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MOCA's Jeremy Strick, the interview

December 25, 2008 |  1:34 pm

Jeremy Strick

In July 1999, when Jeremy Strick emerged from the Art Institute of Chicago’s curatorial shadows and stepped into the director’s spotlight at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, he thought he had found a near-perfect opportunity.

He had watched from afar as MOCA burst into life in 1979. As it moved into adolescence, he was impressed with its ability to build a collection, exhibition program and international reputation with astonishing speed.

“And I loved Los Angeles,” he said this week in an interview in his office. “It’s my native city. I thought this was a situation where my talents and experience could come into play and I could make a contribution. If there was any place worth making that contribution, for me it was MOCA.”
But it didn’t take long for Strick to discover that it had a big problem.

“MOCA had a chronic deficit,” he said. “It had a financial model that didn’t work. There were times when we were very successful. We raised a lot of money, more than many institutions in this city, but the kind of major endowment gifts that we needed eluded us.”

Although Strick has been characterized as a lavish spender, he said the museum ran on “a shoestring” while organizing exhibitions that traveled to museums with much bigger budgets. “We put everything we had into creating the best program in the world,” he said.

The museum’s fiscal dilemma intensified in recent months, and this week it cost him his dream job. On the edge of financial disaster, the museum accepted a $30-million bailout from philanthropist Eli Broad, rounded up $20 million in promised gifts from its trustees and embarked on a restructure of its management. On Tuesday, MOCA announced that Strick had resigned and that Charles E. Young, chancellor emeritus of UCLA, had been appointed chief executive. Young will preside over the museum’s stabilization and recruitment of a new director.

“It’s been clear for the last several months that I was likely to leave,” said Strick, 53.
The Harvard-educated scholar had worked at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the St. Louis Art Museum before landing in Chicago and finally L.A.

It was on his watch here that MOCA became known as the best museum of postwar art in the country, if not the world, and a place where sweeping, historic theme shows were almost routine.

“As recently as last spring, there was a good possibility that the museum would move forward with a renovation and expansion of the Geffen Contemporary,” he said of the museum’s vast auxiliary space in Little Tokyo. “That project could have had a positive impact on our future. But as the economy changed, the conversation became very different. I could see that if we were going to get to the resolution we needed, it would probably be best for everyone if I were to go. But I wanted to see this process through, get MOCA to a point where I could comfortably leave.”

Strick1 “What makes me happy now,” he said, “is seeing that at last we have the foundation we need. If you look at other institutions in Los Angeles, where would the County Museum of Art be without county support? Where would the Getty be without its endowment? MOCA has to rely on private support. With the $15 million that Eli Broad will give for the endowment and the trustees’ matching funds and the additional $15 million from Broad for five years of programming, there’s a basis to move forward and make decisions in a much more considered way.”

To Strick’s way of thinking, the crisis that forced MOCA’s leaders to face facts and consider radical options, including a merger with LACMA, was “a crucible. It was difficult, it was painful, but thank God it happened.”

Leaving the museum, which he will do for good in mid-January, is painful too, but Strick said he has no regrets.

“In any position, there are good and bad moments, things you wish you had done differently,” he said. “But when people look back, they are going to see a collection which has grown, a record of exhibitions which has changed our understanding of contemporary art, catalogs which are the definitive publications on great artists and movements. That’s what’s going to last. I have been a part of that, and I couldn’t ask for more.”

Seated at a round table, he leaned back in a cushy leather chair and considered his proudest moments.
“Exhibitions, whether it was ‘A Minimal Future?,’ ‘Ecstasy’ or ‘WACK!’ Those shows were causes, things we believed in so passionately and intensely. To make them happen and see how they were appreciated was incredibly satisfying.”

He also pointed to the growth of the collection, partly thanks to beefed-up acquisitions support groups and a discretionary fund for curators. During his tenure, MOCA acquired about 2,000 works, roughly a third of the collection. Membership increased as well, from 13,000 to 20,000.

Despite the controversy surrounding his resignation, Strick has many supporters.
Barbara Kruger, an artist and MOCA trustee, is among them. “Jeremy understands the absolute centrality of art and artists in a contemporary art museum, and I think that is rare,” she said this week.
Artist John Baldessari, also a MOCA board member, called Strick’s departure “unfortunate.”
“I don’t think he was hired to be a financial wizard,” Baldessari said. “It was because of his acumen in art. In my mind, Jeremy became a scapegoat, a lightning rod.... It’s easier to point to one person than a group of people.”

To Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, its counterpart in Los Angeles is “a beacon and a model program.”

“It is significant that it is precisely under Jeremy Strick’s nine-year tenure that they presented some of the most important exhibitions in the history of contemporary art and traveled those projects worldwide,” she said. “I trust that if this crisis has any kind of a silver lining, it is that there is increasing recognition of the institution and the fact that it is a precious public trust.”

As might be expected, Strick has done a lot of soul-searching. But he burst into laughter when asked if he would advise young curators to become museum directors.

“I would encourage them because the profession needs them,” he said. “But I would encourage them to keep their eyes open, take a good look at the financials, ask hard questions, make every effort to find out what they are getting into. Museums aren’t easy places to manage, but the impact they make and the value they add to people’s lives is tremendous. I don’t know if anything worth doing is easy. This is something that is really worth doing.”

-- Suzanne Muchnic, with Diane Haithman contributing

Photos of Jeremy Strick inside the Museum of Contemporary Art. Credit: Glenn Koenig/ Los Angeles Times.

Comments () | Archives (10)

I think it's also time for MOCA to think about moving to a larger space somewhere in downtown, where they can display more of it's collection. Apparently it has the greatest contemporary art collection in the world yet no one knows it. MOCA is a very apt symbol for all the great things about this city.

As I've said in this blog before, Jeremy Strick is a scapegoat for a museum that finally fell apart after years of living on a failed financial plan. The financial model on which MOCA was built was not of his making. It is true as well that the museum's best exhibitions happened during his tenure. Curators like Ann Goldstein and Paul Schimmel were allowed the freedom to curate and travel great shows. This whole affair has fallen square on his head like a ten ton weight. And that is sad and unfortunate, especially since the MOCA board did nothing to stop it. It's really a crime to make a single man the focus of this debacle.

WHAT! First off maybe MOCA's financial system was completely flawed but how is attaching to a bigger entity helping it? I mean MOCA is to me a staple of downtown LA it would saddening to see it moved, so bad idea David. Second ok so the museum is saved but what about the input of such people as Jeremy Strick. To merge two museums is ludicrous bordering obscene true MOCA needed the money but the autonomy to show different art is something that cannot be regained and us Angelenos will have to suffer. Remember, museums are an introduction to art for many of us and two viewpoints are always better than one. I hope MOCA remains its independent self not an extension of LaCMA

LOL!!! Greatest collection?! I dont think so, but has an excellent one of late Modern art, its Contemp stuff is nonsense. The problem is right there before you. Look at the picture of Strick, what a waste of wall space! You can measure the life in art by how closely you can pack it and have a great effect. True art lives, and can stand being in close proximity to other works, Even for large works no more than a three foot space is needed, small works can be layered. This creates greater energy in the space, and living intensely and passionately is arts role, in entwining man, nature and god into one multilayered, relationship filled breathing, living artwork.

Look at Contemp art, spaced out in its insipid sterility, shown as dead things, clinically, to try and wring the most possible worth out of a dead thing. They are post mortems on the life that was, When Art truly had meaning, and reflected Humanity, not just the absurdist desires of a small sect of self absorbed and described "elite".

Downtown is easy to get to, I dont know why there are so many whiners in art. Hell, I walk all around downtown, have parked at both Pershing square and walked up the hill, and at the Geffen and walked to Grand site. artists are supposed to have some energy, stop eating tofu, grab a burger and visit our city! I was just there last week, life is everywhere in the Fashion and Jewelry districts, just south and west of the dead and sterile "gallery row' which has no interest to intelligent folks, those with lifes and jobs and families. If either the Temp or Contemp had anything meaningful, people would come. There are plenty of business people and other visitors to the city right there in hotels and office buildings, but as it is irrelevant to real lives of humanity, they are empty, except to the children of the academies and their teacher and art school indoctrinated predecessors. For they do create thoughtless passionless lemmings, who cling to easily imparted Academic ideas, rather than emotions and exploration of our world, they stay in tiny art ghettos where life is kept out, a playground for the offspring of the wealthy and self absorbed.

There is no need for bigger facilities, fill it with something worth viewing. Fill it, and they will come. It is fine where it is, but what worth is there in Contemp art? Little, if any, all reflections of the ending Age of Excess, a new time is coming, is here, but will take awhile to get back to basics, and start anew. Fresh. Involved in life. We are at the beginning as well as end. The wheat shall be separated from the chaff, as in hard times, and they are just begiining, will reveal the true and passionate,

art collegia delenda est

"A Minimal Future" ...indeed...

Face it, Jeremy Strick burned through the money that Richard Koshalek worked so hard to secure. Strick is George W. to Koshalek's Clinton. What MOCA needs is an Obama to rescue them and help them return to the cutting edge museum it once was. What ever happened to amazing exhibits like Bruce Nauman or Ed Kienholz? Instead we're left with Lucien Freud, who is an accomplished artist, but let's face it, he doesn't make you think like Nauman or Kienholz. MOCA has become a shadow of what it once was. It needs to focus more on getting quality art in the galleries, instead of high profile artists like Kanye West to perform at openings. I mean really, Kanye West? Who the hell is planning the openings for MOCA anyway?

In conclusion, I would just like to say to leave a special message to Donald Frazell, who always leave such interesting comments:


this institution no longer reflects the community. look at what their permanent collection reflects - WHITE MALE ARTISTS. is this los angeles? no. it is not. time to close the doors

As an Artist I remember the Art scene before the museum was built. It really added nothing to the mix except a sterile viewing space. It has been a bust since it opened in my book not a meeting point for Artist.

Somebody has been searching desperately through their book of Latin quotes. Some things just cant stand the light of truth. And to Juan, I would say most painters have been by far white males, as it is of European origination. And the current system of Academia caters to white anorexic princesses, and metrosexual boys. With a few tokens thrown in to make them feel better, and pretend to be inclusive and relevant to all communitites. If you got money, anyone can get in, and so draws more among Asians, with rich daddies, though they usually do design . And then pretend their way into creative art, like Murakami,

However, if they were truly into art and not silly Peter Pan stuff, they would have massive collections of two of the best artists who only recenlty died, in the Western Hemisphere. I dont see any Rufino Tamayos or Romaire Beardens at MoCA, though here in the LBC we got MoLAA, which does have one really nice Tamayo, should have more however. And fill the galleries with life, play some music taht is the equivalent of the visual works, some jazz and blues, some folk and Latin jazz. But then, at MoCA with is pseudo intellectual garbage, they would play Talking Heads, John Cage, adn Philip Glass. Redudant fools who wouldnt feel a strong complex rhythm anymore than they could make intense and passionate love. They go together.A beat is NOT rythm, and weird time signatures and bizarere childrens tones goofy impersonations of real life.

Playing absurdly childish KCRW versions of real art and music will no longer do, never did for the mass of humanity, as real art visualizes the threads of life for all, not just games for the rich and sterilized detached "elite". Give the late Modern works to someone who can and will use them properly, stick to the Contemp garbage from Warhol on, its all about teh "feelings" of teh pathetic individual, not explorations of god, nature and humanity. Vanity is over, for now, but its day will return again, but this Age of Excess and personal glorification is over. Back to basic,s, the fundamentlas of art, and who WE are. Then somethings new wil arise naturally, organically, that truly do reflect mankind and our needs, not our wants.

art collegia delenda est

Downtown is easy to get to? LOL!!! No. Only in your head. It's a place trapped in by freeways. Listen, it's not about MOCA not showing relevant art. You can rant all you want. That's not reality. The shows are more exciting and accessible than what's going on anywhere in the New York or Chicago or elsewhere for that matter.


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