The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles Board of Trustees voted unanimously last night to fire Paul Schimmel, their Chief Curator of over twenty years, ArtINFO reports. The publication received an anonymous email last night informing them of the decision, but have yet to hear from the MoCA. As of the time of this writing MoCA has not returned our request for comment.
According to the email, Schimmel was let go in conjunction with a number of curatorial assistants and other employees. This news comes just four years after wealthy benefactor Eli Broad pledged to donate up to $30 million over five years to the museum with “the expectation that the museum’s board and others join in this effort to solve the institution’s financial problems.” At the time, it was hailed as “the billionaire’s bailout” for the museum, which suffered losses in investments due to the stock market crash. Broad will match contributions to the endowment up to $15 million, and make annual donations of $3 million earmarked for exhibition support.
Public tax records show the museum’s donations slipped from $29,479,758 in 2009 to $18,646,717 in 2010. The museum’s most recent I-990 is not yet online, so we don’t yet know how 2011 shaped up. It’s not yet clear to what extent the layoffs are the result of belt-tightening, though Mat Gleason notes on his blog Coagula that the timing matches their fiscal year-end. The last time this happened, though, some trustees and staff agitated for deaccessioning. We have not yet heard talk of this.
The firing of Paul Schimmel is no small deal. Helter Skelter, probably the best known of his exhibitions, launched in 1992 and sought to destroy LA stereotypes and challenge the New York School. It is considered one of the most important exhibitions of its time. He’s also curated headline-making solo shows by artists like Andreas Gursky, Robert Rauschenberg, and Takashi Murakami.
Schimmel helped define Los Angeles as a center for exhibition creation. It was Schimmel who was organizing exhibitions in-house that would then travel nationally to institutions like the Met, the Whitney, and the National Gallery, and abroad to museums in Paris, Vienna, Tokyo, and Barcelona. This, in combination with other outreach, grew a new crop of museum-goers. “[S]hows like ‘Ecstasy’ brought in a whole new generation,” Schimmel noted in a 2009 interview. In sum, he’s been responsible for over 52 exhibitions at MoCA; during that tenure, the museum has often been cited as the most important contemporary art museum in the country.
Reporters have cited the acrimonious relationship between MoCA’s new Director Jeffrey Deitch and Chief Curator Paul Schimmel as a possible cause for dismissal. The LA Times’s Christopher Knight wrote over Twitter this morning that “[t]ensions had been brewing for a long time.” This March, The LA Times reported that key financial personnel left the museum.
Should personality conflict have been an issue, it would not surprise many. Schimmel is widely respected for exhaustive, thought-provoking exhibitions. Deitch is infamous for his belief that no distinction should exist between art and entertainment. Their personalities could not be more different.
More broadly speaking, however, the firing harkens back to the fears of critics who expressed trepidation about Deitch’s appointment in 2010. Would a man who so indiscriminately embraced kitsch be a good match for the country’s best contemporary art museum? We already had questions after we saw the cancellation of their Jack Goldstein exhibition for a show of paintings by the late actor Dennis Hopper. The firing of an internationally renowned curator only further calls his leadership into question.