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MOCA Mess: Deitch/Schimmel Rupture Exposes Pitfalls of Dealer-to-Director

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LA MOCA’s flagship building on Grand Avenue

The fallout from Paul Schimmel‘s lamentable exit from the chief curatorship of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is a reputational hit from which director Jeffrey Deitch may not recover.

The outcry in the press and on MOCA”s own blog over Schimmel’s dismissal/resignation (depending on whom you talk to) confirms what I have stated from the get-go: LA MOCA’s dealer-to-director gambit was misguided and misconceived.

In my CultureGrrl commentary, Dealer-to-Director: Why Jeffrey Deitch is Wrong for LA MOCA (posted in January 2010, after Deitch was named to the museum’s directorship, but before he assumed that post on June 1, 2010), I wrote:

MOCA can’t afford to take another flyer [after the artistically distinguished but financially ruinous directorship of Jeremy Strick]. It needed a serious, seasoned museum professional, without commercial baggage and with a proven track record of keeping the proper balance between exciting programming and a balanced budget. The risks to its operations and reputation from its eccentric choice are too high [emphasis added].

With the departure of Schimmel—MOCA’s supreme exhibition mastermind, who embodied MOCA’s institutional memory and professional soul—the reputational and operational risks that I foresaw at the time of Deitch’s appointment are being realized, two years into his tenuous tenure. It’s a director’s job to ensure that his curatorial team has the administrative and financial support they need to fulfill their projects. But Deitch seems more interested in conceiving high-profile projects of his own than in doing the fundraising drudge-work that, like it or not, is a major part of his job description.

Deitch’s mindset never made the requisite recalibration from that of commercial dealer, ultimately reponsible to himself, to that of nonprofit museum director, answerable to the an institutional audience and the general public. His embarrassing tone-deafness regarding what a museum director should sound like has been demonstrated repeatedly—in his blunt comments about his plans to continue selling works from his gallery inventory and from his collection (to supplement his inadequate museum salary); his infatuation with the Hollywood lifestyle (and with James Franco) and, most jarringly, his recent comments at Art Basel, where he expressed resentment at the reluctance of museum philanthropists to open their pockets to him in the same way that megabucks collectors did what he sold them art.

Deitch was expected to parlay his impressive artworld contacts into munificence for MOCA, as he acknowledged in his January 2010 interview with Mike Boehm of the LA Times. From the frustration Deitch expressed in his Art Basel remarks (which also appeared to take an implied swipe at MOCA’s life trustee and mega-patron Eli Broad), it appears that things haven’t worked out the way he (and the museum’s trustees) had hoped.

Whether or not Schimmel was sometimes hard to deal with (as suggested in comments by LA Times readers, appended to Christopher Knight‘s astute analysis of the MOCA mess), he was widely recognized as a genius at audaciously tackling provocative subjects. His long series of influential, fancifully titled “think” exhibitions included: “Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s,” “Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition 1955-1962,” “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979,” “Ecstasy: In and About Altered State,” “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art, 1974-1981.” As an independent curator, he will continue working on “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962″ (opening Sept. 29).

The museum has indicated that Schimmel will not be replaced and that Deitch will supervise the curatorial program, becoming the museum’s de facto chief curator. Part of this organizational shift is probably driven by financial considerations. In a statement that tries to put cost-cutting in a favorable light, MOCA revealed:

In addition to announcing Paul’s resignation, we have made a few other changes in advance of our new fiscal year that are routine for non-profit institutions [when they face financial challenges]. There have been adjustments [read, “cuts”] to staff [as reported here by Mike Boehm and Jori Finkel of the LA Times] and minor changes to the exhibition schedule and our education program. We feel it is important to take a balanced budget approach [emphasis added], matching expenses to anticipated revenues.

Neither side, so far, is talking about the reasons for the Deitch/Schimmel dust-up. The protagonists are likely barred from explaining the situation, under the terms of Schimmel’s undisclosed severance agreement. His silence may be one part discretion, one part adherence to conditions attached to a monetary settlement.

The terms of another monetary settlement—that made with Strick when he resigned from MOCA’s directorship—are laid out in the museum’s Form 990 tax return for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010 (p. 30). Although Strick left MOCA in January 2009, he continued to be paid the compensation provided in his employment contract through June 2010. His “reportable compensation” for fiscal 2010 (when he was no longer at the museum) was $506,747, according to the tax return (p. 24). Schimmel’s compensation in fiscal 2010 was $256,259. In that same fiscal year, the museum’s interim CEO, Charles Young (brought in as Strick’s temporary replacement) was paid $365,593.

With Schimmel gone, Deitch and MOCA may have saved some money but lost professional stature and public confidence.

an ArtsJournal blog