Paul Schimmel doesn’t need much encouragement to squire a guest around the Museum of Contemporary Art’s galleries, which he does with the zest of a house-proud homeowner. And why shouldn’t he? Next month, MOCA’s chief curator celebrates 20 years with the museum, which has just put up a big, gorgeous show of its collections for its own “First Thirty Years” celebration.
Neither anniversary might have happened. Money troubles threw a sincere scare about MOCA’s survivability into the art world and the city. But a last-reel rush to save MOCA raised some respectable dough, most recently $3.5 million that fluttered in from a black-tie gala enlivened by Lady Gaga performing on a pink piano that Damien Hirst had painted with blue butterflies.
Schimmel was always a believer, even in the bad times. On his desk are small books with deliberately blank pages, on whose edges artist Ed Ruscha has summed up philanthropist Eli Broad’s challenge to MOCA: “Make new history.” For Schimmel, that’s the eleventh commandment -- or maybe the first.
After 30 years of MOCA, has L.A. finally overcome its artistic inferiority complex? Does the city have the confidence to match the collection?
The city has the creative confidence to be among the most admired and influential visual arts communities in the world. One thing MOCA made a profound commitment to was to treat the best and brightest artists of Los Angeles not as provincially important, but to bring them to national and international attention. We have succeeded because the artists we have grown up with have become among the most admired in the world. Sam Francis, Ed Moses, Ed Ruscha: They’ve supported the institution; they see both the museum and themselves in a regional context while simultaneously understanding the huge impact that Los Angeles art has internationally.
Does the regular Angeleno appreciate MOCA?
When you have memberships like we do, when you have exhibitions that can bring in 100,000, 200,000 people, this is a great success. Would we like to have a larger membership and more visitors? Would we like the nature of urban life in Los Angeles to [bring] more people walking in off the street? Of course. But these are broader issues. We have had great success in changing the public’s relationship to art of our time. Contemporary art was highly specialized and a small niche market. Now, some 30 years later, MOCA has provided a kind of town center for the visual arts that’s been very successful.
Our [Takashi] Murakami exhibition broke records here, and at the Brooklyn Museum and in Frankfurt and Bilbao. Shows like “Ecstasy” brought in a whole new generation. One of the most coveted audiences is the first-time museum visitor. You know they’re first-time because you have to watch them much more carefully; they don’t know the difference between not touching and touching! Members are the backbone, but your first-time visitor -- if you open the door for a new generation of museum-goers, it’s extraordinary. The impact -- they carry that for the rest of their lives.
MOCA just had a near-death experience, financially. Where do matters stand now?
My expertise is clearly the artistic program. That said, MOCA has done a great deal in the last year to bring the endowment back up, and it has occurred much more rapidly than people could have imagined.
There have been two factors: the Broad Foundation [Eli Broad provided a $30-million bailout, tied to a challenge to the MOCA board], and the fact that the board -- people have been unfairly critical of this board -- continued to raise funds to bring the endowment back to where it was.
I’ve never heard from our trustees or the patrons or the artists that they want us to lower the quality of what we do, to be less original, to be any less committed to the kinds of audacious shows that have characterized MOCA from the beginning. What I have heard is that we should do fewer things, but in no way to erode the quality or the ambition of this institution.
Did you ever think that MOCA wouldn’t make it to 30?
No, and I wasn’t alone. An institution that had done so much to change Los Angeles, an institution and a collection admired as one of the most important, and a membership of 15,000, 20,000 people -- I could not imagine that a depleted endowment would be enough to take it under. I suspect that the world’s perception of MOCA [helped] in saving us. There was a sense well beyond Los Angeles that this would be a terrible, terrible loss.
Is MOCA in any position to buy art?
We have had a certain significant curtailment of our acquisitions in the past year. But well over 90% of our collection has been donated. Nothing inspires donations more than the opportunity to see the collection itself. As you know, there was a very rapid drop [in art sales] last year. Instead of people selling works, they might very well consider giving them away.
What does success mean in the art world?
A successful movie has to really reach millions and millions of people. A successful artist ultimately needs only a handful of patrons to truly make a great career. The most famous artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, doesn’t even come close to the reach a Steven Spielberg has. By [its] very nature, art is elite, and yet from this crucible it spills out into the world of journalism, into popular culture, to movies and to music, and the impact is really quite profound. We were downstairs looking at Diane Arbus [photographs]. That scene in “The Shining” -- those little twins at the end of the hallway -- that’s Diane Arbus. She doesn’t get credit, but the impact of her vision, her imagery, through that movie and from that director, is pervasive.
With such a substantial permanent collection, are the space limitations frustrating?
I don’t think we have space limitations. We have two great buildings. What we have not had is the consistent funding.
A good, proper balance of temporary ex- hibitions and permanent collections is kind of a 50-50 ratio, and that’s something we hope to achieve both in this building and over at the Geffen. A real balance between permanent collections and temporary exhibitions is what we are striving for.
Why did you fall in love with contemporary art and not, say, old Dutch masters?
I knew from the time I was a teenager I wanted to be a curator. My epiphany was in the basement of the Museum of Modern Art. I was doing research on [the art collection of] Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The librarian at MOMA arranged to have one of the assistant curators take me down to the basement, where they had a number of these works. Being alone with the work of art, having that kind of intimacy, realizing the incredible connection as a curator you can have with an object -- that is absolutely still the core.
I’ve had opportunities to go in other directions -- the gallery world, artist’s advisor. I come back again and again to the fact that being a curator is uniquely marvelous.
If some disaster happened and you could save one piece from the whole museum, which would it be?
I know which I could carry under my arms; I know which is the most valuable per square inch, but I couldn’t. . . . Are you a mother?
What about the controversy over setting up a Louis Vuitton store in the middle of the 2007 “Copyright Murakami” exhibition?
Personally, I have no interest in brands; I’m kind of the anti-brand. But I understood how important [Murakami’s] erasure of the space between high and low, between commercial art and fine art, was. That was essential to understanding Murakami.
And I was wrestling with, how do you do that? You can talk about it; you can write about it; you can take pictures of it; but the best way to do it is to have people experience it, in a very meaningful way. And a way that really represents the artist is experiencing the shop itself.
And you took a lot of crap for it.
On both sides. A lot of crap for doing it, and a lot of crap for not making money on it.
We’re not a gallery. I didn’t want the Louis Vuitton shop next to our bookshop. I did not want it to be treated as a commercial enterprise. I wanted it to be like a spaceship that had landed in the middle of the exhibition. I also understood that if we opened a commercial shop and [if it] had direct benefits to the museum, it could [call into] question our not-for-profit status. So Louis Vuitton and Murakami developed, financed and fully operated that shop. We had nothing to do with it.
I have courted controversy before, and I understood there were great benefits to the museum by changing the paradigm. It was wildly successful beyond my greatest ambition.
What happens when Rauschenberg becomes Rembrandt, when “contemporary” is 100 years old and part of the artistic canon?
First of all, Rauschenberg becomes Rembrandt in a much quicker time frame than Rembrandt became Rembrandt. The sense of compression of time, it’s a world phenomenon, and you have changes that take place in a blink, overnight.
Great success can also be limiting, and this worries me. When an artist becomes extraordinarily revered for a certain kind of work, collectors, dealers, critics, curators all want that thing. Enormous success can be a great challenge for an artist to move forward, because greatness is achieved by rejecting your past and moving on. And the more successful you are, the more [it can] hold an artist back. I don’t know what the balance is, but the mark of the great artist is one who can walk away from themselves and move on.
Is there one artist whose work you covet?
I would like MOCA to have a collection of [California artist Bruce] Nauman that’s equal to MOMA’s collection of Picasso. We’re not there by a long shot. Financially, at this moment, it’s out of our reach. But I would very much like to have the cream of the collection of Bruce Nauman. It’s so clear to me that he is a giant.
firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.