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Richard Koshalek's expansive vision got him ousted in Pasadena but hired in D.C.

February 27, 2009 | 11:00 am

Richardkoshalek Richard Koshalek says it still smarts that he got dumped as president of Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, and that he intends to remain a networker par excellence in his new job as director of the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Koshalek's penchant for forging national and global connections was used against him during the campus coup that led to his ouster last year at Art Center. "I believe isolation breeds irrelevance. You have to be engaged in the larger context," Koshalek, 67, told Culture Monster after Thursday's announcement of his new job.

In his old job, that philosophy led Koshalek to host international design conferences on campus, and to conceive a series of "global dialogues" that Art Center would coordinate overseas, addressing the role of design in society. Only one took place, however, last March in Barcelona. Meanwhile, Koshalek oversaw the creation of a satellite campus and student housing in South Pasadena, and was raising money for a $50-million Frank Gehry-designed research center that has since fallen into limbo.

Last spring, an anti-Koshalek faction of students, faculty and alumni, galvanized by his request for a contract extension, argued that the Art Center president's expansive vision and global reach had become too rich for the elite school's blood. Instead, Koshalek's critics said, resources needed to be focused close to home, on classroom learning and on easing the financial burden borne by students paying nearly $120,000 tuition for their degrees. In June, the college's board of trustees voted not to give Koshalek his extension, and sidetracked the Gehry building and other expansion plans. In September the trustees accepted his resignation rather than hold him to a contract that ran through the end of 2009.

Ironically for an arts leader who is committed to forging global connections, Koshalek's downfall at Art Center was a textbook case of the power of instant electronic connectivity. It started with one dissatisfied student blogging, and quickly grew into an online petition drive calling for a change in leadership and direction that drew support from alumni around the world, some of them high-ranking figures in automotive design and other fields.

It rankles Koshalek that, along with those who gave their names on the Internet site set up by his opponents, many anonymous criticisms were made, and false rumors and suppositions were passed along. Early on, student outrage was fed partly by the mistaken notion that money for the Gehry building was being siphoned from scholarships and instructional budgets. In fact, a separate capital campaign was in progress to raise the $50 million.

"It's an interesting question now, the subject of leadership [while] surrounded by anonymous voices," Koshalek said. "I wasn't a villain there. I wasn't trying to destroy the institution. I was trying to build the institution. Nine years of work was erased in a moment, in an orchestrated campaign against me.... It became quite painful. What happened took its toll."

His ouster put Koshalek in play and on the radar of the Hirshhorn, whose former director, Olga Viso, had left in January 2008 to head the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

J. Tomilson Hill, chairman of the Hirshhorn board, said the very things that got Koshalek in trouble in Pasadena made him attractive in Washington. "Those attributes ... looking externally and being involved Hirshhornin growth, that's what we were looking for at the Hirshhorn."

Hill said the museum's search committee talked to past and present Art Center trustees while vetting Koshalek, and concluded that "it was just a difference in direction," rather than a lack of stewardship, that led to his being unhorsed in Pasadena.

Koshalek said he was entertaining other job offers, but what drew him to the Hirshhorn when its search committee contacted him late last year was the sense of energy and opportunity emanating from the capital because of the ascendancy of Barack Obama. He said he aims to to run the Hirshhorn, which collects and shows art from the late 19th century to the present, with "an expanded view of the role of a museum in the nation's capital."

He sees himself cultivating international ties and making the museum a forum for ideas, much as he had at Art Center. He'll reach out to foreign embassies and the myriad think tanks that reside in the capital. Among his plans: commissioning curators around the world to do research focusing on the Hirshhorn's holdings and other subjects, with the results to be collected and published as "The Hirshhorn Papers."

Hill and Koshalek wouldn't say how long his contract will run. "Clearly our goal is to have continuity for at least five years, and I could see him doing it even longer," the museum chairman said. "He is the most vigorous 67-year-old I've ever met."

Koshalek previously worked in Washington from 1972 to 1974 as director of visual arts programs at the National Endowment for the Arts. He said he plans to keep his home in Pasadena, and "we'll be coming back often."

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Richard Koshalek inspects student automotive designs at Art Center College in 2000. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Photo: Hirshhorn Museum. Credit: OZinOH via Flickr

Comments () | Archives (12)

More evidence that Washington, even the Washington of the left, just doesn't get it. Koshalek and his theories are at best vacuous. In fact he ran the visual arts program of the NEA only briefly and even then he was not much more than a rubber stamp for the NY Art community.
I suggest you check the data from that period and you'll find most grantees were NY artists who had already received grants from the NEA at least once before.
How original is a Frank Gehry project?

Even now as indicated by this article he continues with programs that have little to offer than their credentials as Post-Modernistic or "AlterModern"istic dogma.
I agree with the students and alums Koshaleks only skill seems to be as executor of current trends.
Jim VanKirk

This very pro-Koshalek article shows a complete misunderstanding as to what really happened at Art Center. Yes, Koshalek wanted to expand and increase Art Center's outward appearance, but that was being done at the expense of the students. Promotional events (such as the yearly design conference) were taking priority over the attention that should have been spent addressing expanding class sizes, shrinking faculty and other student needs (all moves to help pay for these conferences, by the way). If Koshalek could have both tended to the students needs and accomplished his desire to expand NO STUDENT would have stood in his way. To say that one "dissatisfied student blog" caused his ousting is a gross simplification of a larger string of problems that have been building over at least the past 7 years and all have roots in Mr. Koshalek's office.

"I believe isolation breeds irrelevance. You have to be engaged in the larger context." --Richard Koshalek

Brilliant, Mr. Koshalek -- but in what imaginary hinterland has this not been a valued concept for decades? The idea of globalization is a bedrock principle of the postmodern era -- but by itself and when used primarily as a marketing slogan, is not enough to sustain serious international and intra-disciplinary endeavors. It requires entrepreneurial acumen. Koshalek's downfall at Art Center was earned by his remarkable lack of management, fundraising, and implementation skills. He was continually isolated and aloof, in over his head there from the beginning, and unable to find traction in its competitive intellectual environment for what amounted to little more than shallow PR hype. He tried to be an international impresario, but in the end what was accomplished just didn't amount to very much of significance when compared to its drain on the college's energies and resources -- and now he implies it was Art Center's fault? If he could have successfully implemented his vision while not ignoring the core educational mission of the institution, he'd be there still. But he didn't. HE failed, and now Art Center is struggling to pick up the pieces and prevail, which it will, but only because it jettisoned its incompetent leadership before it was too late. While the rest of the forward-thinking world is engaged in real pursuits, Koshalek wears progressive ideas like fashion statements. He sought out nouveau-sophisticates at Art Center, who had only just heard of the concept of globalization and thought he invented it, and spent nine years of expensive entrepreneurial masturbation. I hope the Hirshhorn fares better.

Koshalek, who at Art Center did not use a computer or email and whose grasp of the socio-political implications of the Internet age were second-hand, now whines about having been subjected to criticisms from anonymous blog posters. No doubt erroneous information made its way onto the blogs that helped expose his management of Art Center to scrutiny, but Koshalek's indignation over individuals refusing to reveal their names on blogs only exposes his lack of awareness about how such communication technologies have changed the world. Because they are public and not private forms of communication, blogs and online discussion forums tend to be self-policing and self-correcting, and outrageous claims tend to be quickly pushed to extinction below the scroll horizon. Such forums are venues for true democratic exchange, largely because anonymity reduces the threat of reprisal by the powerful against the powerless, to the degree that the latter can begin to influence policies and decisions as never before. This is a revolutionary advancement in human communication, and old-style authoritarian leaders like Koshalek have difficulty adjusting to the new reality and to integrating its openness into their management styles.

In fact, misinformation is much easier to perpetuate using the old authoritarian-based networks of communication, the kind Koshalek embraced and which ultimately caused him to be unable to respond effectively to the tide of criticism that arose from Art Center. Koshalek's habit of controlling information access in a manner permitted by analog information structures of the last century, could not survive the digital transparencies of this one.

Congratulations to the Hirshhorn for having the ability to see past the ignorance of the mob and understand that Mr. Koshalek is a visionary. The type of visionary that if supported begins movements that are worthwhile. It is sad that the mob, due to their inability to grasp the concepts of collaboration and change agency, cannot be a part of something constructive and thus become a part of something destructive. The simple fact is that its easy to bring something down and very hard to build something up and that is what Mr. Koshalek does even when the odds are against him. He will continue to do so.
Sergio C. Munoz

Fortunately for the whole, there is some understanding of brilliance beyond the colloquial needs of the Pasadena college blogger. How sad that so much attention was given to those narrow views when art school is the time to learn that there is a world beyond campus. Koshalek will, once again, be welcomed back on the East Coast.. and a national institution where we can all avail ourselves of the largess of his mind. SCLeeber

Visionaries dont create art, they create fantasies, as all that is solely of the mind has no relevance to the wrold we live in. Art is created by those who are at one with our universe, by long studies and interactions with Nature through Science and close studying, Mankind through philiosophy and history, and God through thelogy and losing ones individuality into the whole.

Creative Art reflects the world though purely visual imagery and techniques. Closer to music and poetry than prose and shallow intellectualism, which are dead ends. Line is melody, color is harmony, structure and composition are rhythm. We create works which create instense feeling of belonging, of living, of being more, and peace of mind. God be with you, Asalaam malekum. Peace unto you. All of that we feel, but do not mentally understand, yet know is True. Art goes straight to the mind body and soul, not through easily manipulatable, human creations, words, which are but limitiing symbols.

Intellectuals and Academicians are never creative, they are reactive, and of Man, the individual, never Mankind. Of All. I dont know the man, but sounds like good riddance, the contemporary world is rife with charlatans, over educated yet unknowing fools, time to move on, a new age is here. The one of Excess and glorified individualism is over. Art Center is a good applied arts school, too explensive and kids get rather arrogant too, my wife a UCLA graphics grad, and better than most of them. But they do produce well trained workers, cant say that about Fine Arts schools, watch Art School Confidential, my favorite Art movie, John Malkovich nails this type of "visionary".

art collegia delenda est

It will all be fun until the forensic audit starts.

A whisper campaign that went viral and a spineless Art Center board of directors that caved in to the pressure. That's what landed Koshalek at the Hirshhorn. DC's gain, Art Center's loss. Just watch.

Richard Koshalek's selection builds on a Hirshhorn tradition of recruiting experienced, proven and visionary directors. Seasoned museum pros such as James Demetrion led the museum to achieve great programs and collection building - both of which Richard has in his distinguished museum history.. Paul Schimmel

Koshalek got into trouble at Art Center by being a mouthpiece for solidly progressive ideas, but a producer of disappointingly small and average results. That's it, pure and simple -- his hype sounded great but it didn't yield much of a return on investment. Any of you who were under the impression that it had done so, were misled. Art Center is a place where practically every-other person is a big talent and a visionary and where people are judged by what they produce, not by what they boast. Over the nine years of his stewardship, Koshalek's list of failures-to-launch finally became too much for the students, faculty, staff, and trustees to bear, and patience ran out. He was in over his head at Art Center, but that doesn't mean he cannot once again find his stride back in the museum world.

My observation from afar seems to observe crass elitism and narcissism. It's a 6 figure education for potential work that barely pays 5 figures a year for most artists. Even most of the instructors at Art Center get paid less then 50k a year. How is anybody suppose to pay for a 120k student loan from a school that won't even pay its instructors enouph, that it expects to be totally dedicated to its students? We're working very hard for a lot less then what our parents did.

Koshalek and his predecessor Brown were running Art Center like the Banking system in the United States was before it crashed in 2008. You just have a few executives using a corporation as its cash cow, with no collateral to back up its promises and loans, and expecting the rest of us to flip the bill. Not only is it fiscally bankrupt, but it's morally bankrupt too.

The economy is a bust. Next to the one you love, people think a lot about money.


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