Paul Schimmel doesn't need much encouragement to squire a guest around the Museum of Contemporary Art's galleries, which he does with the zest of a house-proud homeowner. And why shouldn't he? Next month, MOCA's chief curator celebrates 20 years with the museum, which has just put up a big, gorgeous show of its collections for its own "First Thirty Years" celebration.
Neither anniversary might have happened. Money troubles threw a sincere scare about MOCA's survivability into the art world and the city. But a last-reel rush to save MOCA raised some respectable dough, most recently $3.5 million that fluttered in from a black-tie gala enlivened by Lady Gaga performing on a pink piano that Damien Hirst had painted with blue butterflies.
Schimmel was always a believer, even in the bad times. On his desk are small books with deliberately blank pages, on whose edges artist Ed Ruscha has summed up philanthropist Eli Broad's challenge to MOCA: "Make new history." For Schimmel, that's the eleventh commandment -- or maybe the first.
After 30 years of MOCA, has L.A. finally overcome its artistic inferiority complex? Does the city have the confidence to match the collection?
The city has the creative confidence to be among the most admired and influential visual arts communities in the world. One thing MOCA made a profound commitment to was to treat the best and brightest artists of Los Angeles not as provincially important, but to bring them to national and international attention. We have succeeded because the artists we have grown up with have become among the most admired in the world. Sam Francis, Ed Moses, Ed Ruscha: They've supported the institution; they see both the museum and themselves in a regional context while simultaneously understanding the huge impact that Los Angeles art has internationally.
Does the regular Angeleno appreciate MOCA?
When you have memberships like we do, when you have exhibitions that can bring in 100,000, 200,000 people, this is a great success. Would we like to have a larger membership and more visitors? Would we like the nature of urban life in Los Angeles to [bring] more people walking in off the street? Of course. But these are broader issues. We have had great success in changing the public's relationship to art of our time. Contemporary art was highly specialized and a small niche market. Now, some 30 years later, MOCA has provided a kind of town center for the visual arts that's been very successful.
Our [Takashi] Murakami exhibition broke records here, and at the Brooklyn Museum and in Frankfurt and Bilbao. Shows like "Ecstasy" brought in a whole new generation. One of the most coveted audiences is the first-time museum visitor. You know they're first-time because you have to watch them much more carefully; they don't know the difference between not touching and touching! Members are the backbone, but your first-time visitor -- if you open the door for a new generation of museum-goers, it's extraordinary. The impact -- they carry that for the rest of their lives.
MOCA just had a near-death experience, financially. Where do matters stand now?
My expertise is clearly the artistic program. That said, MOCA has done a great deal in the last year to bring the endowment back up, and it has occurred much more rapidly than people could have imagined.
There have been two factors: the Broad Foundation [Eli Broad provided a $30-million bailout, tied to a challenge to the MOCA board], and the fact that the board -- people have been unfairly critical of this board -- continued to raise funds to bring the endowment back to where it was.
I've never heard from our trustees or the patrons or the artists that they want us to lower the quality of what we do, to be less original, to be any less committed to the kinds of audacious shows that have characterized MOCA from the beginning. What I have heard is that we should do fewer things, but in no way to erode the quality or the ambition of this institution.
Did you ever think that MOCA wouldn't make it to 30?
No, and I wasn't alone. An institution that had done so much to change Los Angeles, an institution and a collection admired as one of the most important, and a membership of 15,000, 20,000 people -- I could not imagine that a depleted endowment would be enough to take it under. I suspect that the world's perception of MOCA [helped] in saving us. There was a sense well beyond Los Angeles that this would be a terrible, terrible loss.
Is MOCA in any position to buy art?
We have had a certain significant curtailment of our acquisitions in the past year. But well over 90% of our collection has been donated. Nothing inspires donations more than the opportunity to see the collection itself. As you know, there was a very rapid drop [in art sales] last year. Instead of people selling works, they might very well consider giving them away.
What does success mean in the art world?