Interview: Maxwell Anderson on Museum Tower, Museum Technology, the Whitney, and New York’s Museum Dysfunction (Part 2)

It has been about a year since Maxwell Anderson became the director of the Dallas Museum of Art. We sat down with Anderson just before the end of 2012 for a conversation about the new initiatives he has launched this past year, as well as other topics affecting the DMA. Over the next few days, we’ll run this interview in three installments. In part two, Anderson and I discuss plans for a scientific collaboration between North Texas’ museums and universities, potential museum expansion, and why the director likes operating outside of the New York pressure cooker.

To read all the parts of the interview, go here.

FrontRow: Let’s talk about the big issue that continues to loom over the Arts District, Museum Tower. Do you see how it can be resolved?

Maxwell Anderson: I don’t think it’s the big issue. I think it’s an issue that’s dogging everybody, that’s challenging the Nasher greatly. But it is a solvable situation. As always in these situations, it comes down to money, and in Dallas, it’s not typically a big problem to figure out. But I don’t think we should be distracted by it in relation to the Arts District proper. I think it’s something that has to be solved, and it is a hair-on-fire emergency, but it shouldn’t prevent us from simultaneously doing other things.

FR: Can the DMA play a role in mediating and helping to find a solution?

MA: [Nasher Director] Jeremy [Strick] and I, we talk frequently. And it’s his and his board’s prescription that I want to follow. It’s not something I think is best, to go off on your own and try to help with. It’s a mounting pressure that has to be resolved, and if for no other reason than selling the units is going to be hard unless the building is seen as a beneficent place, not what it’s image is right now.

FR: Robert Stein is a key member of your team. He helped develop Art Babble when you were at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and he has led the DMA’s Friends + Partners programing. Are there other technology initiatives that are in the works?

MA: I think the visitor studies piece is critical, that’s what we’re going to be doing with the Perot Museum. We’re jointly hiring someone who is a visitor engagement specialist and working with them to understand how our respective institutions are offering life lessons to people and what we can learn from each other. As with everything, we’re going to be publishing online what we find; we will offer white papers and a less formal blog structure to share the mistakes and the opportunities. I think technology — Rob and I had an agreement long ago that we wouldn’t use that word more than necessary because it’s an obstacle, it gets in the way of whatever technology is meant to achieve.

I’m really excited about a scientific collaboration with the other art museums of North Texas, that will be embedded and will be technology, but it is working with universities and museums to build a scientific laboratory, which may be a bit extruded from one space — it may involve a few spaces. But it will be a place where we can do testing of works of art’s materials and methods on a chemical level, with gas chromatography and x-ray florescence and defraction. We don’t have that in Fort Worth or Dallas, and we need it. So Rob is helping spearhead this charge around building a consortium of the museums around a scientific initiative that will be based in the university systems, both UTD and UNT, and perhaps SMU, and really develop the first truly consortial scientific enterprise-level research space for us. We have the only fulltime paintings conservator in the area. (Claire [Barry] is halftime at the Amon Carter and Kimbell.) But that is not what we are talking about. We also want to add people in lab coats who are chemists and who have doctorates in chemistry and applied chemistry and analytical chemistry, and they’re working with grad students who never thought of conservation science as a career path. But that’s the path for a university connection.

So to me, yes, that’s technology, however, it’s not only about purely web-based. It’s instrumentation; it’s sharing results and publishing them in ways that benefit the field. I think that touches on a whole other series of ways we track progress. When we do a second version of the dashboard, we will have real time attendance, real time zip code analysis, real time badge issuance. Where are all these hundreds of thousands of members going to be? There’s a convention of seven thousand arts educators coming to Fort Worth in March, and I’m doing the keynote for it. So the plan is to get all seven thousand of them to join the DMA with their cellphones. And then they’ll go out to Phoenix and Miami, and they will all be DMA members.

FR: There has long been conversation about potentially expanding the DMA’s facilities, and now with the opening of the Woodall Rogers Deck Park, I’m wondering if there is a timeline to a potential renovation.

MA: No, there is no timeline. I think what I said during the search here, I was asked if I had an opinion about that. I would say you expand when you have to expand. You don’t do it when it is in vogue, which it was in the eighties and nineties. It is not in vogue anymore. I have a piece in Art Forum about the state of museums, and I go through every museum I know that is building right now. And there are a handful, but it is not the juggernaut that it was a few years ago.

We’re a big museum. We’re the twelfth biggest museum in the country. It’s huge and it is flexible. There is a lot of amplitude and longitude. So I don’t feel like we are up against it. I think you build because you get more collections, and I am certainly intent on doing that, whether it is the contemporary arts initiative or in other areas. And once you feel that pressure, it is easier to make a case that you have to make a home for this material. So I am very happy with the scale of the facilities today, and I’m much more intent on building our reputation, building our professional acumen, and building our collections. And once those three things are sailing along and I feel like we are going to lose staff if we don’t have more elbow room – or we are going to lose the energy because we can’t accommodate everything that we want to have programmatically and collection-based – that will be the time. I don’t know when that will be; I may not even be the director anymore.

FR: You mentioned the flexibility of the space, but are there aspects of the museum you would want to change if there was a renovation project?

MA: It lacks a coherent circulation program. The ramps are confusing to people. We need a vertical circulation approach where it is clear that you can go straight up and across. Even if there are not so much ramps, but inclinations and declinations. I don’t know if we need that, but it would make it a better experience for people. But in the short term we have to improve our way finding, and part of that is human beings need to be directing people. Because you can get lost here, which in some ways is a good thing. You can discover things you didn’t intend to see, and you are on a path to see something and you come across something you haven’t expected. But it is a huge undertaking, and it should only be done if there is enough motivation from all parties. I think there is a bit of donor fatigue from the Arts District, so it wouldn’t even be practical if we wanted to do it right now.

FR: It sounds like it wouldn’t be an addition, but a rethinking of the entire museum.

MA: It would have to be. Because the park presages a fresh thinking about access and opportunity to open up — and free admission and returning the museum to its original design. The reason that it was designed with a single long concourse is that it was free and you could just walk in from one end to the other. We are reestablishing that, but we simultaneously need to think about connecting across collections. And like most directors, I worry about the presentation of non-western art appearing to be segregated and its own world apart from the west — when certainly in the world today there is no segregation. But how do you show the arts of China after the Qing dynasty; do you segregate Chinese artists of the present in the contemporary galleries? Do you go down the road of thematic displays, which are typically incoherent? Now that is not focus.

FR: In the last year, you’ve hired a number of new people, but focused mostly on adding administrative positions. It seems like after you left the Whitney, at the IMA and now at the DMA, you haven’t really made changes to the curatorial staffs at the institutions you joined. Was that something that came out of your experience at the Whitney, to leave the curatorial teams in place?

MA: No. the Whitney, there was a large and lively misreading. The board and I had a retreat my first month on the job in which we mutually agreed that after 70 some years, it was time for the Whitney to have more than one curator responsible for the permanent collection. It was the only museum I had ever heard of where all the other curators did shows and traveled and whatever they wanted, but there was just one person responsible for the permanent collection. And I said, “Is that really what we should be doing?” It seems to me that we should have areas of expertise: pre-war, post-war, contemporary, video. And they all agreed. So I sat down with all the curators and said we are going to be doing this. What it actually meant was that some people were going to be promoted to be heads of areas — like pre-war, post-war — and others would remain curators, but without that single responsibility.

So two people resigned out of anger at that change, although we had talked about it before making it happen. So that’s what happened. I didn’t feel burned or anything else. I was surprised and flat-footed by the media response and the feeding frenzy because of those two well-connected curators who were miserable, as I was. It was the last thing I wanted to have happen. But the Whitney is always a place that is full of change. When David Ross came in people left; when Adam Weinberg came in, he exited all the curators I had hired. Didn’t see much written up about that. That is just part of tackle sport of the contemporary art world.

Here we actually have had some changes. Our longstanding Pre-Columbian curator, Carol Robbins, has retired and we are searching for a curator in Pre-Columbian. And we brought in Gabriel Ritter in contemporary, specifically in the post-war Japanese. Sabiha [Al Khemir], we brought on [as Senior Advisor for Islamic Art]. And we will be undoubtedly adding more people. So I think there has been a fair bit of change.

FR: Do you like working outside of New York?

MA: You are not being second guessed at every decision you make, every utterance you make in public, every event you show up or don’t show up for. And being in New York is also an inhibitor to creativity because of that judgment that is being rendered on every miniature move. And the competitive environment there, of so many museums battling it out for donors and the public and visitors and exhibitions, is a dysfunctional situation. I’m glad I did it. I don’t think it creates as full a three dimensional life as living here does. And having no direct competition as an encyclopedic museum – or in their case, three modern museums duking it out (four or five if you add DIA and the New Museum). It is hard to imagine that playing out very well.

It is really great to be in a huge city with the only public art museum in North Texas. That’s the other feature of it, we are a municipal of museum. The Kimbell and the Nasher and the Meadows and the Crow and the Modern and the Amon Carter: they are all private museums. In some ways they are not even in the same playing field. I ran a public art museum once before in Toronto. I thought it was great to be on the hook, to convince the provincial government and the people of the province of Ontario that we were representing them well. Dallasites, I don’t want them to take this place for granted. I want them to expect more and more from us and to be excited about what might happen next – and to show up, and argue and debate and enjoy and criticize and be important and relevant. And part of being relevant is being criticized, so I’m ready for that.

Image: A conservator at work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s studio (via).


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