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ART

An Old Master Builder

While expanding LACMA's permanent collection, veteran museum curator J. Patrice Marandel has established himself as a savvy shopper for European art.

August 15, 1999|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

To hear him tell it, the story of J. Patrice Marandel's arrival on the staff of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a cliffhanger with a happy ending.

The tale begins in May 1993, when Marandel was the veteran curator of European paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts. An affable Frenchman--who sometimes claims he is nobody and knows no one, but is actually renowned and very well connected--he came to the United States in his early 20s and quickly rose in curatorial circles at prominent institutions, moving from the Rhode Island School of Design to the Art Institute of Chicago, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. In 1980, when he landed in Detroit, he thought he'd stay about three years. But before he knew it, he had settled in.

"Three years became five, five became 10, and 10 became 13," Marandel said in a lively discussion over a Cobb salad lunch in a mid-Wilshire restaurant. "I finally decided it was time to get more rooted in Detroit. Although I had a beautiful apartment, I decided to buy a house. I had dinner one night with a real estate agent, a friend of friends, who said he could get me a fantastic house, and we agreed to meet the following day." But before Marandel even got to see his potential new home, he received a telephone call from a stranger by the name of Michael Shapiro.

A former curator at the St. Louis Museum of Art, Shapiro had been catapulted from relative obscurity into the national limelight about six months earlier when he became LACMA's director. His call to Detroit seemed to come out of the blue, but he had polled the higher echelons of art museums to find the perfect candidate to fill one of LACMA's most prestigious positions, curator of European painting and sculpture. Over and over, the name that came up was "Marandel."

Intrigued by Shapiro's call, Marandel agreed to visit the museum in Los Angeles. "I called the real estate agent and said, 'Hold off. I'm not sure I want to sign the dotted line yet. Let me go to Los Angeles.' I had never met Michael Shapiro, but I was thrilled that my colleagues thought so highly of me. I came here. I loved it, and I was offered a job," he said.

For a while it seemed that the unexpected call had propelled Marandel in a new direction. He would leave a venerable museum that had fallen on hard times. His new employer would be a much younger institution that had grown enormously in the 1980s but had weathered cutbacks in funding and an administrative void during the early '90s. There were undeniable problems at LACMA, but the museum offered a special lure.

The Ahmanson Foundation, which has supported LACMA since its inception, established a special fund in 1972 for the acquisition of European paintings and sculptures. Unlike many of his colleagues who have to raise most or all of their acquisition funds, Marandel would have an enviable opportunity to build the museum's collection with Ahmanson money. The museum does not disclose the purchase price of acquisitions, but the foundation gives several million dollars' worth of Old Master artworks to LACMA each year.

*

Marandel accepted the museum's offer, bought a house in Los Angeles--instead of Detroit--and began packing. But early one morning at the end of August, about six weeks before he was scheduled to begin working in Los Angeles, he got another unforgettable phone call. This time the message wasn't merely surprising; it was downright shocking.

A friend from Houston called to ask if he had seen the New York Times that day. Marandel had perused the newspaper but missed a notice of Shapiro's resignation, after less than a year at the helm.

"I panicked immediately," Marandel said. "But it was too early to call Los Angeles, so I waited until it was 7 o'clock in the morning there. Then I called Mary Levkoff [assistant curator of European painting and sculpture at LACMA]. She usually doesn't open an eye until 9:30, I think, but she was kind enough to pick up the phone, and she was very reassuring.

"Shortly after that, I got two calls from trustees, one from Dan Belin and one from Linda Resnick, who both reassured me that they wanted me to come to Los Angeles, no matter what. The deal was still on, so I came here. It was weird, but I had been through weirder situations in my life. And it has worked out very nicely, thanks to everyone around me who has been very supportive."

Marandel's responsibilities at the museum include organizing and coordinating temporary exhibitions as well as shopping, but he is credited with being an unusually savvy acquisitor. And he readily admits that expanding and shaping the collection is the most rewarding part of his job.

"I can't do everything, but as long as I have donors who are willing to help me, it's important to build the permanent collection, because that's what remains as a legacy for young people," he said.

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