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It's Not a Pretty Picture at LACMA : First, Staff Cutbacks; Now, a Chief Curator Is Suing the Management

April 01, 1993|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Wounded by budgetary cutbacks and bleeding internally from staff reductions, the County Museum of Art has suffered another damaging blow to its once vigorous image. A messy lawsuit filed by one of its chief curators has made already low staff morale sink even deeper, and the museum's administration is facing sharp criticism from the art world for mistreating a longtime staple of the local and international arts community.

Speaking for the first time publicly of the lawsuit that his attorney filed March 16 in Los Angeles Superior Court, longtime curator Maurice Tuchman is accusing museum officials of waging a campaign to force his resignation, while the museum maintains that recent changes in his status are the result of fiscal problems and an effort to expand its collection and exhibition program.

The suit, filed against museum director Michael Shapiro and the Museum Associates, LACMA's private support group, charges that Tuchman was unjustifiably terminated from his employment as senior curator of 20th-Century art on March 12, when he was appointed head of the newly created department of 20th-Century drawings. The complaint also alleges that the county's recent elimination of its senior curator classification is a ploy designed by Shapiro to push Tuchman out of the museum.

"This is a demotion and a vicious slap in the face," Tuchman said. "The museum has been my whole life for more than 28 years." Tuchman, a county civil service employee, is suing for reinstatement to his former position and for damages in an amount that has yet to be determined.

Shapiro, who became director of LACMA in October, has denied that Tuchman's new assignment is a demotion, but he declined to comment on the suit. The museum has released a statement about the suit, saying: "We believe our position will be fully vindicated and that claims such as this are more properly addressed through the civil service process." (Such grievances are heard by the county's Civil Service Commission.)

Daniel N. Belin, chairman of the museum's board of trustees, said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the merits of the case, but such lawsuits tend to be disruptive for all concerned. "In my experience, cases like this are costly not only in dollar terms but in emotional energy. It's too bad for all parties--for the museum, for Michael and for Maurice," he said.

Tuchman, 56, is a high-profile figure in international art circles who came to Los Angeles in 1964 as founding curator of the museum's 19th- and 20th-Century art department. As the museum grew, he relinquished 19th-Century art to other curators, but continuously served as chief of the 20th-Century art department. During his tenure the department has produced such major traveling exhibitions as "The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives," "The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985," "David Hockney: A Retrospective" and "Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art."

Many of Tuchman's colleagues outside the museum have expressed dismay over the lawsuit. "I've had occasion to work with Maurice Tuchman frequently over the last decade," said Selma Holo, director of USC's art galleries and museum studies program. "He has taken on a number of my graduate students and has always treated them with generosity and largeness of spirit. I can only hope that this situation will be resolved with the same generosity to him that he has displayed to my students."

"This is a most unfortunate way to handle someone who has been a major cultural contributor to Southern California and beyond," said Walter Hopps, founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston and former director of the Pasadena Art Museum. "He has conspicuously cultivated international interest in the museum's 20th-Century department and he has opened a lot of doors to the fine work that Stephanie Barron has done." (Barron, a LACMA curator, was recently appointed acting head of the department.)

"I think this is a deeply unfortunate way to wind up someone's career," Hopps said. "It sends a message to staff who are still there and to potential staff members who see how they are likely to be treated when times are difficult. What everyone can hide behind is the economy . . . but there may be veiled agendas."

Shapiro has characterized Tuchman's new position as "an opportunity to serve the museum" by developing the drawings collection and exhibition program. But in making the appointment, the director informed Tuchman that he would be given a new office, in a former kitchen in the Ahmanson Building, far removed from other curators' offices. Construction is currently under way.

Attempting to put a positive spin on the conflict, art dealer Margo Leavin said that forming a collection of contemporary drawings, which are relatively affordable, is an extraordinarily good idea for LACMA. "It's a great position for someone to take advantage of with fresh energy and new support," she said of Tuchman's unwanted assignment.

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