Paul Schimmel's 22-Year Tenure at L.A. MOCA, From California Conceptualism to Murakami Maximalism

Paul Schimmel's 22-Year Tenure at  L.A. MOCA, From California Conceptualism to Murakami Maximalism
Museum of Contemporary Art L.A.

Paul Schimmel, one of the most well-respected curators in the country, has left his position as chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, according to multiple reports. He served in that capacity since 1990, joining the museum after five years as curator at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art). The firing was made by the museum's board of trustees, which includes collectors Steve Cohen and Maria Bell, and is effective immediately, according to the Los Angeles Times. MOCA board co-chair David G. Johnson confirms Schimmel's departure, but denies he was fired. "Paul Schimmel is stepping down as MOCA's chief curator," he said in a statement. "It is amicable and there will be a press release tomorrow."

Schimmel will complete his work on MOCA's fall exhibition "Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962" on a contract basis, according to the Times, but it is unclear whether he will finish organizing the museum's planned Richard Hamilton retrospective, which was to travel to Philadelphia, Madrid, and the Tate Modern in London.

Reports of financial trouble and rumors of tension between MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch and Schimmel have long plagued the museum. In March, the LAT reported that the institution had lost three key finance figures in as many months, "a turnover that begins to look like turmoil," according to former MOCA chief executive Charles E. Young. Meanwhile, some say that efforts to build the endowment or even tap promised matching funds from philanthropist Eli Broad have languished. L.A. blogger Mat Gleason, who first reported Schimmel's dismissal, has said that the curator's departure was accompanied by layoffs in other parts of the museum following an end-of-fiscal-year budget meeting on Tuesday. That has yet to be confirmed by museum officials. 

Deitch and Schimmel have reportedly butted heads since the former gallerist's arrival at the museum in 2010. According to blogger Paul Klein, Deitch planned a solo exhibition of Theaster Gates last year merely to "demonstrate his authority" because "Schimmel... and Deitch hate each other."

In his 22 years at the museum, Schimmel mounted some of its most rigorous and ambitious exhibitions. Though born and raised in New York, the Syracuse University alumnus is a self-professed L.A.-ophile, and has spent much of his career examining the artists who defined the city. Most famously, his 1992 show "Helter Skelter" surveyed the work of 16 visual artists and 10 writers working in Los Angeles art in the 1990s. Schimmel's 2007 survey of Takashi Murakami, which later traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, saw its fair share of controversy amidst accusations of pandering and commercialism: Schimmel famously allowed Murakami to install a Louis Vuitton boutique inside the exhibition.

"Some curatorial work should be speculative," he once told the L.A. Weekly. "Curators should be able to say that they believe in something, they think it’s important, and they’re going to show it without waiting for a consensus."

Insofar as museum curators are celebrities in the art world, Schimmel could be considered among the ranks of Klaus Biesenbach (though less fashionable and media-friendly), Massimiliano Gioni (though with less of an international profile), and Paola Antonelli. That he is so well known despite working outside of the East Coast museum publicity cyclone is a testament to Schimmel's influence. 

Schimmel's most recent expansive endeavor, "Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981," staged in conjunction with the Getty's Pacific Standard Time initiative, was in many ways a prequel to "Helter Skelter": It examined political art during the tumultuous period beginning with Richard Nixon's resignation and ending with Ronald Reagan's inauguration. 

A friend and active supporter of the late artist Mike Kelley, Schimmel serves as one of three co-directors of the artist's foundation, which was established shortly after his death earlier this year and, once it begins receiving funds from the estate, aims to make grants to institutions in line with Kelley's wishes and established practice.

A representative from the office of board member Eli Broad did not respond to a message seeking comment, and a rep from the museum declined to comment beyond its prepared statement.