The Grill: Juan Montes keeps MoMA plugged in

The Museum of Modern Art's CTO on art, IT and making the world-class museum more participatory

Juan Montes regularly visited the Museum of Modern Art while he was a student at Regis High School, a tuition-free Jesuit college-preparatory school for high-potential young men in the New York metropolitan area. He remembers being drawn to Picasso for the mathematical qualities he found in the artist's work.

Now he's chief technology officer at MoMA, having taken over the position in November, and directs a staff of about 50. Here Montes speaks about how technology, art and philosophy are all part of his day-to-day work.

You have a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Harvard. How did you end up in technology? The kind of philosophy I studied was very technical and very much related to math, so there was a natural connection from the very beginning. Then I got into programming and got into technology that way.

What makes IT at MoMA unique from IT at a typical business, or even another nonprofit? There is such a multiplicity of activities. We have the curatorial activities -- basically working with intellectuals, helping them deliver, organize and enhance things, whether it's an exhibition or information on the website or about a collection. We also have a thriving e-commerce and retail operation, and we have special events that our audio/visual area gets heavily involved in. As people who enable others to do various things, IT has to navigate the different cultures and weave them into a whole.

You replaced Steve Peltzman, who left the CIO position to join Forrester Research. Why are you CTO rather than CIO? There are so many C-level titles. We already had a chief investment officer, so we were trying to disambiguate titles. You can argue whether I'm dealing more with information or technology. I'm really doing both. My role is to help MoMA achieve its goals through technology.

What's been most rewarding about stepping into the CTO role? Working on the technology strategy of the organization, especially at a time when technology is so important to what the museum does. More and more of the contemporary art that comes in is digital, so we need to figure out how to preserve it. How do we ensure 20 years from now we can put on Exhibition X with the [correct] components? I get to work with conservation on these questions.

What is the most difficult part of your job? There are a lot of different constituencies with requirements and needs, and the vast majority of those are real and important. We have limited resources, so how to prioritize and how to be inclusive, so you're not leaving out any group? How do we make people think of IT as a strategic department, as the team that will help you figure out a way around your particular issue or roadblock? That's the tricky part.

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