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COMMENTARY : It's Not a Pretty Picture : Budget and staff problems beset the L.A County Museum of Art, but that doesn't excuse lackadaisical work or a scarcity of exhibits

April 25, 1993|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

So far, the protracted ruckus at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has seen a $2-million budget cut followed by forced staff reductions, assorted willing defections (several from the curatorial staff, including at least two of the highest caliber), a notable decline in membership revenue, a variety of high-level administrative positions that linger unfilled, a variety of program cancellations and, overall, morale around the office that is lower than the belly of the proverbial lizard.

The capper to this B-grade soap opera is a lawsuit filed against the museum in Superior Court by a senior curator, resident at LACMA since 1964, who seeks, among much else, reinstatement to his post as head of the department of 20th-Century art. The suit, complete with attachments consisting of four months worth of unrelievedly petty and unseemly correspondence between the long-time curator and the museum's new director, provides a decidedly vulgar climax to events of the past five months.

It also encourages a query: Since the director himself has a demonstrated interest in modern and contemporary art, having been a curator in the field in a prior professional capacity, and, since an attempted dethronement of the department head responsible for shaping the program in 20th-Century art suggests a marked displeasure with efforts in that high-profile area, might we reasonably expect a dramatic, forthcoming change in the way LACMA collects or presents the art of our time?

I hope so. A quick scan of recent exhibition efforts shows why.

Compare LACMA's program to that of its nearest colleague in the 20th-Century field, the Museum of Contemporary Art. When one thinks of living art and living artists among large L.A. institutions, one thinks first--and last--of MOCA, even though the subject is a valid concern for both museums.

During the current and the most recent fiscal years, beginning July, 1991, and ending in June of this year, MOCA will have presented to the public 11 major exhibitions of postwar art. Six of the 11--more than half--have originated with the museum's five-person curatorial staff or with its director. Even with the closure last fall of MOCA's Little Tokyo warehouse space, the Temporary Contemporary, that's a clear sign of an actively engaged museum.

By stark contrast, during the same two-year period LACMA's department of 20th-Century art will have managed to present just five major shows. Of those, only two were organized by the curatorial staff, which also numbers five people. The LACMA department employs the same number of full-time curators as MOCA, but is its program anywhere near as vigorous? The blunt answer is: No.

Curators, of course, do more than just organize shows. They develop collections (and collectors), raise funds, do research, give lectures and more.

And, to be sure, direct comparisons between the two institutions cannot be simply made. LACMA is a general museum, with diverse obligations, while MOCA is specialized. MOCA focuses on art made during the past 50 years, but LACMA's departmental purview extends to the beginning of the century.

Furthermore, as one of 10 curatorial departments, LACMA's department of 20th-Century art had a total exhibition budget of $747,000 for the past two fiscal years, compared with a budget four times that size at MOCA. Neither is the 20th-Century department the only one at LACMA concerned with the cultural production of our time: The departments of photography, decorative arts, prints and drawings, and costumes and textiles also have such programs.

Still other distinctions could be drawn, distinctions which offer legitimate reasons for expecting a program of a different kind and character at LACMA than at MOCA. Despite these caveats, however, there's no getting around this fact: Overall, the County Museum's program in 20th-Century art seems lackadaisical.

Given the museum's prominent evolution in the past decade, which includes construction of a highly visible building for the art of our time smack on Wilshire Boulevard, it's reasonable to expect better.

If a program change is indeed in the offing, it could go one of two ways. The museum might scale back, perhaps even entering into a cooperative arrangement with the Museum of Contemporary Art to divvy up shared turf. Or, conversely, LACMA could step up its program, jolting the listless patient with an aggressive, innovative dose of invigoration.

Surely this last is the way to go. Scaling back, perhaps to focus on prewar art while ceding postwar culture to MOCA, would be disastrous. There are two main reasons why.

One is that the ongoing life of art ought to be a central feature of any general museum's program, lest the institution sink into complacent vanity. Ideas are open and provisional amid the volatile and shifting tides of contemporary art. They're always up for grabs.

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