Friday, January 27, 2023 Jan 27, 2023
60° F Dallas, TX
Visual Arts

The Dallas Museum of Art Plays the Quiet Game After Maxwell Anderson’s Departure

The short, disappointing tenure of Maxwell Anderson.
By Peter Simek |
Full staff meetings at the Dallas Museum of Art are never called on the spur of the moment, but on September 28, around 9:30 am, word went out that everyone was to meet in Horchow Auditorium. The short warning about the meeting churned the museum’s rumor mill. There were already whispers that the museum’s board had held its own emergency meeting the previous Wednesday. A groundbreaking for the museum’s latest expansion set for that Monday had been postponed. Then someone noticed over the weekend that museum director Maxwell Anderson’s house was listed for sale on a real estate website, and the CV on the director’s personal website had been updated to show that he was the former Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art. The staff meeting could mean only one thing: just three and a half years into his high-profile tenure as the head of the city’s encyclopedic museum, Anderson was out.

The news shocked the art world. During his relatively short stint with the DMA, Anderson built a reputation as one of the most dynamic museum directors in the nation. Anderson instated a free admission policy that exploded attendance; secured major gifts of art, including a long-range loan of one of the best Islamic art collections in the world; created a much-needed conservation department; launched a digital publishing platform; and instituted a web-based membership initiative that was considered a model for how art audiences of the future would interact with museums. The dashing and daring, silver-tongued museum director with a flair for grand gestures and impeccably crafted press releases was, by all accounts, one of the best in the business.

Inside the museum, however, Anderson’s resignation was greeted not with shock but with a sense of relief. For nearly two years, staff members whispered about institutional dysfunction. Morale was low and turnover was high, they said. There was fear that Anderson’s programs were putting a financial strain on the museum, exhausting the development department. His administration was routinely characterized by museum employees as out of touch with day-to-day operations. There were stories of infighting, scapegoating, back-stabbing, backroom power plays, and a looming board revolt. Multiple sources—none of whom would agree to be quoted on the record—believed that Anderson, rather than boldly leading the DMA forward, was instead driving the museum toward a precarious future.

Anderson could not have arrived at the DMA with a better reputation. In fact, before he was hired, I used this space to argue that Anderson was the perfect director for the DMA. After all, he had somehow taken the Indianapolis Museum of Art, of all places, and put it on the international map by pursuing bold artistic programming, opening a 100-acre nature and art park, and even securing for the museum a chance to curate the U.S. pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

But the view from inside the Indianapolis Museum of Art wasn’t as it appeared from the outside. People familiar with Anderson’s tenure at the IMA describe it in a way that doesn’t sound too different from his time heading the Whitney Museum of American Art, where Anderson resigned after he alienated board members and created conflict within the administration. They describe an aloof administrator and a poor fundraiser with a legendary ego who strained staff in his efforts to implement grand, unsustainable visions.

“When he came in, he had total support on everything,” says Marty Radecki, a former IMA conservator who was involved with hiring Anderson. “Little by little, in about six months, things started to show up. He gets a few people around him that will do his bidding no matter what he says. As years went on, it became clear he was not a good money manager. Financially, he doesn’t care.”

Three weeks before his departure, I spoke with Anderson about many of the complaints people were whispering to me. In his characteristically cool-headed, eloquent, loquacious, and slightly condescending style, he fielded a litany of questions I had about the museum’s financial position, unrest in the development department, and overspending on programming. He reminded me that he grew the museum’s endowment and helped secure new sources of acquisitions funding, like a gift dedicated to helping expand the museum’s collection of Old Masters. Turnover, Anderson said, was no more severe than in previous tenures, and funds have been raised from the O’Donnell Foundation and Kosmos Energy to cover projects such as free admission and the Keir Collection, respectively. He admitted that paid memberships had languished since free admission was instituted but argued that you can’t judge a museum’s success by nitpicking single line items.

“As years went on, it became clear he was not a good money manager. Financially, he doesn’t care.

Marty Radecki, who worked with Anderson in Indianapolis

“I don’t start my day figuring how to turn a profit,” he said.

What Anderson may have been thinking about that day, however, was his exit strategy. Anderson later said he was leaving the museum to accept a position as the director of grant programs at the New Cities Foundation, an urban think tank based in Geneva, Paris, and New York. When the DMA made the announcement, the museum expressed its pleasure with Anderson’s tenure and its sadness over his departure. Anderson said he was excited to step onto a more global stage.

But much about the departure didn’t add up. Veteran cultural journalist Lee Rosenbaum noted how odd it was that Anderson had already officially left the museum by the time the institution announced his departure, and that the DMA was only just setting up a search committee for a new director. And, Rosenbaum added, the last time Anderson—who has spent the majority of his career working in museums—left the museum profession was after he was ousted from the Whitney. When the Dallas Morning News asked board member Catherine Rose whether the board had been happy with Anderson’s tenure, she stumbled. “As you would imagine with a board of trustees numbering over 60 members, I think I have to think about that, if I could, and respond to you later,” Rose told the paper.

I contacted more than 30 members of the DMA board, and no one would comment about Anderson’s departure. A request to the museum to speak with the interim director, Walter Elcock, was greeted with an emailed statement about “moving full steam ahead.” Just a few days before going to press, one former staff member agreed to speak with me on the record if I first sent my questions. I asked about Anderson’s management style, morale and turnover, high expenses and development troubles, the real cost of all of Anderson’s pet projects, and whether funds from restricted endowments were being allocated to operations. Then, just before we were set to talk, the source clammed up.

It wasn’t surprising. For years now, former and current staff members working on every level of the museum were happy to share their discontent, suspicions, and concerns about the museum, but never with their names attached. I understand their reluctance. In the small, competitive, relationship-based worlds of art museums and philanthropy, it can hardly benefit any individual to be a whistle-blower. Board members and current or former employees of the DMA wouldn’t have much to gain by sticking their necks out, though they could damage their careers or social standing in doing so. Or, as another source put it, those who need to know whatever there is to know are in the know. What is the point of plastering it all over the press? The museum considers itself best served by projecting the image of a steady ship, which allows Anderson the appearance of having enjoyed a successful tenure at the DMA and leaving for greener pastures.

But one former museum employee had a different attitude. Where was the Dallas press during the long lead-up to Anderson’s departure? this person asked. Why hadn’t we asked the tough questions about stewardship before he left the museum? Why were we so content with swallowing the steady stream of glowing press releases? Isn’t it the press’s job to inform the public and protect public institutions like the museum?

“Protect the institution against what exactly?” I asked.

The source wouldn’t say.

“This is a small field,” the source said. “I don’t want to get into it.”

A version of this column appears in the December issue of D Magazine.

Related Articles

Arts & Entertainment

Dallas Museum of Art Debuts Three Contemporary Art Exhibitions This September

The museum presents works from emergent artist Naudline Pierre, a curated postwar exhibition, and multicultural clay sculpture installation.
Arts & Entertainment

Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Partners with The Stewpot

Participants from the nonprofit's community art program are featured in the immersive art exhibition's gift shop.
Arts & Entertainment

NorthPark Hosts Works from the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center’s Annual Art Fundraiser

The charitable art exhibition will be on display at NorthPark Center until September 22.