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Q&A

MOCA Director a Curator to the Core

August 06, 1999|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Jeremy Strick is a museum guy. Because some art museums, including ones in Los Angeles and Chicago, are now turning to professional administrators and university educators to assume the top post, many observers were relieved when the Museum of Contemporary Art recently went the traditional route, elevating an experienced curator to the director's chair. MOCA's new director, who assumed the helm in July as the third director in the museum's 19-year existence, has served in curatorial positions at Washington's National Gallery of Art, the St. Louis Art Museum and, since 1996, the Art Institute of Chicago.

The appointment did generate some surprise. Strick is young--43--and low-key. Well-regarded among his curatorial peers, he lacks an extensive administrative record. At MOCA he assumes leadership of one of the largest art museums of its kind in the nation, with a staff of 130, membership of 13,000 and an annual attendance of 450,000.

An L.A. native, Strick comes from a family with roots both in Hollywood and art: His father, filmmaker Joseph Strick, won an Academy Award for the documentary "Interviews With My Lai Veterans"; a great-uncle, Edward Biberman, was a realist painter of some note whose 1941 mural, "The Story of Venice," graces the Venice Post Office and whose brother, Herbert, was one of the Hollywood 10, the group of writers jailed during the McCarthy era for their political beliefs.

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Question: When you entered the museum field, was becoming a director a specific aspiration?

Answer: It was a consideration more than an aspiration. I first wanted to work as a curator. As I worked in museums more and more, I thought I might eventually become a director.

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Q: A few museums have begun to hire professional administrators or university educators as directors. What do you think of the trend away from the traditional elevation of curators to a director's post?

A: People of different skills and talents can certainly offer something to the field. Broadening the circles of expertise can be positive. But I also think there's a core to the museum, which is the art, and the scholarship and knowledge that goes into dealing with that art. It would be a shame if museums strayed too far from that.

That's one reason I finally wanted to become a museum director. Coming from a curatorial background, I wanted to reclaim that space for the core vision and purpose of the museum.

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Q: On the other side, many curators have become wary of making the transition to director because of the enormous demands, especially fund-raising.

A: The question for me is: Where is the center of gravity? If I'm pulling all of the areas of the museum, including [fund-raising], back to what the museum is fundamentally about, that's great.

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Q: In a recent letter introducing yourself to the MOCA membership, you described the museum's permanent collection as your first priority. Why?

A: If you look at MOCA's achievements over the last 20 years, which have been many and notable, arguably the greatest has been in building a significant permanent collection. The collection has been built largely through a series of major acquisitions that have been tremendously important, but less through a regular process of collection building. The museum doesn't have much presence in the art market, doesn't have much presence among emerging artists as far as active collecting. MOCA has an extraordinary reputation for its exhibitions, and I'd like to see it have the same reputation for its collecting policies.

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Q: What gaps do you see in the collection?

A: I'm learning the collection, so it's premature to say. One reason I'm hesitating is that we have so little of our permanent collection on view.

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Q: Do you anticipate committing additional gallery space to the permanent collection?

A: I very much want to do that, particularly at the Geffen Contemporary. Having a permanent collection display in both our buildings is very important.

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Q: Does MOCA have an acquisitions endowment?

A: It has a couple of relatively small endowments that don't produce a great deal of income. Most acquisition funds come from the collections committee, which makes regular contributions, or from directed fund-raising [for specific purchases]. A goal I have for the museum is to have a significant acquisition fund that we can draw on regularly.

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Q: As director, will you still organize exhibitions?

A: I didn't come here to do exhibitions. But neither do I expect not to do them. From time to time I'll participate, but that won't be my primary focus.

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Q: In addition to developing an acquisitions program, what areas of institutional life need attention?

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