It was the split heard ’round the city. What’s the real reason for Max Anderson’s departure from the Dallas Museum of Art? (Almost) no one is talking.
by MICHAEL GRANBERRY
Divorce is a messy business. The marriage begins with sunny aspirations, and then, suddenly, it all goes awry. Before long, the partners are disagreeing so much that it feels — hopeless. At that point, it’s like the lyrics of that Simon and Garfunkel song: Why don’t we stop fooling ourselves? The game is over, over, over. But it’s hardly confined to splitting-up spouses. Divorce happens even in the civilized world of museums. Such is the case at the Dallas Museum of Art, which at the moment is swimming in praise. “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots,” which runs through March 20, has spawned gushing reviews coast to coast (see the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News). Some say the DMA’s breakout moment is due largely to the erudite Maxwell Anderson, who resigned as director in September after a three-and-a-half-year tenure that, in the end, felt strangely truncated.
As per many divorces, both sides say the parting was mutual, though outsiders remain skeptical. Anderson left for New York to become executive director of the Paris-based New Cities Foundation, a global non-profit that promotes urban innovation. In fact, it was New Cities’ annual international gathering that Anderson, then the DMA director, and Mayor Mike Rawlings helped bring to Dallas in 2014. (Jakarta was the next host city, in 2015.) Sounds like a cool job — his New Cities bio says Anderson “has long sought to address challenges facing the cultural sector,” and that his focus will be on “how digital platforms can improve the lives of city dwellers internationally” — but did Anderson want to leave? Or was he forced out? Was it a mutual breakup, or were there extenuating circumstances that neither side wants to discuss — at least not publicly?
Immediately after the news, I called Anderson, who certainly sounded like a guy who left of his own accord. “In the last year and a half,” he said, in his sonorous baritone, “I have watched most of my colleagues retiring as directors. I am one of the few left standing from the era in which I began. Instead of slow-rolling toward retirement, I began looking for other possible directions.” On the day Anderson announced his departure, newly ap-pointed board chairwoman Catherine Rose praised his tenure, saying, “He’s been an incredible asset to the Dallas Museum of Art, in terms of charting a bold vision for our museum both here and on the global stage. But I don’t think any of us believe he would have stayed here forever.” When asked if Anderson was forced out, Rose said: “As the press release says, he has accepted a new position at the New Cities Foundation in New York.” Well, is the board disappointed he left? “As you would imagine,” she said, “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 on that.” Then came an email: “It’s hard for me to speculate on individual responses.” I appreciate Rose for her honesty. It’s the closest anyone’s come to saying, yes, there were problems — though any of us not on the board wouldn’t have a clue about what they were. I can only tell you what I hear and how Anderson responded when I asked him about it. Some people said he was hard to get along with, that there was too much staff turnover, and that he and the board failed to connect on an increasing number of issues. Wrote D magazine’s Peter Simek in November: “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.”
Do we stay together for the kids — or split up now? There is hard evidence to indicate that it must have gone wrong rather quickly. For the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2014 — almost a year to the day before Anderson’s exit — he received “base compensation” of $644,510, according to the form 990 the DMA filed with the Internal Revenue Service. (Non-profit corporations are required to make public such filings.) But in addition to that, Anderson received “bonus and incentive compensation” of $100,000. Added in were “retirement and other deferred compensation” of $42,623 and “nontaxable benefits” of $8,690 for a total of $795,823. That sounds like a good year, and given the handsome bonus, hardly one that portends unpleasantness. During our interview, Anderson reveled in his accomplishments. They were remarkable, given the brevity in which they occurred. He reinstituted free general admission, a bold move designed to widen the audience of an institution that, frankly, had gotten as stuffy as my granddaddy’s stiff white shirts. On that note, Anderson got rid of those silly, outdated uniforms DMA staff members had to wear — and replaced them instead with a badly needed sense of vitality, one that continues. He put a premium on research, resulting in a partnership with the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at the University of Texas at Dallas. He made strides in conservation and 21st-century technology, digitizing the DMA’s entire encyclopedic collection. Melissa Fetter, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees said in an official statement, “From increasing and diversifying attendance — rising to over 700,000 annually — to devising and launching DMA Friends, our innovative loyalty program, to securing the fifteen-year loan of the Keir Collection of Islamic Art, to raising over $40 million for the Museum’s endowment and special projects, Max leaves the DMA with an impressive legacy on which we will continue to build. He will be greatly missed.”
Not long before he left, however, I heard rumors about the board and Anderson clashing over finances. “When I got to the museum,” he says, “the museum had a $140 million endowment. Now, it has a $200 million endowment. We’ve had balanced budgets audited by auditors every year that I was there.” Grant money increased, so, no, he says, “there were no financial problems with the museum that came on my watch.” The DMA has sustained a balanced budget for 19 consecutive years. What other prominent arts organization can say the same? The opera? The symphony? And yet, rumors persisted. The DMA, sources tell me, was thought to be a prime contender for acquiring the highly valued Swiss art collection of Dallasites Richard Barrett and his late wife, Nona. And then we heard, no, the DMA won’t get the collection after all. Was that a source of friction? Anderson: “The board ultimately decided that it didn’t want to pursue that collection. I think the personal choices of private collectors are personal ones, indexed to their own agendas and their own aspirations … It was clear that our board was not excited about pursuing Richard after he began to have mixed feelings about his collection coming to the museum.”
And then, a final question: I had even heard grumbling about the sponsor-thank-you video for the DMA’s annual Art Ball last year, in which Anderson and A-list others did a parody of the Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars song and video, “Uptown Funk.” He laughs out loud upon hearing that one. “The video was the project of the board! The board leadership conceived and executed the video.” In other words, Museum Director Max was merely a performer, following the instructions of the video director, as any actor would. “That one,” Anderson says with a laugh, “is a mystery.”
MICHAEL GRANBERRY, a Dallas Morning News writer, is a Dallas native with a fine arts degree from Southern Methodist University, class of 1974. He writes about art, artists, museums and pop culture.