Amid a financial crunch that has forced painful cutbacks at arts institutions across the country, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is forging ahead on many fronts. The board of trustees continues to grow. Construction of a new building for temporary exhibitions, funded by Stewart and Lynda Resnick and scheduled to open next year, is on track. LACMA visitors currently have a choice of three large special exhibitions as well as permanent collection galleries.
But one part of the picture doesn't look so rosy. The museum's curatorial ranks have dwindled as key staff members have retired or moved on to new positions. A search for a Chinese art specialist has dragged on for nearly three years, and five curators have left this year or will depart soon. With a hiring freeze in effect, the situation raises questions about how long the vacancies will remain open.
Until the economy improves?
"All the main positions will be filled quickly," says LACMA Director Michael Govan, who adds that the freeze will not prevent hiring people essential to the museum's programs. Finding a Chinese art curator is a frustrating challenge because there's a shortage of qualified candidates, and the museum's less-than-stellar Chinese collection makes it difficult to attract a top-notch scholar, he says. But he expects other key spots to be occupied soon.
J. Keith Wilson, LACMA's former chief curator of Asian art, left in 2006 to take a prestigious position as director and curator of ancient Chinese art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. June Li, another Asian art curator, moved across town a couple of years earlier to oversee the new Chinese garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
This year's exodus began with Mary Levkoff, curator of European sculpture and classical antiquities. She ended her 20-year career at LACMA to become curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Then Kevin Salatino, LACMA's curator of prints and drawings, announced that he will depart this summer to direct the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine.
In the field of contemporary art, curator Howard Fox retired around the first of the year, and Lynn Zelevansky, head of the department, recently stepped up to the director's position at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.
Last week brought the news that Charlotte Cotton, curator of photography since 2007, has been hired by the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, as creative director of its planned expansion in London.
That's a startling convergence of vacancies, but other L.A. museums are also dealing with curatorial shifts. Ann Goldstein, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is leaving soon to direct the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
The Hammer Museum recently hired Douglas Fogle and Anne Ellegood to fill openings at the top and is looking to fill a new position, funded by a grant from the James Irvine Foundation.
LACMA still has 30 curators, roughly equivalent to the 32 at the Art Institute of Chicago, a museum of similar size and scope. The L.A. museum has not laid off curators while tightening its belt, but Govan predicts that curatorial staffs nationwide are likely to shrink.
"You are seeing downsizing almost everywhere," he says, "but we plan to fill all the key positions quickly."
At lower levels, LACMA's curatorial shuffle is not "a one-for-one exchange," he says, adding that the staff includes relatively recent additions.
Hyonjeong Kim Han has come on board as associate curator of Korean art, and Elizabeth Williams recently arrived as assistant curator of decorative arts and design. Rita Gonzalez, who helped to organize LACMA's 2008 exhibition "Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement" when she was a temporary employee, is now a staff curator in contemporary art. Christine Kim, a former curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, will join the contemporary art department in September.
"We will hire a more senior person to fill Lynn's position," Govan says, "and speed will be a key factor for me. We are not going to drag our feet to save money, because we have so many exciting things on our plates."
The museum is in the process of launching a search for Salatino's successor, he says. But a replacement for Levkoff will wait until J. Patrice Marandel, curator of European painting and sculpture, completes a major reinstallation of the museum's European art galleries.
The vacancies will not affect the museum's exhibition program, Govan says, because shows are planned years in advance and curators who are still on staff are organizing the major upcoming events.
At a time when museum professionals are among legions of unemployed folks, LACMA might seem to have its pick of talent. But Govan says that people in important curatorial positions are part of "a rarefied breed."
"The recession is not helping me find a Chinese curator," he says. "There's a dearth of people who are able to run museums, so highly qualified curators are moving into those jobs.
"But you have to put all this in perspective. Turnover is good, especially when you are making transitions and doing new things. We haven't been pushing people out. We are gaining more friends in high places. One of the marks of quality of a museum is that its curators move up in the world."