Art Museum Director to Resign : Culture: Michael Shapiro, on job less than a year, cites LACMA's fiscal crisis. Uncertainty over future funding may hinder search for successor, some observers say.

TIMES ART WRITER

After less than a year at the helm of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael E. Shapiro announced Friday that he will resign, saying another leader is needed to help overcome "large and important and pressing" fiscal problems at the institution.

Deep cuts in public funding and a shortage of private donations have forced the Wilshire Boulevard institution to reduce staff, curtail programs and shorten visitor hours for two successive years. The museum's lack of financial security also was highlighted recently by a museum-commissioned study, which said it lags behind other U.S. museums in endowment gifts.

This is the second departure of a county museum director in recent months. In May, Craig C. Black, director of the Natural History Museum, announced that he will retire by mid-1994. That museum, too, has faced cutbacks in county funding and has had to lay off employees.

Shapiro's resignation also poses serious questions about the ability of the art museum to attract a qualified successor. The appointment of Shapiro, a former chief curator of the St. Louis Art Museum, has been criticized in art circles because of his lack of administrative experience, but his departure puts the museum in a difficult position, according to several museum administrators who declined to speak on the record.

At the height of its glory, in 1991-92, the museum had an operating budget of $31.5 million, of which $17.8 million came from the county and the remainder from the Museum Associates, a nonprofit organization that manages the museum. But as the County Board of Supervisors wrestled with an ongoing countywide budget crisis, it mandated a $2-million cut in county funds to the museum in 1992-93 and cut an additional $2.7 million in 1993-94.

Shapiro alluded to the dire financial situation in a statement released Friday by the museum. "After a careful assessment of the future and my personal and professional goals, including my commitment to my family, I have reached the conclusion that it is time for another leader whose strengths might better fit the pressing financial needs of the museum to take the helm," he said.

The announcement caught Los Angeles County supervisors off guard.

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said she is planning to meet with Shapiro and will urge him to reconsider.

Board Chairman Ed Edelman also called Shapiro's departure a loss.

"I found him to be very intelligent and a good director of the museum and I'm sorry to see him go," Edelman said. "From my point of view he was doing a terrific job. But if he feels his strengths are in other areas and not financial then we have to respect his judgment."

Edelman said he had talked briefly to Shapiro but would not characterize the conversation. However, he indicated that Shapiro may have been frustrated in carrying out his goals.

"I think he wanted to make the museum relate to the community more significantly than it had in the past and I think that with the budget cuts he saw that would be impossible to carry out," Edelman said.

Some say that spells trouble for the search for a new director.

"The museum's fiscal problems, the board of trustees' lack of leadership, which is well-known to many people who have worked at the museum, and now the loss of a director after a very short period of time--less than one year--is going to decrease the possibility of getting a major figure from anywhere across the country to direct the museum," said a West Coast museum director who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Edelman disagreed. "I don't think it's a bad mark," the supervisor said. "We have a lot of strengths in our museum. It has one of the largest memberships of any museum in the country, a lot of support in the community and I think his leaving will not deter other people from applying."

His remarks were echoed by Daniel N. Belin, chairman of the museum's board of trustees. "I don't think that his resignation will make it more difficult to hire a successor," Belin said. "But I do think that the fiscal circumstances, where the county has cut back and its support for the museum has clearly diminished, will make it more difficult."

Board of trustees President Robert F. Maguire concurred: "I don't think (Shapiro's resignation) is going to be an impediment. I think we can attract some exciting candidates. . . . The museum and the community have real appeal."

Shapiro's predecessor, Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III, who left LACMA last summer to direct the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said he was saddened by the resignation. "I'm sorry that it didn't work out," Powell said of Shapiro's impending departure.

But his leaving does not hurt the museum's reputation, Powell said. "I'm sure the board is dedicated to stabilizing the museum. The board has to clarify the funding role of the county. Once that's done, a rational search for a director can go forward. They've just got to answer some questions and get on with it. They will certainly be able to get a fine person to direct the museum," he said.

The announcement was greeted by a sense of relief from staff members at the museum, who claimed that Shapiro was unable to make decisions and was responsible for tension at the institution in recent months. During Shapiro's tenure he has had to reduce the staff by 23 employees, and five curators have resigned.

Shapiro said he reached his decision during a two-week vacation, from which he returned over the weekend. He informed members of the museum's board of trustees of his decision Monday and they worked out arrangements for his resignation, he said.

He will leave LACMA on Sept. 30 and serve as a consultant to the museum for an additional year. Maguire said Shapiro's salary for the next year will be paid by the Museum Associates, but he declined to reveal terms of the deal. Shapiro has reportedly been receiving a salary of $175,000, of which $99,881 is paid by the county.

In an interview with The Times, Shapiro said many factors played a part in his decision, but the primary consideration was the museum's fiscal distress. "This has been a year of dramatic change for the county, the state and the museum. Many of the changes that have occurred are things nobody could have foreseen. Those changes eventually made the museum very different from the museum I came to. I thought that the skills that I bring to a job--the artistic skills and the vision I had last summer--although still very relevant, just have to take a back seat. The fiscal problems are so large and important and pressing that those issues have to come first."

Shapiro said he plans to move with his family back to St. Louis.

Maguire said the museum's most pressing problem is not to find a new director. "Our first focus is to have a transitional team in place and we have accomplished that," he said. "In the near term we have to concentrate on our contractual relationship with the county and clarify that, and we have to deal with financial issues. But these problems are solvable."

Chief Deputy Director Ronald B. Bratton will coordinate administrative and financial activities. Stephanie Barron, curator of 20th-Century art, will coordinate curatorial affairs during the interim period.

In naming Shapiro to the LACMA post, trustees were criticized for overlooking more qualified candidates on the museum's curatorial staff. Maguire declined to comment on the nature of the search for a new director, but at a Friday morning staff meeting he said that the board's executive committee would not immediately hire an executive search firm as it had in the search that led to Shapiro's appointment. Trustees and staff members will be consulted in-depth before a new director is named, he reportedly told the staff.

Times staff writers Carla Rivera and Monica Yant contributed to this story.

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