Thanks, But No Thanks

It's almost a year now since Richard Oldenburg announced his res-ignation as director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, and no replacement has been found. At least one prominent director turned the job down, and four others have declined to be candidates -- although the head of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Anne d'Harnoncourt, is reported to be reconsidering after a second wooing. (D'Harnoncourt refused to comment.) We're not talking about the Municipal Tea and Picture Society in Podunk: this is il museo moderno dei tutti musei moderni. With the greatest collection of modern art ever, MoMA offers nearly 1.5 million visitors annually a genealogical tour of modernism from Monet to Warhol, and beyond. Why is it suddenly leaderless and lonely? All that megapatron and chairman of the board emeritus David Rockefeller can claim for the sputtering search is, "We've canvassed the field, and we have a sense of the field."

Yes, the position of museum director has become an almost impossible, underpaid job. But 12 months just to get a sense of the field? You'd think such a great museum as MoMA would have spotted likely successors in 30 seconds, and would have taken two or three months to interview and reach a decision. And if the board of MoMA had been a little more sensitive, it might not be looking for a new head in the first place.

The affable, efficient Oldenburg, 60, enjoyed art and artists enough to wear a big Pluto-like grin when he circulated at black-tie openings. The son of a Swedish diplomat (and brother of artist Claes), he had a talent for in-house negotiations. But in early 1993, MoMA's board concluded that the place had gotten too big and complicated for a director who wasn't quite an ace fund raiser. It floated the idea of looking for a chief financial officer who'd have de facto authority over the director. This led to Oldenburg's stepping down.

As Brenda Richardson, a deputy director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, says, "They already had the best person for director." In spite of the shabby treatment, when the search got sticky, Oldenburg agreed to stay on until Dec. 31. Things apparently started to get worse when MoMA hired the New York headhunting firm of Nordeman Grimm. One potential applicant interviewed by the firm says the conversation concluded with his being asked who he thought the leading candidates were. Also, reimbursement checks for travel expenses were allegedly mixed up, so at least two contenders found out about each other. The firm denies the mix-up occurred.

First the board went after James Woods, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Last fall, Rockefeller and board chairman Agnes Gund flew to Chicago to see if he would consider leaving his post. Woods said no. Next up was the Houston Museum of Fine Art's Peter Marzio. "We agreed to talk for a while to consider if I wanted to be candidate," he says. A source close to the trustees counters, "Marzio might not technically have been asked, but there's no question that the museum wanted him and no question that he was interested." Marzio reportedly made three trips to New York, then surprised everybody by saying he preferred to remain in Texas. Why? Oldenburg is said to earn around $200,000, and though that's not peanuts, it's not a lot to cover the social demands of a director who's courting potential donors in New York. Marzio observes, "You can't slip into the city, find a little garret and work your way up. A museum director is expected to come out [entertaining and politicking] full bore."

The next eligibles were Richard Koshalek (head of Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art), d'Harnoncourt and Nicholas Serota (chief of the Tate Gallery in London). Koshalek insists he dropped out before any offers were in the air. "It's not necessary to go to New York to validate yourself anymore," he says. "In a way, you can do more and better things and have a bigger impact from London or Chicago or L.A." Serota, who is overseeing the renovation of a huge old building on the Thames to expand the Tate, also reportedly demurred. D'Harnoncourt, whose father, Rene, was MoMA's second director (1949-68) after founder Alfred Barr, is the most prominent American woman in the field. But she may have reservations about being perceived by older trustees as a daughter of a previous director.

MoMA is partly a victim of its own success. With 1992-93 operating expenses of nearly $60 million, it mounts shows like the once-in-a-lifetime Matisse exhibition in 1992. But gold-plated exhibitions need space, and MoMA doesn't have enough of it. In spite of a 1984 expansion that doubled its galleries, the Modern is crammed onto its midtown-Manhattan site. Although the museum is looking at a possible second venue many blocks away, it would prefer to expand contiguously on 53d Street. Recent speculation is that MoMA is thinking about buying its neighbor, the Dorset hotel. One defector from the candidate ranks guesses that option would require $350 million -- a fairly daunting goal for a capital campaign.

MoMA's staff might also be a stumbling block for a new director. The museum is organized into just a few departments with powerful chairmen -- including painting and sculpture, drawing, photography and architecture. The turf wars are legendary, and traditionally, the head of the department of painting and sculpture is especially influential. That position is held by Kirk Varnedoe, a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, and while neither he nor the distinguished curator-at-large John Elderfield, have veto power, the board wouldn't hire a director who didn't impress them favorably. MoMA is also one of the few museums with a union for librarians, conservators, archivists and other personnel; that makes it tough for a director to trim staff to solve budget problems.

But maybe the biggest part of MoMA's difficulty is that the art world has so radically changed. Not so long ago, being a museum director was a gentleman's profession, peopled by independently wealthy men with an interest in art who didn't need much in the way of a salary. After World War II, art historians moved in. Scholars filled the top posts until the Reagan era, when taxpayer support dwindled and fund raising became the key job skill. Now, unless a museum can graft Bernard Berenson's head to Lee Iacocca's shoulders, it must often choose between somebody who knows a lot about art or a lot about money. Even better is someone who can coax money out of rich and power-ful people. Directors are understandably wary of being seen seeking better jobs. Museums don't want their augustness tainted by a succession of declining swains. Discretion is understandable, but so far MoMA isn't getting a head by trying to save face.