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Leaving a Safe Harbor for MOCA : Chief curator Paul Schimmel is the first member of the local art community to get a top Southland museum position


"There's a lot at stake at MOCA," Paul Schimmel said the other day of the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he assumes the post of chief curator Monday morning. "We have a very high-visibility institution. As the identity of the institution increases, so does the level of commitment that has to be made."

Last December, when news of Schimmel's appointment was announced, the question of the museum's high-visibility status was on many minds. Mary Jane Jacob, whose tenure in the post had ended the previous August after a scant 2 1/2 years, was already the third chief curator in MOCA's brief history. Having completed five years of often energetic programming, some first-rate and some rather less so, the museum had yet to establish a distinct profile. It was hard to know whether its seemingly erratic direction arose from problems of staff or from conflicted demands at the top, where the board of trustees had earned a reputation for being willful and difficult.

Schimmel knows something about working with a board of trustees whose reputation for difficulty precedes them. He also knows something about shaping a tentative and ill-defined program into one that is weightier and more substantive. During nine years at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, first as curator and then as chief curator, he can be credited with having been instrumental in transforming the institution from a perfectly respectable, if decidedly regional, museum of contemporary art, headed by a notably contentious board, to one of the finest and most adventuresome small museums in the country.

On the heels of that success, Newport last year launched a $50-million capital campaign to underwrite and endow a new building designed by the celebrated Italian architect, Renzo Piano. The prospect of such a development was certainly remote when Schimmel, then 26, arrived in Orange County in 1981 from his native New York City, fresh from graduate studies at the Institute of Fine Arts.

"My perception of Newport, when I first came," Schimmel explained, "was that it was a difficult board, a conservative community, and a very specific, almost exclusively regional program. Obviously it has evolved significantly since then. The facility hasn't changed, but the recognition the institution has in terms of balance of programs, the kinds of publications it does, the willingness of the board to underwrite what are, at least in some cases, difficult and controversial exhibitions, and the general cultural ambitiousness of the Orange County community have made it a really different place than it was."

Raised to a higher plane, that institutional profile wouldn't be a bad fit for the Museum of Contemporary Art. And the successful transformation of the Newport Harbor Art Museum likely figured prominently into MOCA's decision to offer the senior curator's job to Schimmel.

Ironically, Schimmel had been among those discussed for the post in 1986, following the departure of Julia Brown Turrell for the directorship of the Des Moines Art Center, and prior to the hiring away of Mary Jane Jacob from Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. Certainly many factors played a part in his having been passed over then, but it is reasonable to assume that the Newport Harbor Art Museum's proximity to Los Angeles had worked against him.

In addition to the unspoken rule that says you have to move away before the folks back home will recognize your worth, the longstanding insecurity of the Los Angeles art world had to be overcome. Typically, influential museum curators and directors have been imported. In fact, with the exception of those who have climbed an institution's curatorial ladder, Schimmel's appointment at MOCA is noteworthy as the first major museum position locally to have been filled from within the ranks of the Southern California art community. If the appointment therefore reflects a newly significant degree of cultural density and confidence, Schimmel himself has been among those responsible for the change in climate. During the last four years, for example, two of the most important exhibitions of postwar American art mounted anywhere in the country were organized under his direction at Newport: "The Interpretive Link: Abstract Surrealism into Abstract Expressionism, Works on Paper 1938-1948," which skillfully traced an epochal shift in art through the early drawings and watercolors of the New York School, and "Chris Burden: A 20-Year Survey," which examined the controversial work of a distinctly under-recognized, Los Angeles-based artist and deftly inserted it into the forefront of contemporary discussion.

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