Q & A with GRAHAM W. J. BEAL : The Art Is 'Top Priority'

TIMES ART CRITIC

Last summer, the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art startled the art museum profession when it downgraded the museum director's responsibilities by hiring a professional administrator (new LACMA president and chief executive officer and former UCLA Vice Chancellor Andrea L. Rich) to run the prestigious institution. Last week, Rich and LACMA trustee William A. Mingst named British-born, 48-year-old Graham W.J. Beal to fill the director's slot, which had been vacant since September 1993.

Beal has worked at three American museums since 1977--curatorial jobs at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and since 1989 as director of the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Neb. A small regional art museum most notable for its collection of works by Karl Bodmer, George Catlin and other artist-explorers of the American West, the Joslyn couldn't be more different from the encyclopedic museum on Wilshire Boulevard. But Beal's recent completion of a $16-million, 58,000-square-foot expansion at the Joslyn is experience that will be useful as LACMA ponders the future of the adjacent May Co. building, which it acquired in 1994 and has yet to program.

Beal, in an interview in the LACMA office he will occupy beginning early this summer, talked about the controversy over the director's altered role and about his aspirations for the museum.

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Question: LACMA is the only major art museum in the United States that has a professional administrator in the top job, rather than an art historian. Why do you think that's a good idea?

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Answer: I'm not so sure I think it's a good or a bad idea. It's something that appeals to me--or doesn't worry me, I should say--on the basis of just simple personalities. In the end, these things work or they don't work because of the personalities of the individuals there. It doesn't matter how equal people are on paper or who's above whom on paper; if you don't have a serious understanding of how the team works, I don't think any system [works]. So I'm not worried about it in the way that other people might be.

Q: Is there something unique about LACMA that requires this form of split administration?

A: I think the board obviously decided they needed someone in here to do a big strategic look at the place, and they got someone who has a stellar track record at UCLA to get that sorted out and then see if they could get the right art mix.

Q: Since you report to the museum president, how does your job as director differ from that traditionally held by a chief curator at a large museum?

A: It differs in a very simple way, since my title is director and executive vice president. I will be involved in all aspects of planning and fund-raising and administration. The art people will report to me, and there will be a link with the business side and the fund-raising side. I was not interested in going back to being a chief curator.

Q: Why did you first aspire to being an art museum director?

A. I'm not quite sure! (laughter) When I left the Walker Art Center I entered a crisis period. I'd been a chief curator, I didn't think I wanted to be a director, so what was I going to do? When I went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it was a very interesting and challenging time, but as chief curator in a museum that was rebuilding itself it was clear that for a number of years that position was going to be highly administrative. Taking home my "In" basket on Saturdays and [not working on shows] meant I might as well have been a director somewhere. At least I'd get the final decision on things, as much as a board of trustees allows that. So I consciously looked around for a museum that I thought was small enough for me to have hands-on in art. I was offered several positions, and was amazed that the one that actually looked most attractive was Omaha. So [I went there] in 1989 knowing we'd be doing a big capital campaign, raising a lot of money and building a building. I thought this would be a great place to see if I can do it.

Q: In your 24-year career, what has been your proudest achievement in terms of collection development, exhibition program or scholarship?

A: I look back with particular affection on medium size exhibitions, such as the [William] Wiley mid-career survey, a small exhibition of Michelle Stuart and I've always been pleased with ["A Quiet Revolution: British Sculpture Since 1965," which] I did at San Francisco. Attracting the [Kenneth] Tyler archive [of prints] to Walker Art Center through some exhibitions that I did. In San Francisco I didn't really have the chance to build collections. In Omaha we've been doing a huge amount of deaccessioning and are beginning to focus and add to the collections there. We've added about 1,000 works, [from] Pre-Raphaelite paintings to photographs and prints.

Q: Will you continue curatorial work at LACMA?

A: I'm not planning to. The thing that I really enjoyed in Omaha was building the new building, bringing all those elements together, making it happen and making it be a genuine success story in terms of a building project. Financially it's under budget. It may be the last great success I ever have, but it's been very gratifying. That's what I see [as a possibility] at LACMA on a much larger scale.

Q: There's general agreement that LACMA has been without a coherent focus for a number of years now. What do you see to be its specific mission?

A: I'm not sure that I can give you, right now, a coherent mission statement, [but] both the problem and the strength of this institution is its diversity, the range of collections, the kind of dialogue that can go on between those collections. [The Getty Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art] are highly focused, but it doesn't mean we won't do any of [what they do]. It just means we can do it in a different way.

Something a lot of American museums forget is that the long-term health and value of the museum resides in its collection. That has got to be the top priority.

Q: What are a few of the strengths and weaknesses of LACMA's collection?

A: I don't know enough about areas outside the 20th century and [17th century] Dutch painting. I went up to the galleries for 20 minutes the other day, and I lingered in front of all those wonderful Rembrandts and I felt at home. But I don't know about Iranian ceramics. I look forward to learning about it.

Q: What's your sense of LACMA's exhibition program in recent years?

A: I haven't paid a great deal of attention to it. I saw the [Gustave] Caillebotte show when I was in Paris, otherwise I would definitely have gotten on a plane and come to L.A. to see that.

Q: There are several vacancies in the museum's curatorial staff; do you plan to fill them?

A: I don't have specific plans [but] to me the sine qua non of the ultimate health of this institution is the curatorial staff, getting the right massing and the right ranks is what will make it happen or not. It's been the hardest thing for me in Omaha. I have left two positions open for over two years now because I simply can't find the right people for those jobs, in Omaha, with those collections. There's no point in hiring the wrong person.

Q: So curatorial staff is a high priority for you?

A: Absolutely. To me the highest, I think.

Q: "Educational outreach" is today's big buzzword in American art museums. You've been quoted as saying that while education is important, it shouldn't be an art museum's highest priority. Why not?

A: You're right, it is the buzzword, and I'm buzzing along with everybody else. Over the past few years I finally realized that I've got to stop sitting there groaning about the education system in this country and waiting for them to do something, because they're not going to. I think museums have got to take an active role. The money is there, it's money that you don't get for other parts of the museum's operation, and I think it's the ultimate long-range plan for us in terms of broadening the audience. I really believe that Jesuit axiom, "Give me the child when he is 5, and he is mine forever."

Q: Are you daunted by the prospect of developing the May Co. building?

A: I'm not a fan of the exterior; I'm daunted by that! But I'm thrilled by the opportunity. I don't have any ideas about what exactly to do there, [but] that is when my juices really got going, probably because I had just come off a success [with the new Omaha building].

Q: What's your biggest hope for LACMA, and what's your biggest fear?

A: My biggest hope would be that LACMA becomes a model of the kind of museum that acts as a magnet for its total community, that involves all levels of the community, [who] will feel that it owns this place. My biggest fear--and I'm getting out of my depth here--it seems to me that this is a fantastic city in a wonderful position, and I would hate to think that it "missed the moment," the way Philadelphia or Boston once lost out to New York. This community has all the ingredients, and if it doesn't fly apart from centrifugal force, it could be a really extraordinary model of what a really genuine multicultural society is. The museum can be that too.

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