Michael Shapiro, chief curator of the St. Louis Art Museum, was appointed director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wednesday, ending a nationwide search and four months of art world speculation.
Shapiro will succeed Earl A. (Rusty) Powell, who resigned in April to direct the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Shapiro, 42, emerged two weeks ago as the leading candidate for the post, but a Wednesday morning vote of the museum’s trustees made his election official. The County Board of Supervisors is expected to confirm the appointment in mid-September. Shapiro will assume his new duties in October, becoming the fourth director in the museum’s 27-year history.
“Our goal is to create a vision of an art museum for the 1990s as well as for the new century ahead,” Shapiro said upon his appointment. “Despite these recessionary times, there are not only the resources, but the commitment in Los Angeles to create an expanded view of how museums can serve complex communities in the years ahead.”
Shapiro’s candidacy stunned the art world because he has had little experience in administration or fund raising, the LACMA director’s major responsibilities. In fact, museum trustees said early in the search process that they would seek someone with established skills in those areas.
Instead, the museum seems to be repeating history, choosing a relatively unknown quantity--as they did in 1980 when Powell was brought to Los Angeles from his post as executive curator at the National Gallery.
“The era of Rusty Powell was enormously successful, but when we began this search we had the feeling the 1990s will be very different,” museum President Robert F. Maguire said. “We were looking for a way for the museum to really touch the community in the widest sense, and that means a substantial increase in the museum’s capacity in the area of education.
“Michael is not the most experienced person we talked to, but we decided that administrative experience is not what we need. We need ideas and innovation. We want someone who can change the place, make it more meaningful to the community and do it quickly. We like his mind. We like the way he thinks. We were attracted to his style,” Maguire said.
In a brief telephone conversation following his appointment, Shapiro outlined his initial impression of the museum and its immediate needs.
“We need to take a look at our collections as they are and as we would like them to be, then restructure the collections or realign our thinking so that we can more effectively communicate . . . the relevance and the value of visual art to the diverse constituencies of Los Angeles,” Shapiro said.
“We need to create the means for visitors to understand the relevance of art to their daily experience. I think that’s a tremendously exciting aspiration,” he said.
Powell, who was 36 when he was hired to direct the county museum, said he believes Shapiro is up to the job. “I don’t think the fact that he hasn’t been a director deserves more than a cocked eyebrow,” Powell said.
Powell added that he was not directly involved in the search for his successor but acknowledged that he gave the search committee several names, including Shapiro’s.
“I know the search was conducted very carefully and that a lot of people were consulted and considered,” Powell said. “But as time went on, the combination of Michael’s talents, personality and scholarship made him fit hand in glove with the museum. He became an obvious choice. He’s a great guy. He’ll do a terrific job,” Powell said.
Praise for Shapiro also came from the Midwest institution he is leaving.
“We’re very proud of Michael. He has a load of energy and a load of vision. I’m sure he’ll do a fantastic job for Los Angeles as he has for us,” said James D. Burke, director of the St. Louis Art Museum.
Shapiro is known mainly as a specialist in 19th- and 20th-Century art, but Burke said his expertise is much broader.
“He’s the best sculpture expert I’ve ever come across and not just in contemporary work. He has substantially added to our sculpture collection and guided the museum in a vast array of art purchases,” Burke said.
Shapiro is a native of New York City and a Harvard-educated scholar who has been curator of 19th- and 20th-Century art at the St. Louis Art Museum since 1984 and chief curator since 1987.
During his tenure in St. Louis he organized traveling exhibitions of 19th-Century American artists Frederic Remington and George Caleb Bingham. He also coordinated American tours of “Gerhard Richter: 18. Oktober 1977,” an exhibition based on a German gang of terrorists, and “Philip Guston: 50 Year of Painting,” organized by the Spanish Ministry of Culture.
Shapiro has supplemented the St. Louis museum’s strong collection of German Expressionist art with works by contemporary German artists Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer. Among the other acquisitions he has sponsored are contemporary works by Guston, Susan Rothenberg, Martin Puryear, Richard Deacon and Lucian Freud.
Earlier this summer Shapiro was a visiting senior fellow at the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts in Washington. In that position, he conducted research on the relationship between German and American art in the era after World War II.
Shapiro’s most recent publication is the book “Gerhard Richter: Paintings, Photographs and Prints in the Collection of the St. Louis Art Museum,” which documents the museum’s collection of about 30 works by the German artist.
Another monograph that Shapiro prepared on Bingham will be published in the spring as part of Abrams’ “Library of American Art” series.