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Yearlong Search Still Hasn't Produced a LACMA Director : Art: Speculation abounds about why it has taken so long. The committee head says discussions are under way with contenders.

March 16, 1995|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

"The really crucial qualities we are looking for in a director are leadership, management ability, charisma and a feeling for art," says William A. Mingst, president of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's board of trustees and head of a committee charged with finding a new chief for the Wilshire Boulevard institution.

But if the team knows what it wants, it has produced few visible results. Eighteen months after former LACMA Director Michael E. Shapiro ended his 11-month tenure--under duress, amid a countywide financial crisis--and more than a year after the hunt for his successor officially began, there isn't a single candidate in sight.

The museum has been without a director longer than any of the other nine institutions currently seeking leaders on a list of openings compiled by the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. And the process has been so quiet that many art-world observers either think that the committee is doing nothing or that nobody wants LACMA's top job. According to one theory, the search is moribund because Mingst has been abandoned by the 13 other members of the committee. An opposing point of view is that he likes to be in the spotlight and is in no hurry to bow out.

All these notions are false, Mingst says. While declining to name any candidates, he says that serious discussions are under way with "more than one, but fewer than 10" contenders, including art museum directors and others with related experience. A source close to the museum says the committee has a list of five candidates and that the leading contender is a woman who is not a museum director but has strong administrative experience.

According to Mingst, the committee has been holding well-attended meetings every three or four weeks for the past year and members are active participants.

As for being infatuated with his role, Mingst, a general partner in the Oriole Group, an investment management firm, says: "I do enjoy my job, as president of the board. I'm not the museum's acting director or the interim director. I'm the chief executive officer of Museum Associates, (the private group contracted) by the county to operate and manage the museum. . . . No one will be happier or more relieved than I to have a director. Then I can get back to the things I should be doing."

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The new director must take on the challenge of a capital campaign to increase the museum's relatively small, $24.9-million endowment, to upgrade existing facilities and to develop the vacant May Co. property adjacent to the museum--purchased last year for $25 million with interim funding from the county.

Sources familiar with the search say the May Co. project has scared off candidates, but Mingst disputes this: "It's just the opposite. They see it as an opportunity for expanded exhibition space and outreach, or as a way to reorient the museum." Many ideas for how LACMA and other cultural organizations might use the property are in talking stages, but no decisions will be made until a director is in place, he says.

In an interview last August, Mingst said he hoped a director would be appointed the following month and be in place around the first of the year. He concedes that his estimate was overly optimistic. But is he discouraged? "Hell, no."

The search was initially postponed until the museum stabilized its county funding, after suffering a series of cutbacks that forced reductions in staff, programs and operations. In January, 1994, Museum Associates renegotiated its contract with the county, which provides a $14.2-million base in annual county support and requires private backers to contribute a sum equal to 80% of the public funding.

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According to Mingst, subsequent delays have been caused by several factors, including competition from two more prestigious institutions, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and New York's Museum of Modern Art. Last September, Boston named as director Malcolm Austin Rogers, former deputy director of London's National Portrait Gallery. MOMA ended a two-year-plus search in November with the appointment of Glenn D. Lowery, former chief of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

"Unlike the corporate world, in the museum world candidates only talk to one institution at a time, so we had to wait," Mingst says. Another slowdown occurred during the holiday season. In addition, Mingst says, "Museum directors have unbelievable travel schedules. It's not unusual for us to call candidates and find out that they can't see us for five weeks."

The committee is working with Korn Ferry, an executive search firm that helps identify candidates and evaluate their credentials. Introductory interviews are conducted by a small group of committee members who travel to the candidate's home city. "Then we have to find a way of bringing them to Los Angeles without anyone finding out," Mingst says.

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