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LACMA Rift Widens as Artist Speaks Up for Curator : Lawsuit: Maurice Tuchman's complaint against Director Michael Shapiro generates debate as Edward Kienholz offers to buy back his work.

June 05, 1993|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

The wheels of justice appear to be turning slowly in a lawsuit filed by Maurice Tuchman, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's longtime curator of 20th-Century art, against Museum Director Michael Shapiro and the Museum Associates, LACMA's private support group, but there is action on several fronts. The legal file is growing fatter at Los Angeles County Superior Court, a radio show has aired views on the case and artist Edward Kienholz has risen to Tuchman's defense by offering to buy back his works in LACMA's collection--including the infamous "Back Seat Dodge '38."

Tuchman was abruptly terminated from his post on March 12, during a budget squeeze, and put in charge of a newly created department of 20th-Century drawings. Charging that his reassignment and other changes in his status are part of a humiliating campaign to force his resignation, he has sued for reinstatement and damages of an unspecified amount.

Museum officials contend that the move is a creative response to a fiscal crisis and that the case should be dismissed. The lawsuit is an action by "a disgruntled civil service employee," over which the court lacks jurisdiction, according to papers filed by the defense. "Clearly by bringing this action Tuchman is attempting to leap frog over the administrative process provided for under the Civil Service rules which govern his employment," the museum's documents argue.

Tuchman's attorney, Hillel Chodos, in turn, has filed an amended complaint, alleging that the Museum Associates manages the museum without any actual supervision or participation by the county. Shapiro is a civil service employee and head of a county department, but he was selected by the Museum Associates and is also employed as the group's chief executive officer. Furthermore, Shapiro derives more than half his $175,000 salary and benefits from the Museum Associates, according to the complaint.

Shapiro recently was questioned about the relationship between the museum's public and private sectors, but his attorneys, at the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers, refused to release his deposition as "a matter of general litigation policy."

Meanwhile, the dispute continues to be a source of debate in the art community. On a recent segment of KCRW radio's "The Politics of Art," Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes and Peter Plagens of Newsweek pointed their fingers at LACMA's board. Hughes and Plagens speculated that Shapiro--who had never directed a museum before coming to LACMA last October--reassigned Tuchman as part of a mandate from trustees who hired him.

Responding to the charge, LACMA board President Robert F. Maguire said in an interview that the trustees worked with Shapiro on recent layoffs, transfers and retirements, in accordance with county orders to reduce the budget, but that Tuchman's reassignment was Shapiro's decision. "The director has the prerogative to make staff changes," Maguire said. "Could it have been handled better? I don't know . . . Maurice is not happy, but he was not singled out at all."

Now Maguire has another dilemma on his hands--Kienholz's letter of support for Tuchman, who was an early champion of the artist's work and organized his major exhibition in 1966 at LACMA.

By far the most important and best-known Kienholz in the museum's collection is "Back Seat Dodge '38," which was purchased in 1981 from the artist's former wife, Lyn Kienholz, for $225,000. (The scruffy sculpture, depicting a couple making love in the back seat of a truncated car, was the center of a controversy in 1966, when members of the County Board of Supervisors deemed the work pornographic. Recently, conservators rescued the sculpture from an attack of moths.)

LACMA's other Kienholz holdings include "History as a Planter," an oven filled with mannequin parts and topped by a "wandering Jew" plant, purchased in the 1960s for $275 in a benefit auction. In addition, examples of Kienholz's limited edition works produced by Gemini G.E.L. have been donated by the publisher.

In his letter, Kienholz says he watched Tuchman work during the '60s and early '70s, "pushing, coaxing, teasing, hard selling the institution into its rightful place among the first-class museums of the world.

"Now I am distressed to read that the Board of Trustees and new director Shapiro have blatantly tried to remove Maurice from his 28 years of service to the community by threat, innuendo and outright dirty tricks. The given reason is fiscal cutbacks, the result is worker fear and plunging morale in an important cultural institution," the letter says.

"If this is indeed the direction the Los Angeles County Museum intends to follow, I would, in the future, be prepared to buy back my work for what was paid for it and remove it from your 20th-Century collection."

Reached by phone at his studio in Houston, Kienholz said his offer is serious. "Maurice did an incredible job at the museum. I'm prepared to buy my work back. I'm prepared to write a check today," he said. "It's a crazy time. Museums are dead, galleries are closing, people don't care about art, but this is no way to treat a senior curator."

Maguire expressed concern about Kienholz's letter, but said his works would not be sold. "Ed Kienholz and his work are critical to the museum," Maguire said. "We need Ed, especially in this tough transitional period. He has been a longtime supporter and contributor to the museum, and his comments are something that all of us take seriously." Maguire said he hadn't answered the letter. "I want to sit down and talk him," he said.

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