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Which way, LACMA?

In 1995, Andrea Rich took over a failing institution. Her successor's task won't be any easier.

June 12, 2005|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Ten years before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art reached its current crossroads, an outsider named Andrea Rich took her first inside look at the place. It was hers to run, and it wasn't pretty.

In fact, as Rich remembers it, the halls were dirty, the phones faltering, the ceilings leaky and the computer network -- there wasn't one. The institution's last director had resigned after a mere 10 months, and tight money had forced LACMA to close two days per week instead of the usual one. Surveying her inherited staff, Rich found five high-level, non-curatorial managers "incapable of adequate performance" and wrote as much in an appraisal for trustees.

Yet plenty of the nation's leading art professionals thought Rich had no business trying to fix the place. A career UCLA administrator, she had no training in art history, not even a LACMA membership card. Rich's idea of rescue, they warned, could ruin everything.

Today, as LACMA searches for a successor to the 61-year-old Rich, who will retire as director in November, certain facts are clear.

On the upside, despite that wary welcome from the museum world and a spinal disease that has curtailed her professional networking, she has lasted about twice as long as the average American museum director. The museum has stable finances, longer hours, grand plans and, yes, fully operative telephone and computer systems. With star architect Renzo Piano poised to lead an expansion and reorganization of the crowded, confusing campus, the $130-million projected cost of phase one is already in the bank. These facts alone, many museum professionals say, should qualify Rich as a triumphant turnaround artist.

But the closer you look, the more complicated that picture becomes. It was a power struggle with $60-million donor Eli Broad that apparently hastened her departure, and tending to that relationship will be job one for the next director. Though Rich has won praise in many quarters for boosting LACMA's Latin American and Asian holdings and programs in an explicit nod to the city's evolving demographics, the museum's art-acquisition spending has slowed in recent years, as has its exhibition schedule.

And before Rich turned to the current Piano expansion plan, she and top board members spent enormous energy in the early 2000s on a plan to have Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas demolish the current campus and rebuild from the ground up. Broad said he'd put up $50 million if other big donors would follow, but none did. Eventually Rich pulled the plug, came up with Plan B and found money for it.

"I'm done," she says, sitting for an interview. "You know what I mean? I don't feel guilty walking away now."

Over the last decade, Rich has trimmed the museum's staff from 404 to 291, while boosting visitor numbers by about a third. LACMA collects dues from about 10,000 more members than in 1995. Its $48.5-million annual budget -- up from $25.4 million in 1995 -- is in the black, though music lovers are still smarting from the museum's June 1 move to cut back programming in that area. The museum's endowment, which still trails those of older East Coast institutions, has grown past the $100-million mark.

But as Rich and others are quick to agree, a museum is a difficult territory to measure, as lively and as resistant to quantification as a Bruegel country fair or a Bosch brawl.

"You're looking at an institution now that's at a critical crossroads in its history," says Richard Koshalek, president of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. In the middle of the scene stands Broad, surrounded by blueprints and waiting to be reckoned with. Along with the fun of rehanging the collection as the LACMA campus expands, the new LACMA leader will have the job of collaborating with Broad, the home-building and insurance billionaire who is the museum's biggest donor.

Though Broad has pledged the money for the building, named it the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and chosen Piano as its architect, he has stopped short of permanently donating his much-coveted collection, which is to be displayed there. It's unclear exactly how the contemporary museum will fit with the rest of LACMA.

Broad insists it's a straightforward arrangement: The deputy director in charge of the contemporary museum, he says, "is going to report to the director of the museum. It's part of LACMA." With Rich leaving, Broad adds, it "would make sense" to hire a LACMA director before hiring a deputy. (Broad is one of eight trustees on the search committee, which is led by education activist Nancy Daly Riordan and software mogul and arts patron Peter Norton.)

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