I was just as amazed to hear it as you probably were. Charles Desmarais, director of the Laguna Art Museum for 5 1/2 years, suddenly dismissed by the executive committee of the museum's board of trustees?
After turning a sleepy, provincial museum into an institution offering intelligently curated, often venturesome shows of contemporary and historical art? How could this be?
It has been impossible to get a substantive answer from people close to the museum. Board president Teri Kennady has said only that the board wanted "more energy to be put in administration," and her fellow board members have maintained a uniform silence.
So what gives?
The major cause of board dissatisfaction seems to be the outcome of a decision Desmarais announced in May 1990, nearly two years after he came to the museum. After looking unsuccessfully for a replacement for chief curator Michael McManus, who had resigned in spring of 1989, Desmarais announced that he would take over the job himself.
At the same time, he created a new position--associate director, filled by former South Coast Repertory development director Bonnie Brittain Hall--specifically to give himself more time for curating, he said. Hall was to assume about one-third of his administrative duties.
So far, so good. There is ample precedent for a director serving as his own chief curator, with or without the title. The most famous example is Sherman Lee, former director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, whose expertise lay in Chinese art. Martin Friedman, former director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, was a renowned curator of contemporary art. Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, has curated major architecture shows.
"Being a director is not curating," Desmarais said Friday. "Being a director is managing the entire program. Some curator-directors in the world are both great curators and great directors. They're people to emulate. But I also think each institution has its own needs.
"I saw this situation as one that required my attention to curatorial matters in a way that (former Newport Harbor Art Museum director) Kevin Consey didn't have to because . . . the museum was at a different point in its growth."
Indeed it was. The Laguna Art Museum's previous director, William Otton, had not provided strong artistic leadership. Although he presided over a $1.6 million renovation of the museum, which doubled exhibition space, the art shown in that space consisted mostly (despite McManus' efforts) of routine Southern California plein-air painting and middle-of-the-road Southern California contemporary art.
When Otton accepted the position of president of the Art Institute of Southern California in 1987, the Laguna Art Museum's board made no bones about looking for someone who would put the institution "on the map" in artistic circles. And it put its money where its mouth was.
Otton, who had never directed a museum before, was making an annual salary of about $40,000 when he left. Desmarais, an acknowledged expert in photography who had been director of the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside for more than seven years--where he led a $2.6 million capital fund drive--was paid $88,000.
The investment paid off. In 1990, Desmarais' impact on the exhibition schedule (normally planned several years ahead) first became visible. His show "Why I Got Into TV and Other Stories: The Art of Ilene Segalove" offered a generous sampler of photography and video by an artist from Los Angeles who brings a sharp focus to the banalities of suburban life.
The following year, Desmarais curated the museum's first architecture show, "Morphosis: Making Architecture," a rather baffling and precious affair. But it was accompanied by an excellent lecture series--another major stride the museum made under his guidance, in addition to a quantum leap in the scholarly content of publications.
In 1992 Desmarais hit the jackpot with his critically well received "Proof: Los Angeles Art and the Photograph, 1960-1980," a fresh examination of work by nearly 50 artists who emphasize aspects of gullibility and skepticism inherent in photography.
The show was sponsored by the well-respected Fellows of Contemporary Art and is traveling to other institutions, including the Friends of Photography Ansel Adams Center in San Francisco, the Tampa Museum of Art and the Des Moines Art Center.
Desmarais also organized most of the one-person shows for the South Coast Plaza satellite site in Costa Mesa--most memorably, installations by Paul Kos, Dawn Fryling, Sono Osato and Jean Lowe.
In retrospect, it does seem that this site might have been turned over more often to the curatorial staff, Bolton Colburn, curator of collections, and Susan Anderson, curator of exhibitions. Too often, their shows for the main museum were relegated to out-of-the-way spots, and they received little credit in membership calendars and press materials.