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Paul Schimmel, Curator Extraordinaire at LA MOCA, Reportedly Fired

Paul Schimmel, speaking at the Brooklyn Museum’s April 2008 press preview for the Murakami show that he originally curated for LA MOCA (Takashi Murakami seated at the left)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

[More on this here and here.]

My reaction, to say the least, is incredulity. But the LA TImes reported it, so I guess it’s true:

Paul Schimmel, the longtime chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum
of Contemporary Art and one of the most prominent museum curators in the
United States, was fired Wednesday. The firing was made by the museum’s board of trustees and is effective immediately.

Making it sound less like a “firing,” MOCA’s communications director, Lyn Winter, sent me a statement issued by MOCA board co-chair David Johnson, saying that Schimmel had “stepped down” from his post and that the parting was “amicable.” Lyn added, “I hope to be able to send you a press release tomorrow.”

Normally, when someone vacates his office “effective immediately,” there are strong issues on at least one side that mitigate against an orderly transition.

The story of Schimmel’s departure was broken last night by Mat Gleason of Coagula, who indicated that financial problems at MOCA were behind the firing. The LA Times follow-up piece by Mike Boehm and Jori Finkel on Schimmel’s departure also mentions several others who have left voluntarily or been laid off.

Last March, the formerly cash-strapped museum reported that it had ended fiscal 2011 (to June 30, 2011) with “a closing cash balance of $7.3 million and no debt. The current vaue of MOCA’s endowment-related assets has quadrupled since the end of 2008, growing to $20.15 million.”

My query about projections for the current fiscal year, which ends this Saturday, has not been answered at this writing.

I had sensed that something bizarre was going on at MOCA when I read the eyebrow-raising account in the late, lamented Artnet by Rachel Corbett about director Jeffrey Deitch‘s recent talk at Art Basel, where he described his transition from dealer to director as “a rude awakening” and publicly vented his fundraising frustrations.

Those comments, as reported by Corbett, also contained what seemed to be a not-so-veiled potshot at “the vault and the veil”—architects’ Diller Scofidio + Renfro‘s nickname for the museum rising across to the street to house the collection of MOCA’s megabucks patron, Eli Broad.

Corbett wrote:

When Deitch needed cash at his former gallery, Deitch Projects, he’d
simply ask clients to buy a work in advance to support the cost of
fabrication. But while a gallery can make its money back, a museum often
takes on a deficit. As an example, Deitch cited the Theaster Gates solo
show, “An Epitaph for Civil Rights,” which was held at the museum in
2011, and for which Deitch raised only about $15,000 in advance. Yet
when Chicago’s Kavi Gupta Gallery mounted the exhibition, it sold
everything and earned around $500,000, by Deitch’s estimate.
[In other words, it appears that MOCA mounted a highly problematic presale exhibition.]

But Deitch reserved his strongest criticism for the new class of
wealthy private institutions that now compete with museums for
acquisitions. These megacollectors pose a bigger threat to LA MOCA than
do even the top galleries, many of which are known for producing
museum-quality shows, he said.

“The challenge is how to connect with a big audience when people only
sell to multimillionaires who have private foundations and the ability
to display the work beautifully,” Deitch said.

This seemed so obviously targeted at Broad that I shot off some questions on Tuesday to Eli’s press spokesperson. Still unanswered at this writing, those queries have even more pertinence (or impertinence) today.

As it happens, Schimmel was one of the panelists last weekend at Why New Forms?—a curatorial conference at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, which also included curators from the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum and Carnegie Museum, among others. (A good networking opportunity for Paul?)

Unless there’s a reason for Schimmel’s unceremonious exit that I don’t yet know about, I suspect there will be a museum (or maybe a dealer) feeding frenzy to engage his talents, now that he’s a free agent. The Whitney, in anticipation of its eventual move to expanded quarters downtown, ought to consider grabbing him.

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