installation had to be here. That would mean that this partnership had resulted in enough of a newfound commitment to contemporary art and living artists that they’d end up with what, from my perspective, is one of Sarah’s most interesting works to date. You do that enough times and suddenly you have an amazing collection.

Marcel Duchamp's "Bicycle Wheel" (1951, third version, after the lost original of 1913), from the MOMA collection.

ArtsATL: Do you think this kind of collaboration will become an industry standard?

Shapiro: I think so. The Louvre and MOMA models are resonating with our colleagues.

ArtsATL: It’s certainly not like the Guggenheim’s expansionist model.

Lowry: It’s a fundamentally different approach. The Guggenheim is about branding and is driven by a totally different set of factors. Instead of looking to have a city create a museum to be branded by an identity, this is about working with existing institutions that have their own histories, their own communities, their own boards. It’s about figuring out how we can work together in a way that will be beneficial to you, that will be interesting to us, and that will have a lasting impact within the community — but the responsibility to build on that lies with Michael and the High. If we can catalyze conversations, that’s far more interesting than collection management, which is what some of these other relationships become.

But I don’t think there’s any one model. It’s interesting in the contemporary world at the moment that there are many different models of how to work together, and how institutions that are collection-rich can find ways of engaging institutions that are not as collection-rich, because we have a responsibility to share the works we have with the largest possible audience. MOMA can never show as much as we’re fortunate enough to own. This is one way of doing that, a way that I hope is constructive for the High.

“Modern Musings.” Shapiro and Lowry will speak at 7 p.m. October 29 in the Alliance Theatre. $10 for members; $15 for non-members; $5 for students with valid ID. Following the dialogue, bring your ticket stub to view the exhibition with Shapiro and Lowry. Tickets are available through the Woodruff Arts Center box office at 404-733-5000. 

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