In July 1999, when Jeremy Strick emerged from the Art Institute of Chicago's curatorial shadows and stepped into the director's spotlight at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, he thought he had found a near-perfect opportunity.
He had watched from afar as MOCA burst into life in 1979. As it moved into adolescence, he was impressed with its ability to build a collection, exhibition program and international reputation with astonishing speed.
"And I loved Los Angeles," he said this week in an interview in his office. "It's my native city. I thought this was a situation where my talents and experience could come into play and I could make a contribution. If there was any place worth making that contribution, for me it was MOCA."
But it didn't take long for Strick to discover that it had a big problem.
"MOCA had a chronic deficit," he said. "It had a financial model that didn't work. There were times when we were very successful. We raised a lot of money, more than many institutions in this city, but the kind of major endowment gifts that we needed eluded us."
Although Strick has been characterized as a lavish spender, he said the museum ran on "a shoestring" while organizing exhibitions that traveled to museums with much bigger budgets. "We put everything we had into creating the best program in the world," he said.
The museum's fiscal dilemma intensified in recent months, and this week it cost him his dream job. On the edge of financial disaster, the museum accepted a $30-million bailout from philanthropist Eli Broad, rounded up $20 million in promised gifts from its trustees and embarked on a restructure of its management. On Tuesday, MOCA announced that Strick had resigned and that Charles E. Young, chancellor emeritus of UCLA, had been appointed chief executive. Young will preside over the museum's stabilization and recruitment of a new director.
"It's been clear for the last several months that I was likely to leave," said Strick, 53.
The Harvard-educated scholar had worked at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the St. Louis Art Museum before landing in Chicago and finally L.A.
It was on his watch here that MOCA became known as the best museum of postwar art in the country, if not the world, and a place where sweeping, historic theme shows were almost routine.
"As recently as last spring, there was a good possibility that the museum would move forward with a renovation and expansion of the Geffen Contemporary," he said of the museum's vast auxiliary space in Little Tokyo. "That project could have had a positive impact on our future. But as the economy changed, the conversation became very different. I could see that if we were going to get to the resolution we needed, it would probably be best for everyone if I were to go. But I wanted to see this process through, get MOCA to a point where I could comfortably leave."
"What makes me happy now," he said, "is seeing that at last we have the foundation we need. If you look at other institutions in Los Angeles, where would the County Museum of Art be without county support? Where would the Getty be without its endowment? MOCA has to rely on private support. With the $15 million that Eli Broad will give for the endowment and the trustees' matching funds and the additional $15 million from Broad for five years of programming, there's a basis to move forward and make decisions in a much more considered way."
To Strick's way of thinking, the crisis that forced MOCA's leaders to face facts and consider radical options, including a merger with LACMA, was "a crucible. It was difficult, it was painful, but thank God it happened."
Leaving the museum, which he will do for good in mid-January, is painful too, but Strick said he has no regrets.
"In any position, there are good and bad moments, things you wish you had done differently," he said. "But when people look back, they are going to see a collection which has grown, a record of exhibitions which has changed our understanding of contemporary art, catalogs which are the definitive publications on great artists and movements. That's what's going to last. I have been a part of that, and I couldn't ask for more."
Seated at a round table, he leaned back in a cushy leather chair and considered his proudest moments.
"Exhibitions, whether it was 'A Minimal Future?,' 'Ecstasy' or 'WACK!' Those shows were causes, things we believed in so passionately and intensely. To make them happen and see how they were appreciated was incredibly satisfying."
He also pointed to the growth of the collection, partly thanks to beefed-up acquisitions support groups and a discretionary fund for curators. During his tenure, MOCA acquired about 2,000 works, roughly a third of the collection. Membership increased as well, from 13,000 to 20,000.
Despite the controversy surrounding his resignation, Strick has many supporters.