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Longtime MOCA curator out in apparent clash with new director

The longtime chief curator of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art is out after an apparent clash with the museum’s new director.
Ashley Myers-Turner/KPCC
The longtime chief curator of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art is out after an apparent clash with the museum’s new director.

It’s been the talk of the Los Angeles art world Friday that after more than two decades, Paul Schimmel is no longer chief curator at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. According to MOCA, Schimmel resigned. According to others, he was fired.

The Los Angeles Times reported that MOCA’s Board of Trustees voted to let Schimmel go. A person familiar with his departure said museum benefactor Eli Broad gave Schimmel the news. MOCA observers say benefactor Broad fired Schimmel on Wednesday after mounting tension between Schimmel’s academically-focused curatorial style and new director Jeffrey Deitch’s “show business” approach.

MOCA issued a statement saying that Schimmel resigned, to become an independent curator. It praised his work, saying it left “an indelible mark” on MOCA’s legacy. Schimmel was not available for comment.

Few could talk with as much knowledge and passion about contemporary art as Schimmel. He spent 22 years as head of MOCA’s curating and exhibition planning. He and his department won awards for solid curating.

He curated major exhibitions of Takashi Murakami, Robert Rauschenberg and a legendary 1992 exhibit of cutting edge work by little-known L.A. artists titled “Helter Skelter.” It was hugely influential, said Susan Freudenheim, a former Los Angeles Times arts editor.

"L.A. was on the map for a certain kind of very cool," Freudenheim recalled. "Ed Ruscha sort of art, very, very California cool. And light and space. And then this showed an extremely gritty side of Los Angeles that was very much against what people’s expectations were."

"That’s not what the MOCA is interested in now," said arts writer Dave Hickey. "They look forward to the James Franco retrospective, you know what I mean, or the Goldie Hawn photo show. It’s a showbiz thing now."

Hickey said MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch has pushed an entertainment focus with shows by actor James Franco and a retrospective of Dennis Hopper photos.

Deitch is a former New York gallery owner who focuses on turnstile numbers. MOCA hired him two years ago during its financial crisis. USC’s Selma Holo said the shotgun marriage between Deitch and old school curator Schimmel was destined for Splitsville.

"I’m shocked that it happened so quickly, even though it was not a secret that this is not a friendly relationship," Holo said.

Longtime gallery owner Louis Stern said there’s a trend that’s affecting all art institutions: the independent curator that packages an art show and shops it around to museums.

"It’s cheaper in [the] sense that you don’t have to depend upon a full-time curator to go after creating these types of shows to bring to the museum," he said.

However it came about, MOCA insists that Schimmel’s departure was “amicable.” The museum’s statement said MOCA is naming a space at its Little Tokyo gallery to honor his tenure.

This story has been updated.