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NEWS ANALYSIS : Shapiro's Exit at LACMA Not a Complete Surprise

August 26, 1993|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

The L.A. County Museum of Art's announcement Friday of director Michael E. Shapiro's resignation took the art world by surprise. Likewise, most of the museum's staff, rank-and-file members of LACMA's board of trustees and County Supervisors were stunned by the news that Shapiro planned to leave after less than a year on the job. But many observers say it was only the timing of the news that was shocking. As the museum's fiscal problems had escalated, it had become increasingly apparent that Shapiro's tenure was likely to be abbreviated.

The details of the resignation arrangement may never be known beyond the confines of the board's executive committee. What has been revealed is that the resignation is effective on Sept. 30, when Shapiro will move back to St. Louis, and that he will serve as a consultant to LACMA for a year.

That Shapiro was retained as a consultant suggests that he had some bargaining power and negotiated a deal in return for resigning. If he had simply quit, the Museum Associates would have had no reason to spend much-needed cash on a consultant, according to several arts administrators.

Many museum staff members, who complained of Shapiro's ineffectual leadership, say that Shapiro had lost the board's support and was encouraged to leave. But both Shapiro and board President Robert F. Maguire insist that the director took the initiative.

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Several LACMA trustees who express personal support and admiration for the 43-year-old director say they saw the resignation coming even though they weren't notified of it until Friday. And in the week leading up to the announcement, some trustees acknowledged that Shapiro--a former chief curator of the St. Louis Art Museum, who came to LACMA with little administrative experience--was not fully equipped to deal with the museum's mounting fiscal problems.

"Michael is bright. He has good ideas. He does not have experience in dealing with issues of the kind of consequence we are having to deal with," board President Maguire said in an interview regarding the museum's fiscal crisis seven days before the resignation. Faced with a countywide budgetary shortfall, the County Board of Supervisors mandated a $2-million cut in county funding for the museum in 1992-93 and an additional $2.7-million decrease for 1993-94. Those losses plus a drop in private donations reduced the museum's operating budget from $31.5 million to about $25 million in the past two years, leading to reductions in staff, programs and public viewing hours.

Dr. Richard A. Simms, head of the board's acquisitions and exhibitions committee, echoed Maguire's assessment of the director in a separate interview also prior to the resignation. Simms enthusiastically endorsed Shapiro's appointment and performance, but added, "Obviously, he has limited experience in wrestling this complex institution with lots of different facets in the throes of recession."

Trustee Stanley Grinstein, in an interview following the resignation, praised Shapiro's knowledge of art and community-minded vision while acknowledging circumstances that led to his early departure. "Michael was brought here for the right reasons. The wrong things happened," Grinstein said. "Maybe we had our heads in the sand when he was appointed. Maybe we should have foreseen that the financial problems would get worse, but I was very excited about him and his ideas."

Shapiro said he decided to resign while vacationing earlier this month with his family. But the timing of his holiday--immediately after the County Board of Supervisors' July 29 vote on the museum's 1993-94 budget cut--raised eyebrows and incited comment in the art community. "He won't have a job when he comes back," speculated one museum administrator. Another reported being offered a bet on how long Shapiro would survive at LACMA.

Shapiro's consultant's salary will be paid entirely by the Museum Associates, the nonprofit organization that manages the museum. The amount of the salary and terms of the deal are confidential, according to Maguire, who said he had the personal authority to work out the terms of the agreement with Shapiro but instead did so in consultation with members of the museum board's executive committee. Shapiro has reportedly been receiving a salary of $175,000, of which $99,881 has been paid by the county.

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In an interview on Tuesday, denying that the board played any part in Shapiro's exodus, Maguire said the consultant arrangement is largely a practical move that will aid the museum through a transitional period. "From start to finish the process of finding a new director will probably take us eight or nine months. He can help us with transitional issues and with programs that he has started," Maguire said.

Speaking on behalf of the board, Maguire said: "We support Michael, and we accepted his decision with regret. Basically we did it in a very supportive way because he is very talented, and we think he will be very successful in a different situation."

Asked on Tuesday to shed more light on the circumstances leading to his decision, Shapiro declined further comment. Last week, in announcing his planned departure, he said: "This has been a very challenging period, and the months ahead look equally difficult. 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. This has been a difficult decision for me, but I believe in the long run it will be in everyone's best interest."

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