PRINT May 1999

US News


WHEN THE NEWS BROKE this March that Jeremy Strick had been named the new director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, hardly a ripple was felt in art-world waters, although there was a strong undercurrent of curiosity. After more than fifteen years of high-energy leadership under Richard Koshalek, during which the museum went from a startup with $50,000 in the bank to an international venue with a $50 million endowment, why Strick, a comparative unknown? But word spread quickly: This curator of twentieth-century painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago (formerly of the National Gallery and trained at Harvard) is enormously respected, even if he is also, as some have pointed out, utterly inexperienced at running a major institution.

David Laventhol, a longtime MoCA board member who oversaw the search committee, brushes Strick’s inexperience aside. “We went through two search firms and more than four dozen candidates, many of them directors. We talked to people for nearly a year. When we met Jeremy, we immediately saw the fit. He’s passionate about contemporary art, diplomatic; he’s orderly and practical.”

If anything, Strick’s appointment seems to be part of a trend. According to Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, boards these days are focusing on strong art-history credentials, not just business skills: Witness the relatively recent appointment of Adam Weinberg, former senior curator at the Whitney, as director of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, and of Lisa Phillips, also a curator at the Whitney, as director of New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art [see Smith, p. 56].

Strick laughs when he’s asked if he’s prepared to direct MoCA, with its $10 million budget, its fairly small but fine collection of 4,000 objects, and its chief curator, Paul Schimmel, who is known for his powerful exhibitions and equally powerful personality. “In truth,” Strick says, “I had the idea in my head for several years about directing an institution. Some offers had come up, but I never pursued those. It's not that I wanted to be a director in the abstract, but that I wanted to direct MoCA in particular when the chance came. With Paul, I think it's a matter of balance and support. I don't know that our ideas about contemporary art are very different, but our curatorial experiences have been. What I've accomplished at other institutions will be good for MoCA, like articulating the goals of the museum, building consensus among staff and trustees, and building support for programs that engage people in the community.”

This last issue is a hot button. Laventhol, along with others who spoke anonymously, said that attendance at MoCA is a concern at the top of the list. Last year's gate showed an audience of 315,000—a figure slightly higher than the 280,000 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, but considerably below the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's 734,000. “Attendance is something we want to address,” Strick acknowledges, "but it runs deeper than the numbers. With a collection of this quality, it's an obligation to see what new things we can do; and that includes acquisitions, marketing, even partnerships with other institutions.

“Nothing has been done wrong here,” Strick concludes. “There's no great drama or scandal. It's just the brink of the twenty-first century for MoCA, and I'm delighted to be here.”