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.

Juan Montes

CIO and VP of operations at Japan Society; IT positions at The New York Times Co. and Columbia University. Family: A wife and two children, ages 7 and 4. Do you have any pastimes? I listen to music. I meditate. I go to the movies with my wife. I am a movie junkie. What's your favorite movie?The Deer Hunter. What languages do you speak? I was born in Cuba, so I speak Spanish fluently. I have a good working knowledge of Japanese, and a decent reading knowledge of German from studying philosophy. I studied Latin in high school, and I took three years of Homeric Greek as well.

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.

What has your approach been? It's funny you use the word approach -- looking at approaches and being comfortable, that's the No. 1 thing studying philosophy has given me. I use it daily. One of the things I've done is figure out partnerships. You have to develop those linkages and build those bridges yourself, go out of your way and talk to people. But you're only one person, so you have to instill that in your team. The directors under me know I want them to form strong partnerships throughout the organization. In some ways, it's more important at their level because that's where a lot of tactical decisions are being made.

What are your priorities now for IT? We're constantly thinking about extending the reach of the museum. How do we engage audiences that can't come here? And for audiences that do come here, how do we make their experiences better? How do we make the museum experience more participatory? So rather than just being a place where people come for information and people see us as an expert source -- which we are and will continue to be -- how do we give people a chance to engage with other people interested in modern art and with us directly?

Any major IT initiatives? We're just finishing up a [CRM] system that gives us a 360-degree view of our membership in one place. It contains all sorts of data that we had before but was very difficult to aggregate.

How did the project come about? You're not just trying to build a tool that works; you want to build a tool that works on a specific problem a user has. So we had to get an understanding of what the issues were from the membership and development department. Then it was a very careful planning process for migrating data from platforms where it was hard to unlock its value, to platforms where everything is right there for you. That project was started in the middle of 2010, and significant pieces of it are done.

You didn't say anything about technology. What does that say about your job? It says something about the role of the CTO. If you were to talk to directors in my area, you'd hear a lot more about the nuts and bolts. I love that stuff, too. Not only is it fascinating, it has an aesthetic beauty about it.

Technology has aesthetic beauty? There's the mathematical precision of what we do, and there's a tremendous beauty to that, the speed and the celerity with which computers can calculate, and the simplicity of it, when it works.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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