LACMA Changes Point to Team Dissolution


Like many others, I have been following the drama at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that has surfaced with the hiring of director Michael Shapiro. My wife, Helen Mayer Harrison, and I have exhibited there, as have many of our friends and acquaintances. After reading the articles by art writer Suzanne Muchnic and listening to various friends both in and out of the museum, I wish to add my own commentary.

All of these difficulties are the appalling outcomes from a single decision apparently made by a small group on the LACMA board of directors, who were empowered to choose and then hire a new director for the museum to replace the former director, Earl A. Powell III. Shapiro was the chief curator in a St. Louis museum with a small staff. He has no prior museum directorial experience. Nonetheless, it is still difficult to believe that the new leadership so traumatized a distinguished museum staff that curatorial resignations quickly followed his arrival.

One of the most egregious acts from our perspective is the new director’s treatment of the senior curator, Maurice Tuchman. Evidently, Tuchman is being removed from his role as senior curator of 20th-Century art, a position he has held for many of the 29 years of his tenure. A Department of 20th-Century Drawings has been created with Tuchman as its director and only member. His new office is to be made out of a remodeled kitchen, in a separate building, far from the rest of the staff. In his years with the museum, Tuchman has had his ups and downs, his supporters and his detractors; nonetheless, this treatment is not only totally undeserved but humiliating.


Moreover, think of the message that this sends about LACMA to the contemporary art world. Tuchman is an international figure. His stature is not an accident. The exhibitions generated by his vision during his long career--”American Sculpture of the ‘60s,” “Art and Technology,” “The Spiritual in Art,” “The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930” and “Parallel Visions,” among others--were all serious contributions to Los Angeles cultural life. All situated Los Angeles within the international community. All brought the international community to Los Angeles. All have catalogues that have functioned within the art world as historical and research documents. These types of exhibitions are serious acts of public service. To bring any one of them to pass takes five to 10 years of creative activity in the face of fiscal limitations. They require careful development and an international network of sources and resources. Therefore, subtracting Tuchman subtracts his ability to continue to serve this community in the ways that he does best. The loss is obvious. The message is, to say the least, unfortunate.

Again and again I find Michael Shapiro’s directorial behavior inconsistent and almost incomprehensible as it surfaces in the Muchnic articles. For instance, Muchnic quotes Shapiro as wishing to “open up lines of communication” (“After 6 Months, Shapiro Assesses LACMA’s Future,” Calendar, April 12). His process of so doing evidently began with a form of psychological profile testing that produced in the staff, according to Muchnic, the following responses: “It’s a silly waste of time”; “It’s insulting”; “It’s a method to humiliate us at meetings.” Obviously, the reverse of communication has taken place. Obviously, this is not the way to treat a group of extremely intelligent and sophisticated people. Further, according to Muchnic, Shapiro sees his “management style as team building, communication and innovation.” The outcome of this management style appears to be team dissolution, a breakdown of communication and a feeling of Angst among the museum personnel that seems to have brought innovation to a standstill.

Shapiro states that he wishes to engage in new building programs and produce a new sculpture garden. This is at the same time that galleries in the museum are being closed, funding is being reduced, staff is being cut and exhibitions that were in preparation or on the books are being canceled. He is further quoted as saying that among his highest priorities is the bringing in of a director of education. It is difficult to believe that with the loss of six principal curators and immobilization of a seventh, he could seriously justify an educational director at all. Finally, Shapiro appears to suggest that his treatment of Tuchman is good for the museum, the community and Tuchman himself. From my perspective, this is a crass example of the operations of the big lie principle and, accordingly, is inappropriate behavior for the director of a public institution.

Moreover, I am disturbed by a situation in which mature people in a close-knit community of peers, all working in the public interest to the best of their abilities, feel unable, for one reason or another, to speak up in behalf of each other in a period of need. Fear of retribution comes to mind. Finally, it appears that the only one to speak up and take a full-out risk is Tuchman, who has filed suit against Shapiro, et al, and who is saying publicly that he will resist such behaviors.

Now what can be done to turn around a rapidly worsening situation of this kind--to keep lawsuits, endless disclosure, doubt and recrimination, from further degrading an evidently unhealthy state of affairs at the museum? I can think of a few things, but then the board of directors has not sought my advice.