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MOCA Director a Curator to the Core

TIMES ART CRITIC

Jeremy Strick is a museum guy. Because some art museums, including ones in Los Angeles and Chicago, are now turning to professional administrators and university educators to assume the top post, many observers were relieved when the Museum of Contemporary Art recently went the traditional route, elevating an experienced curator to the director’s chair. MOCA’s new director, who assumed the helm in July as the third director in the museum’s 19-year existence, has served in curatorial positions at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, the St. Louis Art Museum and, since 1996, the Art Institute of Chicago.

The appointment did generate some surprise. Strick is young--43--and low-key. Well-regarded among his curatorial peers, he lacks an extensive administrative record. At MOCA he assumes leadership of one of the largest art museums of its kind in the nation, with a staff of 130, membership of 13,000 and an annual attendance of 450,000.

An L.A. native, Strick comes from a family with roots both in Hollywood and art: His father, filmmaker Joseph Strick, won an Academy Award for the documentary “Interviews With My Lai Veterans”; a great-uncle, Edward Biberman, was a realist painter of some note whose 1941 mural, “The Story of Venice,” graces the Venice Post Office and whose brother, Herbert, was one of the Hollywood 10, the group of writers jailed during the McCarthy era for their political beliefs.

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Question: When you entered the museum field, was becoming a director a specific aspiration?

Answer: It was a consideration more than an aspiration. I first wanted to work as a curator. As I worked in museums more and more, I thought I might eventually become a director.

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Q: A few museums have begun to hire professional administrators or university educators as directors. What do you think of the trend away from the traditional elevation of curators to a director’s post?

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A: People of different skills and talents can certainly offer something to the field. Broadening the circles of expertise can be positive. But I also think there’s a core to the museum, which is the art, and the scholarship and knowledge that goes into dealing with that art. It would be a shame if museums strayed too far from that.

That’s one reason I finally wanted to become a museum director. Coming from a curatorial background, I wanted to reclaim that space for the core vision and purpose of the museum.

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Q: On the other side, many curators have become wary of making the transition to director because of the enormous demands, especially fund-raising.

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A: The question for me is: Where is the center of gravity? If I’m pulling all of the areas of the museum, including [fund-raising], back to what the museum is fundamentally about, that’s great.

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Q: In a recent letter introducing yourself to the MOCA membership, you described the museum’s permanent collection as your first priority. Why?

A: If you look at MOCA’s achievements over the last 20 years, which have been many and notable, arguably the greatest has been in building a significant permanent collection. The collection has been built largely through a series of major acquisitions that have been tremendously important, but less through a regular process of collection building. The museum doesn’t have much presence in the art market, doesn’t have much presence among emerging artists as far as active collecting. MOCA has an extraordinary reputation for its exhibitions, and I’d like to see it have the same reputation for its collecting policies.

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Q: What gaps do you see in the collection?

A: I’m learning the collection, so it’s premature to say. One reason I’m hesitating is that we have so little of our permanent collection on view.

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Q: Do you anticipate committing additional gallery space to the permanent collection?

A: I very much want to do that, particularly at the Geffen Contemporary. Having a permanent collection display in both our buildings is very important.

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Q: Does MOCA have an acquisitions endowment?

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A: It has a couple of relatively small endowments that don’t produce a great deal of income. Most acquisition funds come from the collections committee, which makes regular contributions, or from directed fund-raising [for specific purchases]. A goal I have for the museum is to have a significant acquisition fund that we can draw on regularly.

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Q: As director, will you still organize exhibitions?

A: I didn’t come here to do exhibitions. But neither do I expect not to do them. From time to time I’ll participate, but that won’t be my primary focus.

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Q: In addition to developing an acquisitions program, what areas of institutional life need attention?

A: A couple of areas interest me particularly--like electronic media and emerging media, which at the beginning of its life MOCA decided to largely ignore, and more recently has started addressing. There’s been so much interesting work in the last decade in the areas of video, video projection and installation, and emerging digital forms--a good deal of it in Los Angeles--that it’s an area we should look at very carefully and develop a clear position.

The other broad area is the museum’s audience, and working to engage our audience more deeply and in different ways than we have been. It’s a challenge for a contemporary museum in particular, because when you’re presenting new work it’s work that people fundamentally don’t know about. But that is one of the purposes of a contemporary museum, to provide an audience for new work and to find ways to engage people with it.

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Q: Education is a big buzzword in museums lately, partly because it’s an available and noncontroversial source of funding. Is the increased attention to education at all problematic?

A: It depends on what kind of attention. For MOCA, I’m particularly concerned about adult education. We’ve had some innovative and extremely successful education programs for children, but we’ve done less in the realm of adult education. Areas like symposia or brochures for an educated audience haven’t been provided to a degree that we’d like to see. That’s an area I would want to concentrate on, and in my discussion with museum staff, it [seems to be] perceived as an issue across the board.

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Q: The history of postwar art produced in Los Angeles has not been much of a focus at MOCA. Is that an area of concern?

A: Very much. We’re a museum that shows recent art and puts it into a historical context. If you go around the world and visit exhibitions of recent art, you’ll likely see a good representation of artists from Los Angeles. So, if we’re doing our job, we should be putting [L.A.'s art] into historical context. It’s certainly part of our mandate.

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Q: What part of Los Angeles did you grow up in?

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A: Mar Vista, then Santa Monica. I lived here until I was 18 and went away to college.

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Q: How did you get interested in art?

A: It’s something that developed over time but became pretty serious for me in high school. I started going to the L.A. County Museum regularly and to get books and read a lot, and I decided that when I went to college I would study art history until I figured out what I really wanted to do. But I couldn’t figure out anything better!

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Q: What’s your earliest recollection of art here?

A: It might be the Edward Kienholz show at the County Museum [in 1966]. And then the “Art and Technology” show [at LACMA in 1971]. I also had a great-uncle who was a painter here, and I spent a lot of time with him at his studio talking about art and looking at things. His name was Edward Biberman. He was quite influential for me.

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Q: How did you end up in the museum profession?

A: I decided to go to graduate school. I had loved UC Santa Cruz as an undergraduate, but as far as a direct connection to actual art objects, it was a little bit lacking. So I thought I should rectify that with my graduate education and chose to go to Harvard, which had its program in the Fogg Museum. There was a strong tradition there of working with objects. I still debated whether I wanted to pursue a career in academia and teaching or go into museums, and I was fortunate [to] be offered a job at the National Gallery in the 20th century department.

It seemed the best way to decide whether this was something I wanted to do was just to do it. I loved it, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.


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