It's been less than three weeks since Paul Schimmel, Chief Curator of MOCA, was fired... or dismissed... or terminated... or forced to resign and -- despite more than a dozen newspaper articles and an avalanche of reports on the Internet -- no one knows for sure what happened.
Every day seems to bring another blow to MOCA's stature as one of the top cultural institutions, both nationally and internationally. The museum's founding trustees expressed their dismay at state of affairs, urging MOCA to restore its "artistic and curatorial integrity" and regain "its respect and prominence." And then followed an exodus of four influential museum trustees, who also happen to be major American artists of international stature. John Baldassari was first, followed a few days later by Cathy Opie and Barbara Kruger, and, finally Ed Ruscha, all of them expressing dismay at the Paul Schimmel dismissal and indignation at the way it was handled.
Paul Schimmel, formerly MOCA's chief curator. Photo by Allen J. Schaben
A museum press release that came two days after Schimmel's departure was full of obfuscations. Nothing was explained. Instead, a few blah-blah pleasantries were printed, acknowledging Paul's contributions and wishing him well. At this point, everyone knows about the clash of personalities and visions between Schimmel, who had been an opinionated, larger-than-life Chief Curator at MOCA for 22 years, and Jeffrey Deitch, who has been MOCA's director for the last two years. Unfortunately for Schimmel, Eli Broad, L.A. philanthropist and power broker, is not in his but in Deitch's court, and that explains a lot.
(L) Gorky and his mother, Van City, Turkish Armenia, 1912; Courtesy Dr. Bruce Berberian. (R) Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, 1926-36. Oil on canvas.
© 2010 Estate of Arshile Gorky/Artists Rights Society, New York
At this point, I want to remind you of one particular instance when Paul Schimmel went far beyond the call of duty and did something near impossible. When he learned that the high-profile exhibition by outstanding American artist, Arshile Gorky, scheduled to appear at LACMA, had been canceled due to budget concerns, he immediately jumped into action. Taking into consideration Gorky's Armenian descent, Schimmel -- with his insider's knowledge of L.A.'s cultural landscape -- went to the leaders of the large Armenian community in Glendale. As a result, a large chunk of money was raised in no time, and this amazing Gorky show added another jewel to MOCA's crown.
Installation view of "Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective" on view at MOCA Grand Avenue, 2010. Photo by Brian Forrest
A year ago, responding to the sad new of the death of the great American painter Cy Twombly, Paul Schimmel once again did the near impossible. In merely a few weeks, he honored Twombly with a small, beautifully installed exhibition of the artist's paintings, pulled from the impressive private collection of Eli Broad. Through the years, we in Los Angeles have had the chance to see the Broad collection displayed, not only at his own foundation but also at the Hammer and at LACMA. But never before have we seen selections from this private collection exhibited to better effect than in Schimmel's tribute. Knowing the passions of Eli Broad as a collector and his super-ambitions for his upcoming museum, scheduled to open across the street from MOCA in 2014, one wonders why this proud, super-smart business man chose to get rid of the superstar curator. Why instead didn't he beg Schimmel to stay and oversee the upcoming museum's inaugural exhibition?
Installation view of "Cy Twombly Tribute: A Scatting of Blossoms and Other Things," curated by Paul Schimmel at MOCA Grand Avenue, 2011. Photo by Brian Forrest
Once upon a time, the royal courts of Europe had a court jester whose role was -- when no one else dared -- to deliver difficult truth into the face of his majesty. Let me try to deliver such truth to Mr. Broad, who reigns over the L.A. art scene.
Chief Curator Paul Schimmel next to philanthropist Eli Broad, at media preview of Collection: MOCA's First Thirty Years. Photo courtesy of Mary Milliken
A good friend of mine once told me that there is big difference between being smart and being wise. I have to admit that initially I couldn't grasp the full meaning of this. So this is what I was told: the difference between being smart and being wise is that a wise person knows which battles to win and which battles to lose.
Old-fashioned cartoon of Deitch fighting Paul Schimmel, as "Broad of Directors" looks on
The way MOCA's trustees, along with Eli Broad, handled their responsibilities in recent days and weeks has left us worried about the museum's future. And that's why I want to bring in an example of not just very smart but extremely wise museum leadership and philanthropy. When, in the 1930s, American robber baron and philanthropist Andrew Mellon decided that Washington should have a National Gallery like London, he donated his collection of Old Master paintings and funded the construction of the museum building. And here comes the wisest part of his plan. He didn't allow his name to be used or attached to what ultimately became known and celebrated as the National Gallery of Art. He understood the mentality of his wealthy brethren, who would never donate their collections to the museum if his name were attached to it. Now, 80 years later, observing the glory of this museum, we see how extremely wise Mellon was in his decision-making.
I wish MOCA's trustees, and Mr. Broad in particular, would take this example to heart.
Update: Read more about the MoCA debate in Robert Storr's piece here.
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.