Head of MOCA collections department exits*

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While building toward a major fall exhibition of its collection that it hopes will be a milestone in its recovery from recent financial and organizational turmoil, the Museum of Contemporary Art has let go the head of the department that’s most hands-on in minding the collection.

An automatic e-mailed response Monday from Robert Hollister, director of collections and registration, said he is no longer at the downtown L.A. museum and that inquiries should be sent to the registrar’s department. He could not be reached. [UPDATE] He declined to comment.

MOCA will not fill Hollister’s position, but it will have three full-time registrars, said Lyn Winter, museum spokeswoman. Plans for a greater emphasis on displaying the museum’s own collection and for fewer imports of touring shows and exports of MOCA-originated exhibitions have ‘impacted’ the number of registrars needed to do the work, she said.


MOCA recently announced its second round of layoffs this year as it aims to balance its budget after almost a decade of chronic deficits and a plummeting endowment. The museum also has canceled four planned exhibitions.

Museum registrars and collections managers typically are responsible for ensuring that all items are properly identified, catalogued and stored and that they are handled safely whenever they have to be moved. They update provenance records -- the history of where an artwork originated, who has owned it and where it has been displayed -- and supervise the shipping and receiving of works that are being loaned to other museums, or that have been sent as loans from other collections. The registrar’s portfolio includes such specialized knowledge as being conversant with customs laws and the intricacies of insuring artworks in transit.

Hollister gave a talk on loan agreements in November for an art-handling workshop for museum professionals. ‘He’s a great guy, and he’s got a very good reputation,’ said Brent Powell, chair of the Packing, Arthandling and Crating Information Network, a professional group that co-sponsored the event at L.A.'s Japanese American National Museum.

Jacqueline Cabrera, who moderated the workshop in her role as Western chair of the Registrars Committee of the American Assn. of Museums, said she knew of recent layoffs of registrars at two smaller West Coast institutions, the Frye Art Museum in Seattle and the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley.

‘It’s an epidemic we’ve been seeing that we haven’t seen before. It’s disturbing, because these are the main people who manage the collections,’ said Cabrera, a registrar at the Getty Villa near Malibu. ‘I was always amazed at how small the [registrars] staff at MOCA was, in terms of their very ambitious program’ of exhibitions, she added. As museums cut back on exhibitions and look to reduce staff, Cabrera said, registrars’ jobs figure to become more vulnerable because much of their work involves being the ‘travel agents’ of the museum world, making sure that delicate and expensive pieces get proper accommodations and move safely from destination to destination.

-- Mike Boehm