Alumni of USC's elite Museum Studies Program are star players in L.A. race to become a world museum capital.
“I don’t want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.”

--- Woody Allen


Twenty years ago, Angelenos were so used to the condescension of East Coast intelligentsia that they didn’t even bother to take offense at the jibes. They laughed amiably at Woody Allen’s 1977 comedy Annie Hall, which portrayed the Southland as a cultural desert peopled by sun-dazed hedonists. Maybe Angelenos laughed because they secretly knew that the cultural desert was fast being reclaimed and transformed into a fertile garden.oday, Angelenos look Bostonians, Chicagoans, Washing-tonians and New Yorkers square in the eye when the conversation turns to philharmonics, theater, architecture or haute cuisine. And since December 16, 1997, they don’t even blink when the talk shifts to art museums.
Though L.A. was hardly a cultural backwater before December 16, 1997, that date marks the transcendent moment when the city officially became a global player — the day the Getty Center opened. Thirteen years in planning, $1 billion in execution, the new museum, arts education and research complex nestled in the Brentwood hills “is the biggest undertaking in American high culture since the Metropolitan Museum of Art went up in Manhattan 117 years ago,” proclaimed Fortune magazine a month before the celebrated event. Since 1982 — the year oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty’s will came out of probate — the Getty Trust has spent $2 billion on acquisitions, research and education. The trust still has $4.3 billion left in its coffers, dwarfing every other arts organization on earth. By law, it must spend 4.25 percent (currently, about $183 million) of that endowment three out of every four years in order to retain its tax-exempt status. No wonder the media went wild. The Getty is a colossus that commands the awe of the art world.
But even before the Getty arrived on the scene, Los Angeles had been bursting with visual arts for several decades. The collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in midtown, the Huntington
Getty Conservation Institute

 

Gallery in San Marino, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and the original J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, taken together, provide “something akin to the Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery or the Art Institute of Chicago,” says Selma Holo, director of USC’s Museum Studies Program and associate professor of art history.
There’s also the 15-year-old Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown and its satellite, the Geffen Contemporary, in Little Tokyo, the UCLA-affiliated Armand Hammer Museum (which opened in 1990) and the LACMA West facility (which opened last fall). And let’s not forget the Southland’s myriad smaller galleries, each with its own special niche: the Japanese-American Museum (the only institution of its kind); the region’s two major alternative exhibition spaces, LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) and the Santa Monica Museum; and USC’s own Fisher Gallery — to name just a few.
So why the reputation lag?
It may have something to do with the dispersed geography of the city, says Holo. To see the art treasures of the nation’s capital, one need go no farther than the Mall — Washington, D.C.’s one-stop museum mecca. But to see the Getty’s exquisite Greek and Roman antiquities and French decorative arts, LACMA’s notable European bronzes, the Huntington’s fine 18th-century British portraits and the Norton Simon’s eye-popping Impressionist masters and South Asian sculptures (believed to be the best collection in the Western hemisphere), one must negotiate miles of freeway. Out-of-towners may regard this as a nuisance, but to Angelenos it’s a way of life. What could be more fitting, after all, in a sprawling metropolis famous for its lack of nucleus?
“That’s just the kind of city we are,” says Holo, whose small, highly selective museum studies-focused master’s program in art history has placed alumni in major galleries from coast to coast. Graduates include Stella Paul M.A. ’85, a 12-year veteran museum educator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; Carrie Przybilla M.A. ’85, curator of modern and contemporary art in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art; Kathryn Kanjo M.A. ’95, curator of contemporary art at the Portland Museum of Art; Man-Ni Liu M.A. ’91, director of San Francisco’s Chinese Cultural Center; Charlene Shang Miller M.A. ’92, a museum educator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh; and Rhonda Howard M.A. ’97, assistant curator at the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery.
But what’s most conspicuous about the MSP’s alumni roster is that it reads like a cultural “Who’s Who” for the Southland’s art scene. Last December, for example, Tim Whalen ’81, M.A. ’85, was named to the highly prominent post of director of the Getty Conservation Institute, the arm of the Getty Trust charged with “the preservation of the world’s cultural heritage.”
“Tim Whalen was in our very first MSP class,” says Holo. “The directorship to which he was named is among the most important in the United States. It positions him to become the director of any major museum in the country.
“I expect other MSP students who have followed Tim as the program developed to get equally significant appointments. We already see a number of them who have become directors, curators and educators at fine and influential institutions.”
Some other names that stand out in the Los Angeles area are Gloria Williams M.A. ’85, curator of the Norton Simon Museum; Mary Lenihan M.A. ’96, LACMA museum educator; Tim Wride M.A. ’95, LACMA’s associate curator of photography; Leslie Fischer M.A. ’96, art collections manager and murals coordinator of the City of Los Angeles’ Cultural Affairs Department; Maite Alvarez M.A. ’96, Getty museum educator; and Mary-Kay Lombino M.A. ’96, assistant curator at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum. Expect these and scores of other MSP graduates to lead L.A.’s visual arts institutions in the next century.

Founded in 1980, USC’s Museum Studies Program came along at a time of great upheaval in the art world. In the go-go ’80s, artworks began fetching spectacular prices at auction. Record-breaking sales figures grabbed newspaper headlines and took hold of the public’s imagination.
“Art took on an aura of glamour and glitz,” says LACMA’s Mary Lenihan, who is currently teaching a seminar on museum education in the MSP. “Before, museums were basically temples — quiet places where you came to contemplate the art. It was considered undignified to make a big fuss about it. The art museum-going public was a very small, highly educated segment of the population. In the ’80s, art became popular entertainment.”
This change didn’t happen overnight. As early as 1967, the Metropolitan’s board had instructed museum director Thomas Hoving to “make the mummies dance” — in other words, bring the art to life, play to the public’s appetite for spectacle.
The new approach meshed nicely with another major shift in cultural institutions: the rise of a populist philosophy. Museums began to redefine their mission in egalitarian terms — as service to the whole community. Museum administrators weren’t content to cater to just the cultural elite; they hoped to reach the poor, the elderly, the handicapped, children, minorities, people of
different ethnicities; in short, anyone and everyone who could be persuaded to come through the doors.
By the late ’80s, museums faced yet another challenge: the need to show a profit. Beset by growing hostility on Capitol Hill, the arts establishment suffered deep cuts in public spending. Meanwhile, an economic downturn had dammed the sources of private philanthropy.
These circumstances put new pressures on curators, administrators and museum educators. No longer could they afford merely to be hermit scholars, courtiers to the rich and social directors for the ladies of leisure who volunteered their time as docents.
“By the early ’90s, it was harder and harder to run a museum, to find the money to do the things museums needed to do,” says Holo. “It became clear that you had to know how to raise money. You had to understand provenance [the sales history of an artwork] to avoid buying stolen art. You couldn’t be a naïve person.”

Recent media reports of looted nazi art turning up in distinguished museum collections underscore this concern. Last December, a Monet “Waterlily,” on show in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and on loan from France, was claimed by the
family of Paul Rosenberg, a Paris collector who had fled the Nazis to live in the United States. The discovery placed the Boston Museum in a dilemma: should it return the Monet to France? Or should the painting remain in the United States until the dispute was settled?
According to Richard Lauder, chairman of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, some 110,000 pieces of looted art, worth perhaps as much as $30 billion today, have yet to be returned to their rightful owners. “It is my belief, because of these large numbers, that every institution, art museum and private collection has some of these missing works,” Lauder told London’s Financial Times last December.
Mistakes involving stolen art can be very costly to art institutions. The Getty made front-page news in February when it decided to return to the Italian government three ancient artifacts, including one Greek vase of major importance to the collection. The artifacts were acquired individually and in good faith over the past 17 years. While investigating unsubstantiated claims that the antiquities had been excavated illegally or stolen, Getty curators independently determined that the accusations were indeed valid.
The changing status of the museum studies degree reflects this maturing of the profession. Twenty years ago, a museum studies degree was frowned upon as unscholarly, technical, a waste of time. It was the sort of credential you’d expect to find on the resumés of museum registrars — the functionaries who handle such administrative matters as art copyrights and permissions. To rise to a leadership role in a museum, says Holo, “you could get a Ph.D. in art history, or forget it.”
Today, the professional credential has become not only respectable but required. “There’s a high demand for individuals who can wear all the hats, because museums can’t afford to hire so many people any more,” says USC art history professor John Pollini, who has taught in the museum studies program.
Why hire an art historian with her nose buried in books if you can get an equally well-educated, financially savvy MSP graduate who also knows how to trim a budget, woo corporate donors and organize a marketing campaign?
“Many new jobs now call for a museum studies degree,” says Holo, who has been the moving force behind USC’s Museum Studies Program since 1981, the second year of its existence. “We’ve helped the field grow up.”

 

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Mary Lenihan, M.A. '96

Museum Educator, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Photographed in the museum courtyard, March 19, 1999

Education B.A., history, St. Olaf College; M.A., economic history/history of the American West, University of Montana, Missoula

Internship LACMA, American Art Department

Current Project Preparation of education programs around LACMA’s Diego Rivera show, set to open in late May.

Tim Whalen '81, M.A. '85

Director, Getty Conservation Institute
Photographed at the Getty Center,
March 31, 1999

Education B.A., USC, art history

Internship Getty Museum, Office of the
Deputy Director

Current Projects Overseeing a staff of 95 professionals, including conservators, chemists, biologists, environmental engineers, educators, writers and information specialists.

Maite Alvarez M.A. '96

Museum Educator, J. Paul Getty Museum

Education: B.A., UCLA, Spanish literature, Ph.D. candidate, USC, art history

Specialty: The art market in Renaissance Spain

Current Project: Researching a mysterious group of nearly identical 16th-century reliquary busts associated with the Cult of St. Ursula, centered in Köln, Germany.

Portrait Photography by John Livzey

Alvarez Photo by Robert Pacheco © J. Paul Getty Trust

Getty Res Inst Photo by Scott Frances/ESTO


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