Portrait of a Smooth Transition

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

About a year ago, when Jeremy Strick was chosen to be the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, skeptics rolled their eyes and crossed their fingers.

The problem wasn't his art credentials. Strick is a Harvard University-educated scholar who was curator of 20th century painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago and previously held curatorial positions at two other prestigious institutions, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the St. Louis Art Museum. What he lacked was experience in administration and fund-raising--the two areas that would occupy most of his time and energy at MOCA.

But now, after a mere eight months on the job, Strick seems to have allayed the fears. The most spectacular indicator of his high approval rating is a $10-million gift--the largest in the 20-year-old museum's history--from trustee Dallas Price. Announced in late January, the donation was made in honor of Strick and former MOCA director Richard Koshalek, who led the museum from infancy to maturity and now heads Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

MOCA also has received a bonanza of artworks since Strick's arrival, 17 of which were specifically dedicated to him. And just in the last few weeks, still more gifts of art have come in, including major pieces by sculptor and performance artist Paul McCarthy, video artist Doug Aitken and photographer Andreas Gursky.

If this show of confidence has astonished many in the art world, Strick confesses that his transition has been smoother than even he expected. "I've been surprised at how quickly the board and the staff have rallied and at the energy people have put into the museum," he said in an interview at his office.

"The gift that Dallas Price made is the most extraordinary manifestation of that. It was an expression of Dallas' own commitment but also an indication of a broad-based commitment to MOCA in Los Angeles. People love this museum; it means a lot to them. My previous experience has been in museums with much longer histories, so I have been positively surprised by the level of interest in the museum around the city. In a relatively short period of time, MOCA has established deep roots."

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Leading trustees say that Strick, 44, got their attention quickly through a series of strategic planning sessions that began soon after his arrival. The meetings provided a forum for the new director to outline his vision of MOCA's future, to generate excitement about possible changes and strengthen the trustees' commitment to the museum by involving them in making decisions.

"Our mission is to deal with the most significant and challenging art of our time," Strick said. The meetings renewed that mission and produced a new determination to carry it out more effectively and to increase the institution's impact globally and locally. At MOCA--which presents an international program that includes local artists--the challenge is "to place Los Angeles history in an international context," he said. "That's our task."

Strategic planning was "a way for the board to look at itself and the museum at a moment of transition, and to forge a new consensus," Strick said of the program, which was funded by a grant from the Irvine Foundation and facilitated by the Boston-based consulting firm Bain & Co. "I worked with the board leadership and involved the museum staff in looking at everything from mission and vision to a board strategy, to fund-raising and marketing development. The process provided a context in which to make decisions for our fiscal 2000 budget and to think about the museum's future--what the options are for MOCA's growth and how the museum can continue to flourish."

The basic issue was "what MOCA is for, what we are about," Strick said. "Then we had to determine whether to keep things as they are or to go beyond past achievements, which would take a real commitment and hard work."

The decision was to grow.

For the permanent collection--largely composed of American postwar art--that means making "a strategic shift" in two areas, Strick said. "We want to respond to the increasingly global nature of contemporary art. This is a great international museum, and the collection should reflect that."

Soon, Strick said, the collection is likely to be rounded out by acquisitions from upcoming international exhibitions. They include "Flight Patterns: Picturing the Pacific Rim" (Oct. 29-Feb. 18, 2001), an exploration of landscape representation organized by curator Connie Butler, and "Public Offerings" (March 25-July 8, 2001), chief curator Paul Schimmel's examination of artists who emerged in the 1990s from key art schools.

"Another area of the permanent collection that's had a lot of discussion is emerging artists," Strick said. "We want to be much more aggressive in collecting the work of emerging artists and involving ourselves with the contemporary art scene. The work being made in Los Angeles is extraordinary. It's a great moment in the history of the city. We want to make sure we really attend to that."

Like other museums, MOCA has a cumbersome acquisition process that can make it difficult to snap up the work of hot young artists. To alleviate that problem, Strick has set up a discretionary fund that allows curators to reserve works "within a certain price range"--which he declined to disclose. If he and Schimmel approve, the works can be purchased without going through the usual committees.

"I'm really happy with the fund, and the curators love it," Strick said. "It's a way to energize the collecting our curators do, and to work in a much more direct and entrepreneurial fashion. The idea is to get MOCA more out into the community, to let us take a leadership position in collecting, especially with emerging artists."

MOCA curators have already used the new fund to buy works by three emerging artists from exhibitions at local galleries: "Untitled (Houses)," a large painting by Dirk Skreber, from Blum & Poe; "Night Office A," a painting by Paul Winstanley from Brian Butler; and three photographs of library and archive interiors by Candida Hofer, from Karyn Lovegrove. Several other acquisitions are in the works, some of which may be purchased directly from artists, Strick said.

Fulfilling the museum's mission of dealing with "the most significant and challenging art of our time" also entails providing an audience for the art and the artists who made it, Strick said. To that end, the strategic planning sessions also focused on improvements in visitor services. One result is a new, free shuttle that runs between the museum's two buildings during public hours of operation. Another change is that a staff member has been stationed in front of each building to welcome visitors and provide information about programs and parking. Educators and volunteers in the galleries are also making an effort to engage the public, Strick said.

"We really want to project the museum into the public life of the city," Strick said, as the conversation shifted to marketing strategies. "The Barbara Kruger show provided a great model for how that can be accomplished. She is an artist with a deep concern for those issues, but we did everything from billboards to newspaper advertisements that she designed to radio advertisements that she wrote. We want to see our marketing and communications as a means of artistic communication, so we are conveying factual information along with a sense of what the museum is about."

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Contemporary art can be a hard sell, so it's important to create a setting that helps answer questions, Strick said. That means giving the museum's permanent collection a larger presence than it has had in the past, he said. "One of the things I am looking forward to in the fall is having a permanent collection installation in both buildings. That will provide a context to explain how an unfamiliar work relates to a certain tradition."

The arrival of a new museum director often leads to movement in curatorial ranks as well. Naturally, there are rumors of changes at MOCA, where most curators are not assigned to a specific aesthetic territory. But Strick characterized anticipated shifts as "an evolution of responsibilities rather than a reorganization. We want something that is not too distant from what we have, where people have particular responsibilities but also work in other areas and as a team." Acknowledging curators' specialties is important in developing relationships with collectors, he said. "Some people have very specific interests, and we want to respond to that very effectively."

Strick has taken charge of a museum that is already well-established, but he sees several ways for its program to develop. "I do think there is an opportunity in this city, which is a great international center for media, to focus on new media and the relationship of this museum to the culture of the city. There are many overlaps between what artists and the entertainment industry are doing, and I think that is something we can work with in fascinating ways," he said.

Video, sound works and other new media will be an integral part of several upcoming exhibitions, including "Flight Patterns" and "Public Offerings" as well as solo shows of works by Tony Oursler, Adrian Piper, Stan Douglas and Douglas Gordon. "Beyond that, in the next year we are planning to completely redo and revamp our Web site and to make that a major venue for the museum, where we present new work," Strick said.

Architecture--a special interest of Koshalek and curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith, who left MOCA a year ago to join the staff of the Art Institute of Chicago--will continue to have a strong presence in the museum's program, Strick said. At the same time, the museum will create a complementary design program. "Los Angeles is every bit as important in architecture and design as it is in other forms of visual art, so that is going to become an area of greater attention," he said.

As he continues to wend his way through MOCA's administrative maze and get acquainted with the community, Strick says he still has "a huge amount" to learn. But he's absolutely certain of one thing. "I am here because I was a curator and my focus is the art," he said. "The challenge for me is to keep that focus in everything I do and to make sure that I remain in touch with the core of the museum and my own core."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday March 19, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction Art curator-- Elizabeth A.T. Smith is chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. An article last Sunday incorrectly placed her at a different institution.
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