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Art Museum Director to Resign : Culture: Michael Shapiro, on job less than a year, cites LACMA's fiscal crisis. Uncertainty over future funding may hinder search for successor, some observers say.

August 21, 1993|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

After less than a year at the helm of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael E. Shapiro announced Friday that he will resign, saying another leader is needed to help overcome "large and important and pressing" fiscal problems at the institution.

Deep cuts in public funding and a shortage of private donations have forced the Wilshire Boulevard institution to reduce staff, curtail programs and shorten visitor hours for two successive years. The museum's lack of financial security also was highlighted recently by a museum-commissioned study, which said it lags behind other U.S. museums in endowment gifts.

This is the second departure of a county museum director in recent months. In May, Craig C. Black, director of the Natural History Museum, announced that he will retire by mid-1994. That museum, too, has faced cutbacks in county funding and has had to lay off employees.

Shapiro's resignation also poses serious questions about the ability of the art museum to attract a qualified successor. The appointment of Shapiro, a former chief curator of the St. Louis Art Museum, has been criticized in art circles because of his lack of administrative experience, but his departure puts the museum in a difficult position, according to several museum administrators who declined to speak on the record.

At the height of its glory, in 1991-92, the museum had an operating budget of $31.5 million, of which $17.8 million came from the county and the remainder from the Museum Associates, a nonprofit organization that manages the museum. But as the County Board of Supervisors wrestled with an ongoing countywide budget crisis, it mandated a $2-million cut in county funds to the museum in 1992-93 and cut an additional $2.7 million in 1993-94.

Shapiro alluded to the dire financial situation in a statement released Friday by the museum. "After a careful assessment of the future and my personal and professional goals, including my commitment to my family, I have reached the conclusion that it is time for another leader whose strengths might better fit the pressing financial needs of the museum to take the helm," he said.

The announcement caught Los Angeles County supervisors off guard.

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said she is planning to meet with Shapiro and will urge him to reconsider.

Board Chairman Ed Edelman also called Shapiro's departure a loss.

"I found him to be very intelligent and a good director of the museum and I'm sorry to see him go," Edelman said. "From my point of view he was doing a terrific job. But if he feels his strengths are in other areas and not financial then we have to respect his judgment."

Edelman said he had talked briefly to Shapiro but would not characterize the conversation. However, he indicated that Shapiro may have been frustrated in carrying out his goals.

"I think he wanted to make the museum relate to the community more significantly than it had in the past and I think that with the budget cuts he saw that would be impossible to carry out," Edelman said.

Some say that spells trouble for the search for a new director.

"The museum's fiscal problems, the board of trustees' lack of leadership, which is well-known to many people who have worked at the museum, and now the loss of a director after a very short period of time--less than one year--is going to decrease the possibility of getting a major figure from anywhere across the country to direct the museum," said a West Coast museum director who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Edelman disagreed. "I don't think it's a bad mark," the supervisor said. "We have a lot of strengths in our museum. It has one of the largest memberships of any museum in the country, a lot of support in the community and I think his leaving will not deter other people from applying."

His remarks were echoed by Daniel N. Belin, chairman of the museum's board of trustees. "I don't think that his resignation will make it more difficult to hire a successor," Belin said. "But I do think that the fiscal circumstances, where the county has cut back and its support for the museum has clearly diminished, will make it more difficult."

Board of trustees President Robert F. Maguire concurred: "I don't think (Shapiro's resignation) is going to be an impediment. I think we can attract some exciting candidates. . . . The museum and the community have real appeal."

Shapiro's predecessor, Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III, who left LACMA last summer to direct the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said he was saddened by the resignation. "I'm sorry that it didn't work out," Powell said of Shapiro's impending departure.

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