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Palm Springs Art Museum hires former MCA Denver leader

Adam Lerner was named the new executive director of the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Adam Lerner was named the new executive director of the Palm Springs Art Museum.
(The Hip Photo)

The Palm Springs Art Museum has named its new executive director: Adam Lerner, who comes from the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, where he served as director and self-titled “chief animator” from 2009-2019.

“I’ve always loved Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley,” Lerner said in an interview. “And I’ve always felt the museum’s collection was really interesting. I’ve always been attracted to it.”

Lerner replaces Executive Director Louis Grachos, who left in March for the New Mexico contemporary arts organization SITE Santa Fe, after a nearly two-year run in Palm Springs — a period dominated by pandemic closure. The museum reopened April 1.

In the announcement, museum board chair Jane Emison called Lerner “one of the art world’s most respected and imaginative curators and program developers.”

“Adam’s proven record of developing organizations and inspiring his supporters makes him a perfect fit for our museum, which is poised for its next level of evolution as it grows along with the vibrant community of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley,” she said.

Lerner said the combination of “flourishing of art activity” in the region, and the growing attractiveness of the area to younger people is something he’s particularly excited about.

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“It’s at an inflection point in the arts,” he said. “What interests me most is the ability to build an institution so that it influences how a city or region develops. I love city-building and I feel museums are a great platform to have an impact on the air quality, so to speak, of a place — in what it feels like to live there.”

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Lerner joins the museum after a particularly challenging period. Grachos steered the museum through the pandemic, but his short tenure was somewhat bumpy. In June 2020, the museum was criticized for waiting 10 days to respond publicly to the killing of George Floyd and calls for more racial equity in all segments of society.

Grachos was also criticized for the museum’s sale of an important 1979 painting by Helen Frankenthaler, “Carousel,” from its permanent collection. The sale generated $3.9 million for the museum at an Oct. 28 auction; the deaccessioning of artworks, however, is largely frowned upon in the museum world.

The COVID-19 closure resulted in a loss of about $1.5 million in earned revenue for the museum. The museum furloughed or laid off close to 50% of its full- and part-time staff during the pandemic, though some admissions and security staffers have returned to work.

Lerner said he was unfazed by the recent challenges and that it was “time for building.”

“I took over the MCA Denver in 2009, in the middle of the recession, so I understand the opportunity of taking the helm of a museum that has gone through some difficulties,” he said. “But you can only go up and in this case, I feel my predecessor and the board have done a lot to prepare me and the museum for success.”

Lerner said he prides himself on having presented some especially innovative exhibitions at the MCA Denver, including a 2014 retrospective of Devo cofounder Mark Mothersbaugh and a 2017 exhibition of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat that hadn’t been seen before in a museum. In his decade at the MCA Denver, he tripled attendance and doubled the operating budget.

He said he emphasized contemporary Mexican artists. A large-scale sculpture that he commissioned in 2010 by artist Gonzalo Lebrija, called “History of Suspended Time (A monument for the impossible),” is currently on loan to the Palm Springs Art Museum, where it sits prominently outside by the entrance.

Prior to the MCA Denver, Lerner founded and served as executive director for the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar, located in a suburb of Denver; it eventually merged with the MCA Denver in 2009. He was master teacher for Modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum from 2001 to 2003. He’s also held positions at the Contemporary museum in Baltimore and was a pre-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

Lerner starts in Palm Springs on July 15.

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