What should be the role of the publicly supported Los Angeles County Museum of Art? Should it be a place for collecting and displaying a wide range of art objects covering a broad span of history and culture? Or should it focus more on outreach and education, making its collection, and art in general, more accessible to the people of Southern California?
When Andrea Rich was appointed president and CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art two years ago, her mandate was to redefine LACMA’s prime directives. After the departure of Director Earl A. Powell in 1992, the institution had suffered through almost four years without an effective leader. Rich felt the museum had lost its focus, and one of her first actions was to draft a new mission statement:
“To serve the public through the collection, conservation, exhibition and interpretation of significant works of art from a broad range of cultures and historical periods, and through the translation of these collections into meaningful educational, aesthetic, intellectual and cultural experiences for the widest array of audiences.”
While it’s not a radical vision, by far, it’s one that had never been formally put down in words. And in her two-year tenure, Rich, a long-time UCLA administrator, has made radical changes in the way the museum operates, and in the ways it sees itself. She’s determined to coordinate the museum’s wide variety of programs in a way that advances the goals she’s set, and has instituted fiscal reforms that make department heads more responsible for how money is spent. And she’s put into place an ambitious education program that brings the museum together with other community museums, universities and the Los Angeles Unified School District. It includes a teacher training academy, school-based programs and even a traveling exhibit called the Maya mobile--all designed to make the museum more attractive and accessible to school children and to help restore arts education in area public schools.
Rich’s appointment was controversial because she is not an arts professional; she is currently the only non-professional to head a major U.S. museum. A former UCLA faculty member, she began working as a administrator there in the 1970s, eventually becoming the university’s executive vice chancellor and CEO. Shortly after she arrived at LACMA, Graham W.J. Beal, former head of Omaha’s Joselyn Art Museum, joined her as museum director. He’s responsible for the museum’s art collections, programs and staff, but Rich is his superior and holds the purse strings. While many in the art world predicted conflict, even disaster, Rich and Beal maintain that they get along well, and that the arrangement is working. They are, says Rich, taking the long view and caution that it will be several more years before much of their reform becomes visible.
Rich, 54, says much of her motivation for taking on this task stems from her love of Los Angeles. A native of San Diego, she came here as a UCLA freshman in 1961, and stayed, raising two sons while she built a solid reputation as a smart and tough administrator. During a conversation earlier this week in her office at the museum, she talked about the museum’s duty to education, the difficulties of reforming a large institution and her vision for LACMA in the 21st century.
Question: You occupy a unique position. You are president and CEO, but not the artistic director of the museum. How have you defined your role?
Answer: I have a macro function and a micro function. My macro function was to engage the people in the institution, study similar institutions and then create a framework within which this institution could flourish in the next century. This meant meeting and sharing ideas with people in the community, members of the board, people on the staff and people at institutions like this one. Then I had to formulate and express my vision, and go out and sell it. I had to win the support of both the internal and external constituencies.
The micro function was to simply come in, and from a managerial point of view, make the place work. Reorganize it so that everything that is done moves us toward achieving our objectives. This required a total reorganization of the way we do things, and why we do them.
When you don’t have strong leadership, individuals scramble to do their jobs. They do the best they can, and some people here did remarkable things with no leadership. They created individual projects which were often wonderful, but which did not weave a strong institutional base for the future. After being here for a while I told the board that LACMA had constructed some buildings, and collected some art, but it hadn’t yet built an institution. And institutions are created by communicating a strong sense of purpose and handing that mission down from one generation to the next.
One of the first groups I met with when I came here was the curatorial staff. To me, coming from education, they were the intellectual capital of the place--although the organizational chart of the time certainly didn’t reflect that. In that first meeting, it took a great deal of time for me to get anyone on the staff to talk to each other, or answer questions I asked. At the end of the meeting, I was told by one curator that this had been the most intellectually stimulating experience he’d had since he’d come to the museum. I felt that was just horrible. In my experience, meeting with educators, on a scale of one-to-10, this was about a two on the stimulating scale. So I realized that the windows needed to be opened, and that people needed to engage each other. Now we have meetings which genuinely are stimulating, and very animated--maybe too animated!
Q: One of your objectives is to use the museum as a way to restore art education in the schools. Why do you see this as such an important area in which to invest museum resources?
A: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a publicly supported institution. If the museum doesn’t present the things it has in a way that young people can understand and relate to, then at some point, they’ll question why they should support it with their tax dollars. It isn’t enough that we collect great art from around the world, and from all historical periods. If we don’t translate those experiences in a way that is meaningful to the public, then we have fallen short of the investment that the public has made in us. So I think it’s an obligation, and I think institutions which shove their departments of education into a basement--which is the case in far too many museums--are not living up to their responsibility.
There’s a more self-serving reason for stressing education as a major role for the museum. Quite simply, if we don’t, there won’t be any audience for the museum in the future. Then, the actual existence of the museum will be called into question. So I’m promoting it because it’s the right thing to do. A simple archive for scholars doesn’t need to take up all this space. If we don’t embrace education as a function of this institution, it will fold. And it should.
Q: And so you’ve formed this coalition of arts and educational institutions to rehabilitate arts education. How are you doing?
A: The long-term goal is to connect with school children. But a side-benefit that’s coming out of this is the actual infrastructure that’s been put into place to do this. It’s an infrastructure that’s never existed in this city before. There is now a group that meets regularly, made up of the major community museums, higher education and the school district. This is a group that has the means to address not only school children, but the whole community. The coalition’s existence should be able to create a cultural understanding and a dynamic exchange.
In terms of education, it is my hope that by using various creative ways of getting the museum out into the schools, engaging and interesting both children and teachers and following that up with visits to the museum itself, that the children will become the experts, and serve as guides who will in turn bring their parents to the museum.
We want children to be comfortable and familiar with the museum. Their parents may be nervous about coming to a place like this, and the child becomes the tour guide. I want these children to walk in like big shots, and say to their parents, “This painting right here, let me tell you the story . . . did you know that, Mom, Dad?”. To demystify the museum, and make it, in their memories as they grow up, a great place to hang out. So they will, of course, bring their children. And if this is not done now, it will never be done.
Q: If there’s a central truth about Los Angeles, it’s that there are too many options, and not enough time. Perhaps this is heresy, but how do you compete for your audiences limited entertainment time?
A: Is it heresy to suggest that educational programming might also be fun? I believe museums need to develop experiences that are very engaging and interactive for this generation that needs that level of involvement to feel connected. At the same time, museums have always been an arena of calm, where you can be very reflective and inspired by a work which was created to do just that, in that kind of environment. We need to work on multiple levels, and the museum needs to have the same encyclopedic approach to its audience as it has to its collection.
I’d like to see a children’s program, so that families could come here, the children could see something they’ll enjoy, and the parents can enjoy those things that might not be of interest to younger children. I’m very interested in the creation of a children’s art museum--or something like that. Not separate, but within the institution, as part of it. Not with a separate curatorial staff in a basement somewhere. But a way of looking at our collection, and finding interesting ways to engage children.
I’m going to sound conservative here for a minute, but that’s all right. I think it’s important not to lose focus on the fact that we are an “art” museum. The performing arts that are part of the museum experience--jazz, chamber ballet, theater--have been very well received. They draw people in and create a tone. But the edge, the definitional framework of the institution is collecting art, and making it accessible and understandable to the widest array of people.
Q: LACMA occupies the middle ground geographically, with the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown and the Getty Center to the west. How should their existence influence your institution?
A: I think this city deserves everything it has and more. Too often Angelenos underestimate what they deserve. “Gee, what’s gonna happen to LACMA once the Getty opens?” As if you only get one art institution. Certainly New Yorkers have never worried about how much art they deserve--they deserve it all! My perspective is this. Every great city needs a contemporary art museum. We do, one with focus and energy. Great cities also deserve great centers of study, and I think the Getty is going to be that. It’s a notion much broader than just that of a museum, and Los Angeles is fortunate to have it here.
LACMA is the people’s museum. It is, as you point out, geographically central. People come here and don’t feel like they’re in someone else’s territory. It is supported by the public, and so it has a duty to the public in ways that the Getty, or MOCA, or the Huntington don’t quite have.
Q: How do you see technology changing the role of the museum?
A: It won’t replace them. Being able to see a digital image on a screen will not mean people will stop coming to museums. That is the silliest argument I can imagine--but I have heard that. What technology can do is to provide access, whet the appetite and generate visits to the museum. And technology at the museum should enhance your experience. If you see a painting in one of our galleries, and then can go into our digital library, and view seven other paintings by the same artist, that’s one more level of engagement. I don’t see technology as a danger; I see it as something as exciting as I can imagine.*