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Movers and Shakers Behind the Art Makers

May 18, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Despite its growth and evolution as a major art center, Los Angeles has never developed a support structure equal to its home-grown talent. That's the bottom line, and it hasn't changed significantly in the 1990s. But new players have emerged. Adding fresh energy and new dimensions to the art scene, they have bolstered more entrenched forces that continue to make things happen:

MUSEUM PEOPLE

Paul Schimmel became chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990 and mounted a definitive blockbuster in 1992. "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" had an enormous influence on worldwide perceptions of contemporary art in L.A. His next big project, opening Dec. 7, is "Out of Actions: Performance and the Object," an international examination of how actions and performances evolved into works of art from 1949 to 1979.

Two top curators joined the J. Paul Getty Museum's staff in 1994. David Jaffe, curator of paintings, has overseen one major purchase after another, from Fra Bartolommeo's High Renaissance masterpiece "Rest on the Flight Into Egypt With Saint John the Baptist" to a classic Cezanne, "Still Life With Apples." The Getty's new curator of drawings, Nicholas Turner, has been busy too, acquiring Old Master works to enhance the Getty's increasingly distinguished holdings.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the biggest change--effected in 1995-96--is a bifurcated administrative structure, with Andrea Rich in the top spot as the museum's first paid president and Graham W.J. Beal as director. But the public hasn't seen much evidence of their efforts, which have focused on strategic planning and inside operations.

Meanwhile, J. Patrice Marandel became LACMA's curator of European painting and sculpture in 1993 and immediately got to work on the permanent collection, reorganizing galleries and acquiring Old Master paintings with funds from the Ahmanson Foundation.

At the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, Edward J. Nygren succeeded Robert Wark, who had served as the Huntington's curator of collections for 34 years. Since 1990 Nygren has overseen an eclectic parade of exhibitions, including a dazzling selection of European portrait miniatures from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II.

Two other relatively new arrivals, Lynn Zelevansky, associate curator of 20th century art since 1995 at LACMA, and Connie Butler, curator of works on paper since 1996 at MOCA, are very much on the scene but just beginning to have a curatorial presence. Zelevansky will debut on June 5 with the inaugural exhibition in LACMA's "Contemporary Projects Series"; Butler made her curatorial debut last fall with "The Power of Suggestion," a show of conceptual artworks that stretched the definition of drawing.

SCHOOLS

Southern California's rich mixture of art schools was formerly dominated by CalArts, which opened in Valencia in 1971 and quickly became the hot spot for budding artists. Now UCLA has claimed that position. One measure is the "1997 Biennial Exhibition" at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The show is routinely panned by critics, but it takes the pulse of art making across the nation. This year UCLA had the strongest vital signs. Ten of the 72 artists represented either teach at UCLA (Chris Burden, Lari Pittman and Charles Ray) or studied there (Douglas Blau, Charles Burnett, Martin Kersels, Jennifer Pastor, Raymond Pettibon, Jason Rhoades and Vija Celmins, who lives in New York).

COLLECTORS

It's the '90s, not the '80s, so no one has picked up the torch of L.A.'s mega-collectors Eli Broad, David Geffen and Michael Ovitz. But there's plenty of money here, and some of it is being spent on art. Among the most prominent new acquisitors is Dean Valentine, president of Walt Disney Television and Walt Disney TV Animation, who is building a major collection of contemporary art.

Clyde Beswick, a direct-mail executive, emerged early in the '90s as the collector of young artists, but he was waylaid by a divorce and a business-related lawsuit that have forced him to sell part of his holdings. He's still on the scene, most recently as a curator of "outauction '97," benefiting the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, so perhaps he'll reemerge as an important collector.

PATRONS

As public and corporate support of art has dwindled, the need for private patronage has escalated. Music industry mogul David Geffen came through with a $5-million gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art that transformed the popular Temporary Contemporary into the Geffen Contemporary.

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