Jay Levenson is Director of the International Program at MoMA.
What is the mission of the International Program?
The department was started in 1952 to circulate exhibitions from the Museum internationally. The idea was to share the collection and make American artists better known internationally. Claims were made by some left-wing critics that the CIA was feeding the program because they wanted to compete with Russian culture. Because the American artists favoured by MoMA were the Abstract Expressionists, like DeKooning, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman. The idea being that they were so different from the Socialist Realism that was Soviet art. Clearly the American artists were free to do whatever they wanted, while the Russians had to follow what was dictated by the government. I personally don’t think that that happened, but there are no proofs. I think that the Museum publicised the Abstract Expressionists because they were the best artists.
And what happens today?
When I started to work in the Museum in 1996 Glenn Lowry, the director, wanted to centralise the exhibitions’ circulation into one department for all the exhibitions. He was right, but I had to find a new mission for this department.
So what did you do?
I have to say that when the department was founded a donors’ group called “The International Council” started to support this department and other international activities, and it still exists. There are over two hundred members from all over the world. I thought that the most important achievement would be to connect the Museum to the entire world and not only to Europe. I thought the areas that were becoming of interest were Eastern Europe, Latin America and Eastern Asia. I thought of new programs that could connect us to these parts of the world.
So how did you proceed?
We created an annual workshop for curators of different regions. We started with a group from Latin America, then Eastern Europe, Eastern Asia and one from Africa. This program is important to create a network of well-placed museum professionals from all over the world. We started also to publish a series of books with translations into English about Modern Art in other parts of the world.
In the fifties the Museum was promoting Abstract Expressionism. What are you promoting today?
Now the Museum still circulates exhibitions, but they are not just for travel. I would say that nowadays if you go through the galleries you see a new selection of artists from all over the world, including Middle-Eastern artists. For instance, there is in show at the PS1, our contemporary art museum, of an Egyptian Artist, Wael Shawky.
What about American artists?
There is a show going on of young artists from New York and LA galleries. It is interesting to see that they work in a large variety of styles. You cannot classify them as belonging to a school.
What are considered to be the masterpieces in the Museum?
The most popular pictures are the van Gogh “Starry Night”, the Picasso “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, four paintings from Monet’s Water Lily series; and we are known to have one of the best collections of Picasso and Matisse.
And what about American art?
We still have the most important collection of Abstract Impressionism, and a strong collection of American Pop Art, and also Minimalism.
How many people visit the Museum in a year?
Three million, and close to sixty percent of them are from outside USA.
Are you building a new wing for the Museum?
It is the third major expansion since 1980, and we will expand the exhibition space by more than thirty percent. There will be much more space for the permanent collection to be shown.
How many exhibitions do you do per year?
Nine major loan exhibitions, but then different curatorial departments do small exhibitions from the collections in their own galleries. If you count them all, the total is around thirty exhibitions.
And what about research?
There is a new research program that is administered through my department. We call it Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives. We have three groups of curators and they study different regions: one Eastern Europe, one Latin America and one Asia. They travel often to these areas and they invite scholars and artists to come to talk about their works and their regions.
What do you feel about the fact that the Metropolitan is creating a new Contemporary Art section in the building that was once the Whitney Museum; and The Whitney is inaugurating a new Museum designed by Renzo Piano in the Meatpacking District?
The more good museums there are in a city, the better it is for everybody!
February 13, 2015