Staff Shakeups Hit Museums in Broward, Palm Beach, Across Country

When chief curator Paul Schimmel left the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles a couple of months ago, shock waves rippled through the art world. Initial reports were that the highly regarded Schimmel, who had been at MoCA for 22 years, had been fired by the museum's board of trustees, a perception some board members were quick to insist was incorrect. No, according to later reports, the curator had resigned voluntarily.

The debate continues whether Schimmel left of his own accord or was forced out by a hostile board. What is not in question is that his high-profile parting of the ways is just the latest in a string of departures since Jeffrey Deitch — a former art dealer with minimal museum experience — became MoCA's executive director in mid-2010.

Accompanying Schimmel out the door was a handful of others laid off. Additional casualties under Deitch include another curator and assorted other staff. Deitch has also not filled the slots left open when the deputy director and another curator left not long before he took charge.

On a much smaller (and quieter) scale, the art community in Broward/Palm Beach is in the midst of its own series of exoduses. Perhaps most notably, executive director Irvin Lippman abruptly retired at the end of June after nearly a decade at the helm of the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale. During his tenure, the museum made a tremendous comeback; it went from being on the brink of extinction to setting attendance records with flashy exhibitions including "Diana: A Celebration" and "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs."

Lippman, whose background included stints at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and at museums in Fort Worth, Texas; and Columbus, Ohio, arrived at MoA|FL shortly after the opening of one of the shows that was to put the museum back on the cultural map, "Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes." Although Lippman was MoA|FL's third executive director in seven years — his immediate predecessor, Kathleen Harleman, lasted just two years — hopes were high that he could turn things around for the museum, which had struggled with decreasing revenues, high staff turnover, and a series of increasingly irrelevant exhibitions.

Among Lippman's early innovations were an artist-in-residence program, an art school that has grown by leaps and bounds, and crowd-pleasing shows like the one that paired the photography of Ansel Adams with that of Clyde Butcher. An extraordinary exhibition featuring the work of Cuban-born, Miami-based artist Enrique Martínez Celaya made strides toward reestablishing the museum's reputation for taking good art seriously.

I worked for Lippman for nearly two and a half years early in his reign and saw firsthand his transformative influence on MoA|FL. He embarked on ambitious construction and renovation projects, and he wasn't afraid to allow outside companies to radically reconfigure the museum's spaces to accommodate the Diana and Tut blockbusters. He also assembled a first-rate staff that, unfortunately, largely dispersed after the Tut show, never to be replaced.

In short, Lippman helped restore MoA|FL's identity at a time when the museum seemed poised to fall off a cliff. There were those who quibbled with aspects of the legacy he always seemed to be carving out for himself — his vision for a regular museum newsletter, for instance, never quite took off, and the museum's website remains troublesome to this day — but in retrospect, it seems safe to declare that, in many regards, the museum is considerably better off now than when he first took charge. His fondness for "object shows" emphasizing things like interior design, automobiles, and religious relics may be mildly controversial, and it remains to be seen whether making the museum a division of Nova Southeastern University enables financial stability or threatens artistic independence.

Lippman, whose function is now being filled by an interim executive director from the MoA|FL board, is just the latest departure on the area art scene, and he is not even the longest-serving of his contemporaries. In May 2009, Christina Orr-Cahall left the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach after an impressive 19 years as executive director, during which she took the museum from 33,000 to 77,000 to 122,000 square feet. And in the summer of 2011, executive director George Bolge gave up the reins after 16 years at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, having previously spent 17 years running the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale. (He has been succeeded by Steven Maklansky, formerly of the Brevard Art Museum in Melbourne.)

At the end of September, Barbara O'Keefe will step down as executive director of the Coral Springs Museum of Art, where she has been since the city started the museum 15 years ago. Working with minimal resources — a skeleton crew, a small budget heavily dependent on grants, and scant media support — O'Keefe was fortunate enough to have one of the best display spaces in the region, and she made the most of it, usually by focusing on the work of South Florida artists. She also established an extensive art education program for the museum and brought in artists in residence, and she did it all while answering to a board made up of politicians: the Coral Springs City Commission. Like Lippman, she will be a tough act to follow.

Meanwhile, is there a creative crisis of the sort faced by the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art shaping up right here in Broward/Palm Beach? Curators aren't as high in the museum pecking order as executive directors, but they're just as essential, and for the past few years, they've been quietly leaving institutions as well. One of the sharpest ever to work in South Florida, Annegreth Nill, left her position as head curator of the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale several years ago, and the museum has never replaced her. Perhaps even more significantly, MoA|FL's Jorge Hilker Santis, a three-decade veteran of the museum and the de facto custodian of its institutional memory, will retire soon.

At the Norton, incoming executive director Hope Alswang was forced by budget restraints to lay off several employees, including curatorial staff, soon after her arrival in 2010, although a new photography curator, Tim Wride, was hired a couple of months ago. And while the Boca Museum's senior curator, Wendy Blazier, left recently after 15 years, she is being replaced by not one but two people: former Norton curator of American art Marisa Pascucci, who is in the newly created position of curator of 20th-century and contemporary art, and Kathleen Goncharov, who will start in September as curator of exhibitions and audience engagement, also a new position.

That leaves the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood — where Joy Satterlee has been executive director for about a decade and Jane Hart has been curator for a little over five years — as the only area art institution without a major shakeup in the past few years.

What this bodes for the future, of course, is anyone's guess. Museums remain at the mercy of many forces beyond the control of a curator or even an executive director: the whims of unpredictable boards of trustees, the vagaries of the economy, and the trends of an art world that has always been, at best, fickle.

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Michael Mills