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LA Museum Drama: MOCA Goes Full Deitch, LACMA Lays Off Staff

by Jillian Steinhauer on June 29, 2012

A very Hyperallergic update to Ed Ruscha’s “LACMA on Fire” (1968) with Dealer/MOCA Director/MOCA Chief Curator Jeffrey Deitch on right.

Yesterday the story broke that LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) has fired its chief curator, Paul Schimmel — news that has much of the New York and Los Angeles art worlds up in arms.

According to the LA Times, MOCA’s board voted on Wednesday to let Schimmel go, after which he was called into the office of Eli Broad and given the news “He resigned. He was not fired,” Jeffrey Deitch told WSJ about Paul Schimmel’s departure. Broad, a billionaire philanthropist and arts patron whom the New Yorker called “the Lorenzo de’ Medici of Los Angeles” in a profile in 2010, is the museum’s largest funder; he paid $30 million to bail out MOCA in 2008 after the museum announced that it was on the verge of going under.

Schimmel has long been credited with putting the LA art scene on the map with his 1992 exhibition Helter Skelter, which featured Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and Charles Ray, among other artists. But it’s not exactly breaking news that he and his relatively new and controversial boss, former New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who was appointed to head MOCA two years ago, didn’t see eye to eye. The Times quotes Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Art Museum, on the situation:

“Everybody in the [art] community has been thinking, ‘How long can these guys co-exist in the same building?’ Colburn said. “It’s obvious that [Schimmel's] style, his aesthetic tastes and his whole belief about contemporary art are different from Jeffrey’s.”

Still, the explicit reasons for the firing remain unclear, and artist John Baldessari, who is also a MOCA board member, expressed dismay at having missed the meeting where the board voted to fire Schimmel. He told the Times:

“I think this is a potential tipping point for MOCA,” Baldessari said. “First I want to know the reasons for him being fired and if they were sufficient to warrant him being fired.”

It doesn’t help that MOCA botched the announcement of the news, with LA blogger Mat Gleason writing about it on his blog before the museum had issued a statement of any kind. Gleason, for his part, speculated that it was mostly a financial decision, tying the timing to the end of the museum’s fiscal year.

Schimmel published a long letter on his Facebook page (viewable only to friends), which, though it begins with “I want to talk about my last day as Chief Curator of MOCA,” does not mention his firing and is instead a heartfelt thank you and goodbye. ”It has been an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have been part of this museum,” Schimmel writes. “I have counted each day of my 22 years at MOCA as truly special.”

He goes on to thank “all MOCA staff past and present,” mentioning by name former MOCA directors Richard Koshalek and Jeremy Strick:

These colleagues were driven as much by a passion for art and artists as for a desire for MOCA’s individual successes. Together, we have striven to make our shows not just good, not just great, but the best that artists and curators could ever achieve. I also want to recognize the many trustees and patrons how have supported MOCA over the years. Again and again, individuals have stood up to make important contributions to the museum, whether for the success of an exhibition or for the acquisition of a major work into our collection. I know that these last few years of financial crisis have been difficult ones, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your perseverance and dedication; when you love something, you love it unconditionally.

Although the reasons for Schimmel’s dismissal remain unclear, MOCA said today — quite surprisingly — that is does not plan to replace the chief curator. “Its [MOCA's] curatorial vision will be implemented by director Jeffrey Deitch, the curatorial team, and guest curators,” a museum representative wrote to Artinfo. According to the Times, this brings the museum’s curatorial staff down from five, when Deitch started, to three. And although it’s been less widely decried, MOCA laid off other staff members this week — its senior education program manager, a senior designer, a writer/editor and three curatorial assistants.

In fact, LA Weekly notes that the museum actually got rid of most of its design staff not too long ago; Shepard Fairey’s company, Studio Number One, has been hired to do the institution’s design work instead, although not publications or magazines. This move — as well as the decision not to replace Schimmel — will no doubt confirm for many already upset onlookers that LA MOCA is going to the dogs!! Or, at least, that Deitch is interested in his own brand and style, aka flashy spectacles and big names (cough, cough, James Franco), over art history and more common museum practices.

Meanwhile, another local institution, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), has announced layoffs as well, in tandem with reduced hours. The Times also has the story on this one, reporting that this is the second summer in a row the museum has cut staff. The museum is quick to point out that its attendance and operating budget are both up and that the reduction in hours is “a matter of efficiency rather than necessity.” LACMA will drop two open hours on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, which translates into six full-time and 14 part-time museum guards losing their jobs there (they may be able to find new work through their employer, private contractor AlliedBarton Security Services). Some box-office staffers will be affected, too, and the museum has laid off — but plans to replace — four fundraisers.

All of this comes in the wake of LACMA’s purchase of Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass,” a giant rock (yes, really) that cost the museum a whopping $10 million. Some people are rightfully a bit — well, puzzled — at the contradiction here. As one anonymous worker told the Times, “People can’t rationalize why something cost millions of dollars to get here, and they have to cut people back.”

And in case you missed it, the Getty Museum in LA cut 34 jobs last month, the majority of them in its education department. What is happening, LA?! Pull yourself together!

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/XIMK33BCC7RDEXFHNFO3AUUPXU Art

    this is the Scott Walker model of budgeting. Create a situation of overconsumption which appears to break the bank, then cry poverty when you use it conveniently to break labor.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Randall/100000927234099 Paul Randall

    Has Dietch completely lost his mind? The LA art community has always lamented the lack of Hollywood involvement (money) in the scene, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.

    But what’s all this BS about, “Shimmel has long been credited with putting the LA art scene on the map”. Was this written by someone from NY

  • http://twitter.com/TraceyHarnish Tracey Harnish

    You should have mentioned that LACMA’s ”
    rock” was paid completely by private donations. It did not come from the museum directly.

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