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Portrait of a Smooth Transition

ART

Jeremy Strick became MOCA director amid skepticism, but he has won over artists and board members.

March 12, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

About a year ago, when Jeremy Strick was chosen to be the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, skeptics rolled their eyes and crossed their fingers.

The problem wasn't his art credentials. Strick is a Harvard University-educated scholar who was curator of 20th century painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago and previously held curatorial positions at two other prestigious institutions, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the St. Louis Art Museum. What he lacked was experience in administration and fund-raising--the two areas that would occupy most of his time and energy at MOCA.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 19, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Art curator-- Elizabeth A.T. Smith is chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. An article last Sunday incorrectly placed her at a different institution.

But now, after a mere eight months on the job, Strick seems to have allayed the fears. The most spectacular indicator of his high approval rating is a $10-million gift--the largest in the 20-year-old museum's history--from trustee Dallas Price. Announced in late January, the donation was made in honor of Strick and former MOCA director Richard Koshalek, who led the museum from infancy to maturity and now heads Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

MOCA also has received a bonanza of artworks since Strick's arrival, 17 of which were specifically dedicated to him. And just in the last few weeks, still more gifts of art have come in, including major pieces by sculptor and performance artist Paul McCarthy, video artist Doug Aitken and photographer Andreas Gursky.

If this show of confidence has astonished many in the art world, Strick confesses that his transition has been smoother than even he expected. "I've been surprised at how quickly the board and the staff have rallied and at the energy people have put into the museum," he said in an interview at his office.

"The gift that Dallas Price made is the most extraordinary manifestation of that. It was an expression of Dallas' own commitment but also an indication of a broad-based commitment to MOCA in Los Angeles. People love this museum; it means a lot to them. My previous experience has been in museums with much longer histories, so I have been positively surprised by the level of interest in the museum around the city. In a relatively short period of time, MOCA has established deep roots."

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Leading trustees say that Strick, 44, got their attention quickly through a series of strategic planning sessions that began soon after his arrival. The meetings provided a forum for the new director to outline his vision of MOCA's future, to generate excitement about possible changes and strengthen the trustees' commitment to the museum by involving them in making decisions.

"Our mission is to deal with the most significant and challenging art of our time," Strick said. The meetings renewed that mission and produced a new determination to carry it out more effectively and to increase the institution's impact globally and locally. At MOCA--which presents an international program that includes local artists--the challenge is "to place Los Angeles history in an international context," he said. "That's our task."

Strategic planning was "a way for the board to look at itself and the museum at a moment of transition, and to forge a new consensus," Strick said of the program, which was funded by a grant from the Irvine Foundation and facilitated by the Boston-based consulting firm Bain & Co. "I worked with the board leadership and involved the museum staff in looking at everything from mission and vision to a board strategy, to fund-raising and marketing development. The process provided a context in which to make decisions for our fiscal 2000 budget and to think about the museum's future--what the options are for MOCA's growth and how the museum can continue to flourish."

The basic issue was "what MOCA is for, what we are about," Strick said. "Then we had to determine whether to keep things as they are or to go beyond past achievements, which would take a real commitment and hard work."

The decision was to grow.

For the permanent collection--largely composed of American postwar art--that means making "a strategic shift" in two areas, Strick said. "We want to respond to the increasingly global nature of contemporary art. This is a great international museum, and the collection should reflect that."

Soon, Strick said, the collection is likely to be rounded out by acquisitions from upcoming international exhibitions. They include "Flight Patterns: Picturing the Pacific Rim" (Oct. 29-Feb. 18, 2001), an exploration of landscape representation organized by curator Connie Butler, and "Public Offerings" (March 25-July 8, 2001), chief curator Paul Schimmel's examination of artists who emerged in the 1990s from key art schools.

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