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LACMA Faces Uneasy Art of Balancing Its Budget With Curatorial Plans

Art: After canceling one exhibition and putting another on hold, the museum's president says, 'It was very important to be fiscally prudent.'

July 17, 1996|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

When Andrea L. Rich became the first president of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last November, she took on the responsibility of the institution's financial management. Seven months later, in mid-June, she had bad news for the museum's staff: Budget requests submitted for fiscal 1996-97 were $3 million in excess of projected revenues.

"That didn't mean we were in bad financial shape," Rich said last week in an interview at her office at the Wilshire Boulevard museum. "It's just that nobody had tried to match a revenue income side with an expense side and make priority decisions." LACMA has an annual operating budget of about $27.5 million, funded in roughly equal amounts by the county and private sources.

"This place hadn't had coordinated leadership for a long period of time, and the budget process was not really even a budget process," she said. "It was kind of hand-to-mouth. Things just happened." The museum had been without a chief 2 1/2 years when Rich took charge. Graham W.J. Beal, LACMA's new director who will coordinate programs and aesthetic affairs, arrived on the job July 8.

Rich said that the budget requests were neither unreasonable nor extravagant. "They represented a spectrum of activity that the museum's departments wanted to do, but we couldn't afford them. I believe we will get to that point, and way beyond it, but I thought it was very important to be fiscally prudent from the beginning of my term here."

So, after extensive talks with staff and board members, "the set of requests all got pared down to a virtually even budget," she said.

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Although belt-tightening is taking place museum-wide, results are obvious in a new exhibition schedule for July through May 1997. The big losses are "Hidden in Plain Sight: Illusion in Art From Jasper Johns to Virtual Reality," organized by Maurice Tuchman, LACMA's senior curator emeritus of 20th century art, with exhibition associate and co-curator Virginia Rutledge, and "Converging Cultures: Art and Identity in Spanish America," organized by the Brooklyn Museum.

"Hidden in Plain Sight," which had been in process for several years, had been promoted as the museum's major fall attraction. It was billed as an innovative landmark, examining the meaning of realism in contemporary art with an international survey of 100 works by 60 artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Sherrie Levine and Gerhard Richter. Bill Viola, Jeffrey Shaw and Cindy Sherman had been commissioned to create virtual-reality works for the show.

Canceling the show in early June--less than five months before its Oct. 27 opening--raised eyebrows in the art world. Although many proposed exhibitions fail to develop, it is extremely unusual for a museum to drop a show after most of the work has been done and the catalog is ready to be printed.

Among other problems, cancellations create scheduling holes that can be difficult to fill on short notice. In this case, LACMA's staff has scurried to line up what is likely to be a popular--and profitable--substitution, "Marc Chagall 1907-1917," an in-depth exhibition of more than 80 of the artist's early works. The show, which appeared in a slightly different form this spring at the Jewish Museum in New York, is scheduled for Sept. 19-Jan. 5, 1997.

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The demise of "Hidden in Plain Sight" is complicated, Rich said, but it boils down to two primary issues--money and people. "Arrangements with [curators] Maurice and Virginia took place long before I came, but there was a time frame within which certain amounts of money were supposed to have been raised, and the museum's commitment to the show was contingent on that," she said. "When that period came [in January] and the money had not been raised, I was involved in discussing possibilities of continuing, as opposed to pulling the plug.

"There were at that time real possibilities of other venues, which would have offset lots of costs and there were still some outstanding corporations that might have come to the plate," Rich said. "At the time I thought the conceptualization of the show was significant enough to try to hang with it a little farther. So if there's a villain with regard to the timing, in part it's me because I was really trying to have it happen. I did commit museum resources, a greater amount than I think others might have, because I thought it was an exciting project."

The hoped-for venues and financial support didn't materialize. "But what made me most concerned," Rich said, "was that there were serious disagreements between Maurice--who was by contract the head curator, the supervisor--and Virginia Rutledge, who was given an honorary title of co-curator, but she worked for Maurice and it so said in her contract. As the difficulties became greater and greater, it became harder to feel comfortable about the ultimate high-quality success of the show." Rich characterized the dispute as "differences of opinion about control." Rutledge declined to comment.

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