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Will LACMA Kill Its Popular Program?

Last week I met with two friends of mine who know everything there is to know about the inner workings of Los Angeles museums. Not surprisingly, the first thing that came up in conversation was the resignation of Paul Holdengraber, Director of the Institute of Art and Culture at LACMA.

For the last five years he was in charge of a highly visible program, a sort of intellectual salon for hundreds of eager Angelenos. Every few weeks, we would get together at the museum auditorium to meet with a surprisingly diverse group of speakers, from ninety-plus years-young storyteller and journalist Studs Terkel, to the legendary beat-poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

On many occasions these events were sold out and I would get calls from desperate people asking if I can get them a ticket. Paul Holdengrabber proved to be a natural born cultural impresario who knew how to create a cultural buzz around his events, enriching LACMA's reputation as the city's major cultural player. Among the guests were, in no particular order, theater director Peter Sellars and architect Frank Gehry, poet Susan Sontag, and painter Ron Kitaj.

My most cherished memories are of two evenings with the late Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of MOMA in New York. Hands down, he was the most eloquent speaker I have ever heard. Every important art collector, curator and director of major L.A. museums were there. The same goes for artists, journalists, students and professors from California Universities and art schools. In short, it seems that everyone was there. Because of a recent profile in the New Yorker, everyone knew that Kirk was terminally ill.

The energy in the room was palpable. His talk was beyond brilliant; it was a pure inspiration. He talked about the power of art to help us understand ourselves with our hopes and desperations. He shared his worries about fashionable museum trends, with its unhealthy emphasis on crowd pleasing museum blockbuster exhibitions at the expense of helping the public to discover and appreciate museums permanent collections. He talked about museum education policies, with their unfortunate tendency for 'dumming down' the information provided to visitors, with labels and wall panels written as if meant for adults who move their lips while reading. Kirk Varnedoe questioned us - and himself - what a museum's priority should be; is it the number of visitors that matter, or the quality of our experience of interaction with a work of art?

A high point should go to LACMA and its President and Director, Andrea Rich, for creating this public forum for discussing often controversial issues, such as the super-ambitious exhibition "Made in California," which turned out to be a big disappointment, or aborted attempts by LACMA to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new building by architect Rem Koolhaas.

Now, with Paul Holdengrabber sadly leaving for New York, the activities of LACMA's Institute of Art and Culture is temporarily put on hold. The question is, will the museum continue this intellectually stimulating educational program, which proved to be a big success with the Los Angeles public? One hopes that LACMA continues its often stated commitment to education and will do its best to continue the excellent program that so many other museums in Los Angeles now try to emulate.

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