"My work is connected to shining a light on injustice, giving us lessons in history that can have a benefit to us today, and correcting some wrongs." Maxwell L. Anderson
Art historian and arts administrator, Maxwell L. Anderson has devoted his career to advancing the mission of non-profit cultural institutions, while creating best practices to insure their development and sustainability. He has long sought to address challenges facing the cultural sector, from community engagement to programmatic relevance, transparent business practices, cultural property ownership, and more. Since 2016, he has served as president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the work of African American artists from the South, and supporting their communities by fostering economic empowerment, racial and social justice, and educational advancement. He is also a member of the MMIAM International Advisory Committee.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am a child of an academic household. I grew up in Manhattan, studied Art History at Dartmouth, and got my PhD in Art History at Harvard. I then immediately began working as a member of the curatorial team at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was there for seven years as the curator responsible for ancient Roman art. Along the way, I learned the ropes of what it meant to be on the administrative side of the museum; I was fascinated. I was given a lot of opportunities by then director Philippe de Montebello.
Eventually, I took a leave of absence to teach at the University of Rome; I taught Roman archeology to Roman students, in Italian. It was a very Roman experience, to say the least! While there I saw a job advertisement—in those days you saw them in print—to run the Carlos Museum at Emory University and I wrote to the director of the Met while I was in Rome and I said, ‘what do you think?’ and he said, ‘look, you’re 31 years old, if you can be a museum director at 31, go for it!’. So, I applied, I got the job, and spent eight years in Atlanta running that museum. It was a lot of fun, but I was eventually tempted to a larger institution.
When Glenn Lowry left the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto to become director of the Museum of Modern Art, I took his job in Toronto. As often happens, headhunters—they have a small list of people they like to call—well, I found myself running the Whitney Museum in 1998. I did that for five years before leaving to join a consulting firm. We advised governments, museums, and foundations around the world. I had fascinating clients in Switzerland, Australia, Hungary, etc. It was a fantastic experience that opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about cultural heritage and its protection. Once again, the headhunters called and I was back in the museum world, for five years at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and my last assignment was at the Dallas Museum of Art. I did that with great pleasure. We brought Islamic art to the Dallas-Fort Worth area; we made the museum free…there was a lot of innovation.
I’d been on the board of Souls Grown Deep since about 2011, but I’d gotten to know this collection dating back to the ‘80s when I was living in Atlanta. Then, the collection was all in Atlanta, all in the purview of one collector, Bill Arnett. Bill and I fell into each other’s company when I did exhibitions for the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 with some of these works. I continued to support the artists from the collection of Souls Grown Deep all throughout my career as a director. I left Dallas and I was subsequently invited to step into the role of President, and I’ve been doing that now for six years.
Wow! So, let’s talk a little bit about Souls Grown Deep. Can you tell me about your work?
The work of a museum director, unlike a curator, or a registrar, or educator, well, it’s a fairly rarified life. You’re living between the board and the staff and public. You never really satisfy all of them in equal measure at all times.
To me, one of the aspects of Souls Grown Deep that is most enriching is that these artists, roughly 160 in our collection, were never part of the art world. They never saw a dealer or a gallery or a collector or a museum. They lived in isolation geographically in the South. Because of poverty, because of racism, they never had access to adjudication by the forces that we now take for granted as essential to the art world. And as a result, their work was passed by. During the Great Migration, so many of their relatives moved to Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles and might have had a shot at being part of that system. But the Gees Bend Quiltmakers, for example, stayed in Gee’s Bend. And to this day, many of the artists we work with live in conditions that the United Nations describes as those of a developing nation, at the rudimentary level. And we’re in the United States, the most affluent country in measures of standard of living. But this continues in Alabama, Mississippi…these artists still are awaiting some sort of parity in opportunity. So, for me, it all starts with that. It starts with the talent, creativity, and achievement of these artists, their exclusion historically from the art world, and our job has been to change that; to give them visibility, access, and in the last couple years, happily, to start seeing some revenue going back to these communities and artists through a variety of opportunities.
One would be simply selling work in galleries, which has begun to happen, for five figures. They might have sold a quilt 20 years ago for a couple of hundred dollars, they’re now selling for $40,000 to $50,000. Another is licensing income. By getting all the artists we could find to sign up for the Artists Rights Society, we’ve begun to protect their copyright and they now can benefit from commercial reproduction. This has led us to create partnerships with Etsy and other enterprises where quilters are now making thousands of dollars a month, in many cases, selling directly to the consumer. And to do that, we had to provide photography and internet access and all sorts of things that were not available in these parts of Alabama in particular.
So, for us, there is an equation of artistic heritage being reclaimed for the American story and there is a responsibility around social justice that’s left these artists behind. And it’s these twin facets of Souls Grown Deep that make it exciting.
That’s fascinating. I was looking through your collection and you have several living artists. Is there some form of professional development, so to speak, for the artists?
I have nothing to teach these people, but I have everything to learn. One of the oddities of the American system is our failure to acknowledge the moral rights of artists. In 70 countries around the world, when an artist’s work is sold a second, third, or fourth time, that artist gets a percentage of that sale. We’re the only industrialized country that does not have a resale royalty.
It stems from a general lack of appreciation for the arts in the federal government structure and copyright laws. It’s extended to writers, musicians, and poets, even patent holders can receive benefits from their intellectual property, but once a visual artist sells a work, whatever they receive from that sale is it.
We approached our general counsel and said, ‘is there a work around?’ where we won’t get in trouble and the artist won’t get in trouble. We came up with a system that we call the resale royalty award program. We pay artists a five percent award when we sell a work they’ve made, even if we’d bought it from them already. In other words, they benefit from downstream sales. And we are working with the Artists Rights Society to advocate to change the US law; to make this the law of the land.
That’s what I’m interested in; how we educate others to understand the rights of artists.
Another is around institutional responsibility. We have a small endowment of $4 million, but our board agreed to 100 percent impact investing as our investment philosophy. Most universities, museums, libraries, etc.invest in the stock market through index funds. They have advisors who will say, ‘well, you might want to buy more of Amazon or Google’ and so on. We don’t do that. We start with a zero-based approach and say, ‘where are we going to put our few millions of dollars that will have a direct impact on the lives of the people we’re concerned with?’ and ‘how do we make sure that we aren’t contributing to the kinds of challenges that American society faces?’
I think the arts in general should be doing that. So, I’ve been working to bring museums to the consciousness that impact investing should be their core strategy. When they invest, it should be to mirror the value of their institution, not simply to maximize returns, which has always been the philosophy. I wrote an article in Apollo magazine recently about this topic. The problem with that is that you end up enabling companies that are deforesting the Amazon, that are making arms, that are exploiting workers. So instead of turning a blind eye and saying ‘well, that’s the price of doing business’ that’s not our view. Our view is that every arts organization—there are tens of billions of dollars in the endowments of art museums alone—should invest ethically.
So those are some of the forms of professional development, as you say, that we’re interested in.
So, you started off in curation and moved into administration. Will you share how you’ve found moving between various sides of the industry.
It’s always good to know what you don’t know. When a museum director starts their first job, they generally don’t have a purchase on the finances, conservation, registration, government regulations…there is a massive amount to absorb. I had the good fortune of starting at a university museum, which meant I had a lot of that in the orbit of the president and provost and I didn’t have to worry, per se. I had a budget and I had to raise funds for it, but it wasn’t entirely mine. So, I spent a few years learning.
What’s different today is that you can hire brilliant CFOs and heads of conservation or curatorial—you have to hire the right people—but now managing up is a huge responsibility. There are topics in human resources related to #MeToo, around racial discrimination, around being tone deaf to the realities of a working staff that’s underpaid; a host of forms of criticisms that institutions were previously immune from. We’re seen as trusted keepers of our collective heritage, we put on wonderful shows that we all appreciate. But now, museums are held to the same standards as public corporations. So, on top of managing a behemoth organization, you have to think through your responsibility to the board, to the museum with a capital M, to the public, to an ethical standard—and it’s not a job for the faint of heart. It requires a degree of courage and belief in yourself. Whereas being a curator is being an objects expert. It’s a fantastic job. I loved it. But it’s a very different set of talents that are required. It doesn’t demand the same latitudes in judgment as administration.
Is there something within the past year or so that you’ve done that you’re really proud of or excited about?
Well one of the joys of running a foundation, as opposed to a museum, is that I have more flexibility, both in time and responsibility. My board gave me the green light to take on a consulting project with the Prime Minister’s Office in Barbados. The project is of historic significance. It’s the second largest archive of documents and materials attesting to the trade of enslaved people in the world. And it’s essentially undigitized. We estimate there to be about 100 million pages of records. Watch the Press Conference here.
I’ve been brought on to advise, with some other colleagues, on how to digitize the entire archive and to work with the renowned Ghanian-British architect, Sir David Adjaye, who built the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to build a new home for these archives. Barbados, which declared itself a free and independent Republic a few weeks ago—and I was present at the celebrations—has this extraordinary opportunity to be leading the entire Atlantic in thinking about the slave trade in ways that are informed by documentation; taking us back to the 1620s, to its origins, all the way forward to the downstream impact of the slave trade in Barbados fueling shipments of people to the Atlantic coast of the United States.
So, I don’t see a separation between my work in Barbados and my work in Alabama. It’s all connected to shining a light on injustice, giving us lessons in history that can have a benefit to us today, and correcting some wrongs. We’re working very closely with the University of West Indies, and the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, all the members of the government attached to this project. There are a lot of people working on it, on the island, a vast spectrum of talent.
Wow. That’s powerful! So, you’ve lived and worked in a lot of the places. Do you have a favorite city?
I taught at the University of Rome in part because I love Rome so much. I love the layers of history. I also love the attitude of the Italian people about work-life balance, which Americans typically lack. So, Rome is always home to me. I was born and raised in Manhattan, but I don’t recognize the Manhattan of my childhood as much. Rome hasn’t changed that much.
But in general, I’m very comfortable in a lot of places. I spent a year in graduate school traveling the world. I went to 14 countries over nine months and was comfortable in North Africa, Turkey, even in Eastern Europe, in East Germany for a while.
Following up on that, you’ve also spent a lot of time in the American South, which is still a largely misunderstood place. Do you have cultural gems or hidden gems you’d like to share?
I do spend time in Boykin, Alabama, which is the home of the Gee’s Bend Quilters, but I’ve also spent time in Montgomery. The Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and Memorial for Peace and Justice is one of the most affecting cultural projects of the last generation. The Edmund Pettus Bridge; I brought my daughter there to teach her about civil rights. There are those places that are filled with sadness, memory, and commitment to righting wrong, which is powerful.
In the smaller communities in the Deep South, very little has changed. And people are mystified by that in part because it’s such a large swath of the country, geographically speaking, and in population. There is a huge obligation that we all have. The South is the birthplace of so much that we take for granted culturally, in music, the arts, food. I’d love to imagine that in time, opportunities will be more apparent for people living in the South.
Last question. Is there anything I missed?
The issue around ownership of culture has always been a through line for me. I’m advising, in Nigeria now, the efforts to restitute the looted treasures of Benin back to Benin City. I’ve been talking to museum directors in the United States who have material from Benin that were looted in the British expedition in the 1890s. I’ve restituted antiquities that were looted from Italy, from Turkey, Holocaust-era drawings in Toronto that were sent back to Europe. I feel strongly about the obligations we have to know if the culture we’re dealing with is really ours. Often, there are some questions but it’s important for younger professionals to think about that and beware instead of assuming something just because they see it at a trusted institution.
*Headshot photo by Chase Anderson.