Are curators a vanishing breed?
Strong support for California’s ambitious program to limit greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming was reconfirmed in a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, showing once more the state’s celebrated environmental consciousness.
So perhaps it’s time at least to ring a warning bell about a puzzling situation in Los Angeles’ cultural environment, rather than its natural one.
At area art museums, the job of chief curator appears to be edging toward the endangered species list. Three notable chief curators have left their museum jobs in the past year. Successors are nowhere in sight.
In early November, Facebook lighted up with chagrined surprise at the unexpected news that the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach was letting go of Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, its admired chief curator. A MoLAA spokesman told The Times that the museum would not fill the now-empty position.
Late last June, the Museum of Contemporary Art ignited a national firestorm with the summary firing of Paul Schimmel, its internationally respected, long-time chief curator. As at MoLAA, insult was added to injury with the announcement that the post would not be refilled.
Finally, at UCLA’s critically esteemed Hammer Museum, Thanksgiving marked a full year since Douglas Fogle left the chief curator’s job. At least the news there is a little better: An active search for a replacement is underway.
But it has been for many months, and no prospective candidate is yet in sight. The delay in finding a successor to what ought to be a plum job is unusually long.
A wave of extinction? Maybe, maybe not. Still, the vacancies are noteworthy because the job goes to the core of the museum mission.
A director provides an art museum’s big vision and is the institution’s public face. On a workaday level, though, it’s the chief curator who leads the artistic program. Curatorial imagination drives museums.
Comparing museums can be treacherous, since no two are exactly alike. Take the unusual organization chart at the high-profile J. Paul Getty Museum. There, the director does not report to a board of trustees, as most museum directors do, but to the paid president of the umbrella Getty Trust. That arrangement, unique among major museums nationally, is more like the common relationship between chief curator and director.
And a big, sprawling place like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is large enough that a deputy director serves the museum-wide function of chief curator. J. Patrice Marandel, for example, holds a chief curator title at LACMA — but only for European painting and sculpture, the museum’s largest department.
Still, the “chief” in chief curator isn’t merely ceremonial. For any institution of a certain size and hoped-for stature — an esteem to which MOCA, MoLAA and the Hammer all aspire — the staff roster may claim no more fundamentally important job.
In the short term, the exhibition and educational programs give a museum life. Over the long term, building the permanent collection is its most significant function. The chief curator bears responsibility for both.
That’s why the news at MOCA last summer created such a stir. The young museum’s collection developed in enviable ways during Schimmel’s 22-year tenure, while no contemporary art museum in the nation had a better program. So furious was the outcry over his dismissal that the museum’s board soon reversed course and decided that the job would, in fact, be refilled — although exactly when is not clear.
In Long Beach, MoLAA appears to be making a sudden U-turn. That’s too bad.
A provincial outpost that reflected the amateur artistic interests of its late founder, managed healthcare entrepreneur Robert Gumbiner, MoLAA limped along for more than a decade after its 1996 founding. In 2007 it completed a $15-million expansion. When director Richard P. Townsend brought Fajardo-Hill from Miami’s Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation in 2009, she launched a newly cogent program.
MoLAA was finally becoming more professional and ambitious — and worth visiting. Townsend left in 2011; with Fajardo-Hill out now, that progress just ground to a halt.
Stuart Ashman, formerly a political appointee to New Mexico’s Cultural Affairs Department, was hired as MoLAA director last year. He told The Times that difficult finances in today’s straitened economic environment required the chief curator’s dismissal — another curator and an assistant remain on staff — but it’s hard to see why. When Gumbiner died in 2009, he bequeathed $25 million to MoLAA’s existing endowment. That’s hefty for a small museum.
A look at MoLAA ‘s most recently available tax returns is disconcerting. The museum reported income of $8.25 million and expenses of $4.38 million for 2010 — a rather healthy surplus. MoLAA is not large, presenting only two major shows a year (plus smaller projects), but its endowment is currently bigger than MOCA’s.
A prudent ratio of museum endowment to operating budget is typically four or five endowment dollars to every operating dollar. (The difference gets made up in annual fundraising.) MoLAA’s planned budget is $3.4 million. Based just on the Gumbiner bequest, that’s a ratio of more than 7 to 1.
For next fall, Fajardo-Hill was working on a big historical survey of Latin American women artists in the 1960s and 1970s, which would travel internationally. The plan for that show left the museum with her.
It’s reasonable to wonder how erasing an art museum’s most critically important job will benefit the art public going forward. Especially for Los Angeles, where half the population traces its roots to Spain, Mexico and the Spanish-speaking nations of Central America, South America and the Caribbean, that matters. A sophisticated program in Latin American art simply won’t happen without a skillful chief curator.
The decision signals ongoing confusion in MoLAA leadership. Despite its relatively brief life, the museum has had a surfeit of directors — four since 2007 — impeding steady institutional progress. That kind of churn, regardless of individual ability, isn’t healthy. Dismiss a talented chief curator on top of it, and it’s one step forward and two steps back.
At the Hammer, the churn has been in the chief curator’s office. The museum has a strong exhibition and educational program, and director Ann Philbin is known for close oversight of both. But the chief curator’s post has been something of a revolving door, with three different people holding the job since 2005.
That’s the year the Hammer launched a new initiative to build a collection of contemporary art, albeit one whose shape and motive are rather vaguely defined. The initiative emphasizes drawings and photographs but isn’t limited to them; pays particular attention to Southern California artists while also looking internationally; and focuses on artists shown at the Hammer in the last decade but is not restricted to them. Translation: Pretty much anything goes.
Great museum collections are built from long-term institutional relationships, and job No. 1 for a chief curator would be to hone those loose collecting parameters. But with regular turnover, a chief curator’s primary task of implementing a consistent, effective strategy for collection development is nearly impossible to achieve.
Perhaps the turnover rate explains the lengthy replacement process now. Any chief curator worth hiring wants to make a difference, and that requires a long-term job commitment — from the curator and the museum.
Individual personalities always play a part in institutional working relationships. Surely they’ve played a part with the vacancies at MOCA, MoLAA and the Hammer. But something’s going on in the chief curator’s natural habitat, and the signs are perturbing.
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