Yearlong Search Still Hasn't Produced a LACMA Director : Art: Speculation abounds about why it has taken so long. The committee head says discussions are under way with contenders.

TIMES ART WRITER

"The really crucial qualities we are looking for in a director are leadership, management ability, charisma and a feeling for art," says William A. Mingst, president of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's board of trustees and head of a committee charged with finding a new chief for the Wilshire Boulevard institution.

But if the team knows what it wants, it has produced few visible results. Eighteen months after former LACMA Director Michael E. Shapiro ended his 11-month tenure--under duress, amid a countywide financial crisis--and more than a year after the hunt for his successor officially began, there isn't a single candidate in sight.

The museum has been without a director longer than any of the other nine institutions currently seeking leaders on a list of openings compiled by the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. And the process has been so quiet that many art-world observers either think that the committee is doing nothing or that nobody wants LACMA's top job. According to one theory, the search is moribund because Mingst has been abandoned by the 13 other members of the committee. An opposing point of view is that he likes to be in the spotlight and is in no hurry to bow out.

All these notions are false, Mingst says. While declining to name any candidates, he says that serious discussions are under way with "more than one, but fewer than 10" contenders, including art museum directors and others with related experience. A source close to the museum says the committee has a list of five candidates and that the leading contender is a woman who is not a museum director but has strong administrative experience.

According to Mingst, the committee has been holding well-attended meetings every three or four weeks for the past year and members are active participants.

As for being infatuated with his role, Mingst, a general partner in the Oriole Group, an investment management firm, says: "I do enjoy my job, as president of the board. I'm not the museum's acting director or the interim director. I'm the chief executive officer of Museum Associates, (the private group contracted) by the county to operate and manage the museum. . . . No one will be happier or more relieved than I to have a director. Then I can get back to the things I should be doing."

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The new director must take on the challenge of a capital campaign to increase the museum's relatively small, $24.9-million endowment, to upgrade existing facilities and to develop the vacant May Co. property adjacent to the museum--purchased last year for $25 million with interim funding from the county.

Sources familiar with the search say the May Co. project has scared off candidates, but Mingst disputes this: "It's just the opposite. They see it as an opportunity for expanded exhibition space and outreach, or as a way to reorient the museum." Many ideas for how LACMA and other cultural organizations might use the property are in talking stages, but no decisions will be made until a director is in place, he says.

In an interview last August, Mingst said he hoped a director would be appointed the following month and be in place around the first of the year. He concedes that his estimate was overly optimistic. But is he discouraged? "Hell, no."

The search was initially postponed until the museum stabilized its county funding, after suffering a series of cutbacks that forced reductions in staff, programs and operations. In January, 1994, Museum Associates renegotiated its contract with the county, which provides a $14.2-million base in annual county support and requires private backers to contribute a sum equal to 80% of the public funding.

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According to Mingst, subsequent delays have been caused by several factors, including competition from two more prestigious institutions, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and New York's Museum of Modern Art. Last September, Boston named as director Malcolm Austin Rogers, former deputy director of London's National Portrait Gallery. MOMA ended a two-year-plus search in November with the appointment of Glenn D. Lowery, former chief of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

"Unlike the corporate world, in the museum world candidates only talk to one institution at a time, so we had to wait," Mingst says. Another slowdown occurred during the holiday season. In addition, Mingst says, "Museum directors have unbelievable travel schedules. It's not unusual for us to call candidates and find out that they can't see us for five weeks."

The committee is working with Korn Ferry, an executive search firm that helps identify candidates and evaluate their credentials. Introductory interviews are conducted by a small group of committee members who travel to the candidate's home city. "Then we have to find a way of bringing them to Los Angeles without anyone finding out," Mingst says.

With confidentiality as the watchword of the search, Mingst is pleased that the press has reported the Los Angeles visit of only one candidate, Evan Maurer, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, who dropped out in November. According to other museum administrators, Maurer thinks the May Co. purchase and development is too big a burden for the financially strapped museum, but he cites concerns about moving his family and his reluctance to leave an attractive position as the reasons for his withdrawal.

The committee's secrecy also has left LACMA staff in the dark. They say there is little talk of the search inside the museum, where they labor in limbo, but they are besieged by outsiders' questions about what's taking so long. In the absence of a director, Chief Deputy Director Ronald B. Bratton is handling financial and administrative activities and Stephanie Barron, curator of 20th-Century art, is coordinating curatorial affairs.

Running a museum without a leader is far from ideal, Mingst says. Some decisions take longer to make and two key positions--development director and director of education--are waiting to be filled by the new director. But he insists that ill effects are temporary and that the museum is moving forward with "a lot of positive energy." The current American Festival, which includes four exhibitions--two of them organized by LACMA--is a triumph of curatorial energy and cooperation, he says. And the museum will have an exceptionally strong summer program with the arrival in June of critically acclaimed touring shows of works by Wassily Kandinsky and Gustave Caillebotte.

The museum's trustees, who have been criticized for their relatively low level of financial support and for contributing only to high-profile buildings and projects, now give unrestricted donations to the museum's annual fund for programs and operations, Mingst says. Twenty-nine of the 39 trustees have given a total of $1.55 million to the fund so far in fiscal 1994-95, in addition to support of other projects.

Among other developments, five staff openings have recently been filled--curator of 20th-Century art, director of corporate development, librarian, director of special events and head of general merchandising for the museum's shop. New policies on ethics, deaccessioning and collections management also have been drafted.

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