Leaving a Safe Harbor for MOCA : Chief curator Paul Schimmel is the first member of the local art community to get a top Southland museum position

"There's a lot at stake at MOCA," Paul Schimmel said the other day of the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he assumes the post of chief curator Monday morning. "We have a very high-visibility institution. As the identity of the institution increases, so does the level of commitment that has to be made."

Last December, when news of Schimmel's appointment was announced, the question of the museum's high-visibility status was on many minds. Mary Jane Jacob, whose tenure in the post had ended the previous August after a scant 2 1/2 years, was already the third chief curator in MOCA's brief history. Having completed five years of often energetic programming, some first-rate and some rather less so, the museum had yet to establish a distinct profile. It was hard to know whether its seemingly erratic direction arose from problems of staff or from conflicted demands at the top, where the board of trustees had earned a reputation for being willful and difficult.

Schimmel knows something about working with a board of trustees whose reputation for difficulty precedes them. He also knows something about shaping a tentative and ill-defined program into one that is weightier and more substantive. During nine years at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, first as curator and then as chief curator, he can be credited with having been instrumental in transforming the institution from a perfectly respectable, if decidedly regional, museum of contemporary art, headed by a notably contentious board, to one of the finest and most adventuresome small museums in the country.

On the heels of that success, Newport last year launched a $50-million capital campaign to underwrite and endow a new building designed by the celebrated Italian architect, Renzo Piano. The prospect of such a development was certainly remote when Schimmel, then 26, arrived in Orange County in 1981 from his native New York City, fresh from graduate studies at the Institute of Fine Arts.

"My perception of Newport, when I first came," Schimmel explained, "was that it was a difficult board, a conservative community, and a very specific, almost exclusively regional program. Obviously it has evolved significantly since then. The facility hasn't changed, but the recognition the institution has in terms of balance of programs, the kinds of publications it does, the willingness of the board to underwrite what are, at least in some cases, difficult and controversial exhibitions, and the general cultural ambitiousness of the Orange County community have made it a really different place than it was."

Raised to a higher plane, that institutional profile wouldn't be a bad fit for the Museum of Contemporary Art. And the successful transformation of the Newport Harbor Art Museum likely figured prominently into MOCA's decision to offer the senior curator's job to Schimmel.

Ironically, Schimmel had been among those discussed for the post in 1986, following the departure of Julia Brown Turrell for the directorship of the Des Moines Art Center, and prior to the hiring away of Mary Jane Jacob from Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. Certainly many factors played a part in his having been passed over then, but it is reasonable to assume that the Newport Harbor Art Museum's proximity to Los Angeles had worked against him.

In addition to the unspoken rule that says you have to move away before the folks back home will recognize your worth, the longstanding insecurity of the Los Angeles art world had to be overcome. Typically, influential museum curators and directors have been imported. In fact, with the exception of those who have climbed an institution's curatorial ladder, Schimmel's appointment at MOCA is noteworthy as the first major museum position locally to have been filled from within the ranks of the Southern California art community. If the appointment therefore reflects a newly significant degree of cultural density and confidence, Schimmel himself has been among those responsible for the change in climate. During the last four years, for example, two of the most important exhibitions of postwar American art mounted anywhere in the country were organized under his direction at Newport: "The Interpretive Link: Abstract Surrealism into Abstract Expressionism, Works on Paper 1938-1948," which skillfully traced an epochal shift in art through the early drawings and watercolors of the New York School, and "Chris Burden: A 20-Year Survey," which examined the controversial work of a distinctly under-recognized, Los Angeles-based artist and deftly inserted it into the forefront of contemporary discussion.

While quick to acknowledge the unarguable high points of MOCA's programming in the past, neither does the curator hesitate to pinpoint its chief failing. The institution has zigzagged from one approach to the next, as various constituencies have been identified or have pressed their claims. Pulled in a variety of directions, the young museum's mandate can seem arbitrary and shapeless.

"I plan to make a very conscious effort not to just think about the individual merits of a single exhibition," Schimmel said of his strategy for MOCA, "but about how it fits within a larger program--one that can be described with boring words like balance, breadth, reach. A program where there's a different character to each show, where they don't feel the same all the time."

How would he characterize the overall program since its 1984 debut?

"Three phases," Schimmel replied, without skipping a beat. "Julia (Brown Turrell) did a very strong program of California art. Concurrently, (MOCA director) Richard Koshalek's interest in significant New York artists from the 1960s came through. Then, in reaction to this orientation, there was a feeling that the museum needed to deal more with what was happening nationally, with the up-and-coming stars of the art world. So there was a series of shows of very hot, very topical artists. And then, the third phase, led by Mary Jane (Jacob), was a real strong emphasis on European art, on an international approach.

"If you think about it, it was first a California program, then a national program and recently an international program. If you mixed it all together and added just one more ingredient--more historically and thematically oriented exhibitions, of which there have been a few--it would be a balanced, much more interesting program. I'd like to think that I was hired because what I've tried to do (at Newport) is address all those same issues, and in such a way that they happen simultaneously rather than sequentially."

Schimmel's concise analysis could be said to reveal an underlying, subtly provincial bent to MOCA's program history. Only secondarily has the museum pressed its judgment of what constitutes the important currents of recent art, of postwar history and of cultural debate today. Instead, the museum has been responding first to a perception of the local community and what it lacks: recognition for its artists, firsthand knowledge of significant new art as identified in New York, and regular contact with aspects of the vigorous international art scene that has been the hallmark of the past decade.

Regardless of whether the art MOCA has shown comes from the West Coast, West Broadway or West Germany, these "three phases" have not arisen from convictions about which postwar art the museum believes is decisive, as seen by looking outward from an inherently distinctive vantage point in Los Angeles. Generally, the program has emerged from inward-looking presumptions about what Los Angeles supposedly needs.

"You really can't play to a regional art world anymore," Schimmel asserted, "or you're just talking to yourself."

The surest way to turn this discontent around, he believes, is to establish a strong profile by identifying and drawing upon the committed artistic passions of the museum's professional staff. In that endeavor, he will likely benefit from something his predecessors couldn't: a heightened degree of curatorial experience.

To date, the greatest strength in MOCA's staff has been bound to its greatest weakness. In hiring, the director has seemed less interested in traditional academic credentials than in creative intelligence and enthusiasm. The result has been a relatively young staff blessedly light on the narrow bonds of conventional training in art, yet decidedly green in dealing with sophisticated museum issues. Now, after several years of intensive, on-the-job training, aspects of MOCA's staff are beginning to be seasoned.

Schimmel intends to develop a symbiotic relationship with the diverse interests of both the staff and trustees, but not to act as a rubber stamp for either. "I prefer to embrace the most substantive of their goals for the institution as my own," he explained. "Certain of their desires are significant and well-founded. If I can make them as if they are my own, then the chance to succeed will be greatly increased."

By way of example, Schimmel pointed to the number of exhibitions on issues surrounding the dominant New York School painters of the 1950s that he organized at, or brought to, the Newport Harbor Art Museum. "The Interpretive Link" surprisingly turned to works on paper as the undeclared source of many Abstract Expressionist ideas later expressed in paintings. "Action/Precision" took a long-overdue look at the second generation of New York School artists, while "Bay Area Figurative Painting" and "The Figurative Fifties" examined the response, in terms of imagery, to Abstract Expressionism by artists in San Francisco and New York.

"You could make the case that I did (these shows) because (Newport trustee) Donald Bren, of the Irvine Company, gave us a lot of money to do them and is personally very interested in Abstract Expressionism. But the truth of the matter is that I was very interested in working on this material as well. And when you think about it, these shows are absolutely the antithesis of the way Bren collects. He goes after the most significant works by the most significant artists, and here I was biting off at the fringes. But it did mean something to him and to others on the board that we were delving into related art historical issues."

In addition to program considerations, Schimmel is concerned that the museum has not yet committed space for regular display of its permanent collection in either of its two expansive buildings.

"The unsung hero of MOCA is its collection," he said, "or should I say, its collection of collections. You have the Panza, the Schreiber, the Gersh and the Lowen collections. What you don't have is a lot of the stuff that fits in (the gaps in these holdings). But MOCA has done an exceptional job in building a collection at a time when that's almost unheard of. We need a concerted, programmatic effort at having a major segment of the permanent collection on view all the time."

While the curator's estimable tenure in Orange County does offer a sturdy platform on which to build, there are considerable differences between the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Newport Harbor Art Museum. MOCA claims roughly six times as much exhibition space as Newport. Its program budget alone is about the same as Newport's entire operating budget ($1.8 million). The staff sizes are hardly comparable.

More important, MOCA is squarely in the public eye in ways that Newport isn't. The Newport Harbor Art Museum, like the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, is an isolated artistic outpost in its community, and as such has benefitted from its convenient proximity to the major cultural center that is Los Angeles. Outsiders can zip into Newport Beach with relative ease to see a special exhibition; yet, the museum is just far enough away to remain beyond the mundane scrutiny that would attend operation within the day-to-day art life of Los Angeles. When sizing up a neighboring museum's performance, it's best to keep in mind the Victorian sightseer's favorite admonition: Distance lends enchantment to the view.

The other thing Los Angeles has that Newport Beach doesn't is a rapidly growing, increasingly prominent cadre of artists. As Schimmel arrives at MOCA, that single fact could be the clincher.

"The Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney all existed in New York (before 1945)," he said, "but they were provincial institutions until the art world essentially reinvented itself in the context of America. Until everyone in the Los Angeles art community realizes that their greatest asset is the artists--before the institutions, before the collectors, before the foundations, before the curators, before the critics--this really will not be among the preeminent art capitals of the world."

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