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After 6 Months, Shapiro Assesses LACMA's Future : Art: County Museum director has faced a host of budgetary challenges, staff defections and criticism of his management, but he remains optimistic.


Six months into his new job as director of the beleaguered L.A. County Museum of Art, Michael Shapiro has weathered a host of challenges. Arriving in Los Angeles last October, the former chief curator of the St. Louis Art Museum was rudely greeted by a financial crisis. A countywide budget squeeze cut $2 million from the museum's budget, forcing reductions of staff and operations. Memberships and donations also dropped off, leading to a decrease in private funding and additional layoffs.

As fear gripped the museum and morale plummeted, exhibitions were canceled, several key curators accepted better positions elsewhere, and--due to the elimination of a job classification--three senior curators were bumped to lower levels. One of those three, Maurice Tuchman, filed suit against Shapiro and the Museum Associates, LACMA's private support group, after being unwillingly transferred from his longtime post as senior curator of 20th-Century art to a newly created department of 20th-Century drawings. Tuchman has sued for reinstatement to his former position and for damages.

Amid all the disruption, Shapiro, who moved from a $52,000-a-year position in St. Louis to a $175,000-a-year job at LACMA, has purchased a $1.5-million house in Westwood, with a loan from the Museum Associates. (The group made a similar arrangement with the previous director, Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III, to help with the purchase of a house in Hancock Park that was frequently used for museum entertaining.)

But though the new director is settling in, would he have come to LACMA if he had known he would get into such a can of worms? Shapiro falls silent, then sidesteps the question by saying, "Maybe I was naive."

Shapiro inherited the county's fiscal crisis, along with Southern California's sagging economy, but the museum's mounting problems have focused a strong light on his fledgling administration and attracted sharp criticism of his leadership ability.

"There's no question that he has a difficult job, or that he could not have come at a worse time," said one staff member who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But Michael Shapiro has not provided direction. The museum is without direction of any kind."

"He talks a good game, but all he has done is terrorize everybody," said another longtime staffer who likens Shapiro to a high school principal who gives pep talks about teamwork but behaves autocratically.

"When I look in the mirror, I don't see a mean and nasty person," Shapiro said, in an interview in his office. "I don't see a monster," he said, stretching out a few strands of his curly dark hair as if to construct an image of himself that he believes is completely unfair.

Neither does he view the museum's problems to be as serious as they may appear. "If you look at a broad picture of the museum, the picture is good," Shapiro said. "We have about 300 staff members. All of our curatorial departments are active. We have a full exhibition schedule. This museum became the premier West Coast exhibition venue during the '80s. It remains that and will remain that in the future.

"I consider our health to be good and I think the future is bright for us," he said. "Museums are a reflection of the cultures in which they reside; whatever challenges we face, they are not unique to ourselves but reflective of a set of national issues that even the best-endowed American museums are facing."

The first on a short list of the director's immediate goals is the development of a sculpture park on the museum grounds, a $5-million project funded by a county bond issue. "The museum park can be a destination," Shapiro said. "The message from the museum is that art can be part of people's lives and they don't have to pay for it."

The second is to purchase the May Co. property adjacent to the museum and develop the 280,000 square feet of space in the defunct department store for exhibitions and storage. Third is the renovation of the Ahmanson building.


Shapiro's troubles may stem from the fact that prior to coming to LACMA, he was a curator with little administrative experience instead of a seasoned director like Powell, who left LACMA to direct the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Many staff members, some of whom had helped compile a list of candidates for the directorship, felt betrayed by the appointment of a little-known colleague who was not on the list and was less prominent than some of LACMA's own scholars.

Suspicion deepened last fall when Shapiro brought in a psychological testing firm to administer tests on the staff. While some staffers thought the process was "insulting" or a "silly waste of time," others claim that test results are being used to categorize and to humiliate them in meetings.

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