Af­ter nearly 40 years at LACMA, cu­ra­tor Stephanie Bar­ron can call peo­ple like David Hock­ney friends

Los Angeles Times - - LACMA AT 50 - BY CAROLINA A. MI­RANDA,

In­side Stephanie Bar­ron’s glass-walled of­fice, clut­tered with mem­o­ries of her nearly 40 years at the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art, there’s a tacked-up print­out of the 2014 por­trait painter David Hock­ney cre­ated in her honor. Within arm’s reach is a well-thumbed cat­a­log from “De­gen­er­ate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Ger­many,” the ground­break­ing ex­hi­bi­tion she pro­duced for LACMA in 1991.

And taped to a shelf is an email from ar­chi­tect Frank Gehry. “I love workin wit yu,” the mes­sage reads, its ab­bre­vi­ated in­for­mal­ity the mark of a friend­ship that extends more than three decades.

Gehry has mas­ter­minded the in­stal­la­tion de­sign on half a dozen LACMA shows cu­rated by Bar­ron, from “De­gen­er­ate Art” to the 2013 ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to sculp­tor Alexander Calder.

“If she works with other de­sign­ers on other shows, I don’t want to know about it,” Gehry jokes. “If she’s cheat­ing on me, don’t tell me! We have fun do­ing it. And so far we’ve been crack­ers at nail­ing it.”

Over her ca­reer, Bar­ron has been part of the team that has helped LACMA grow from re­gional en­cy­clo­pe­dic mu­seum with a fo­cus on Amer­i­can and Euro­pean art to global in­sti­tu­tion with bud­ding col­lec­tions of Korean, Is­lamic and Latin Amer­i­can art. She has been there for the mu­seum’s mo­ments of tri­umph but also its rough patches — such as the coun­ty­wide fis­cal cri­sis of the early 1990s, dur­ing which the mu­seum was in dan­ger of los­ing its gov­ern­ment fund­ing. (“The eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion was bleak,” she re­mem­bers. “We were closed two days a week, and we were closing gal­leries on a ro­tat­ing ba­sis. I re­al­ized how frag­ile in­sti­tu­tions can be.”)

But in 1976, when Bar­ron was of­fered a job as as­so­ciate cu­ra­tor at LACMA, she al­most didn’t come. A na­tive New Yorker, she de­bated whether it’d be a good idea to leave grad­u­ate school for an un­cer­tain po­si­tion across the coun­try from the Man­hat­tan art world. At that point, she’d been to Los An­ge­les only once, on a fam­ily trip at age 10.

“And I had the typ­i­cal New Yorker re­ac­tion to it,” she says. “There was a beach and some or­ange groves. I didn’t even make it to Dis­ney­land.”

The op­por­tu­nity to play an im­por­tant role at a young in­sti­tu­tion, how­ever, in­spired Bar­ron to ditch her dis­ser­ta­tion at the City Uni­ver­sity of New York and head West. In the event that things didn’t work out, she held on to her New York apart­ment. “I thought, ‘I’ll only be here three years,’ ” she re­calls, “‘and then I’ll do some­thing else.’ ”

Ex­cept that “some­thing else” has al­ways been at LACMA.

“I’ve had the amaz­ing good for­tune,” Bar­ron re­flects from in­side her cozy book­lined den, “to work for an in­sti­tu­tion that has un­con­di­tion­ally sup­ported the se­ri­ous­ness of the work that I want to do.”

When she first ar­rived as an as­so­ciate cu­ra­tor for LACMA, Bar­ron was one of five peo­ple work­ing in a depart­ment that pro­duced all of the mu­seum’s Mod­ern and Con­tem­po­rary pro­gram­ming. Now there are five staffers alone for the Mod­ern art depart­ment, which she over­sees as se­nior cu­ra­tor and depart­ment head.

Not one to chase easy, crowd-pleas­ing block­busters about Im­pres­sion­ists in the south of France, Bar­ron, by fo­cus­ing her sights on shows that dig deep and syn­the­size com­pli­cated ideas, is one of this coun­try’s cu­ra­to­rial forces.

‘New Per­spec­tives’

Her break­out was the heady 1980 ex­hi­bi­tion “The Avant-Garde in Rus­sia, 1910-1930: New Per­spec­tives,” which she or­ga­nized with her boss, se­nior cu­ra­tor Mau­rice Tuch­man. The show brought to­gether a stag­ger­ing 450 works from the decade af­ter the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion, when artists such as Kaz­imir Male­vich, El Lis­sitzky and Wass­ily Kandin­sky were ex­per­i­ment­ing wildly with forms as well as the­o­ries.

Sim­i­larly chal­leng­ing shows have fol­lowed. Bar­ron has helped or­ga­nize ex­hi­bi­tions about the ways in which Cal­i­for­nia has been de­picted in Amer­i­can vis­ual cul­ture. She has ex­am­ined the work of East and West Ger­man artists la­bor­ing at the height of the Cold War. And she has looked at the last­ing in­flu­ence of Bel­gian sur­re­al­ist painter René Magritte on a gen­er­a­tion of 20th cen­tury artists — a show that was wryly and imag­i­na­tively in­stalled by L.A. con­cep­tu­al­ist John Baldessari.

But the project of which she is proud­est is the 1991 his­tory-mak­ing “De­gen­er­ate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Ger­many.” Through years of painstak­ing re­search and no small amount of cu­ra­to­rial wheedling, Bar­ron was able to as­sem­ble 175 of the 650 works shown by the Nazis in an in­fa­mous 1937 dis­play of pil­laged art whose aim was to dis­credit Mod­ernism and the artists of the Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ist move­ment, fig­ures such as Ernst Ludwig Kirch­ner, Paul Klee and Otto Dix.

“This was an ex­hi­bi­tion that the Nazis had mounted to ex­co­ri­ate Mod­ern art,” she ex­plains. But much of the in­for­ma­tion about it had been lost. “There was so much de­tec­tive work.”

Her re­search led her to a li­brary in East Ber­lin in 1986 — at a time when Ger­many was still split by Cold War pol­i­tics. There, she lo­cated a cache of pho­to­graphs that doc­u­mented the con­tents of the Nazi show.

The chal­lenge: She was for­bid­den from tak­ing pic­tures or make pho­to­copies of the images.

“So for 10 days, I sat there with a sketch pad and a pen­cil and I drew ev­ery pho­to­graph,” she says. “That show, I just sweated bul­lets to make it hap­pen.”

Gehry de­signed the in­stal­la­tion for that ex­hi­bi­tion — which in­cluded a model of the orig­i­nal Nazi show — de­spite be­ing oc­cu­pied with his boom­ing ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice. (He had just won the Pritzker Prize in 1989.)

“Th­ese days, I don’t need to spend time do­ing shows at the L.A. County Mu­seum,” he says. “But I do it be­cause I en­joy work­ing with Stephanie.”

“She isn’t a know-it-all,” he ex­plains. “She comes in with hon­est ques­tions and is will­ing to ex­plore ideas. ... It’s al­ways a new wrin­kle in un­der­stand­ing.”

Bar­ron says she felt par­tic­u­larly priv­i­leged to work with Gehry on the 2012 ret­ro­spec­tive of the dap­pled, oth­er­worldly forms of ce­ramist Ken Price, who was dy­ing as the show was laid out.

“It gave th­ese two friends some­thing in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­ful to do to­gether,” she says. “Be­fore he died, Ken was able to see how ev­ery piece would be in­stalled.”

Her key achieve­ment

Bar­ron’s in­flu­ence goes well be­yond the tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion pro­gram. She has helped shape the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion and found in­no­va­tive ways of pre­sent­ing it in the mu­seum’s gal­leries. But her most sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment in this area is bring­ing a priceless pri­vate col­lec­tion into the mu­seum’s hold­ings.

Since the 1970s, Bar­ron had so­cial­ized with Henri and Jan­ice Lazarof. He was a com­poser (who has since died); she was the daugh­ter of fi­nancier and real es­tate mogul Mark Ta­per (the one who has a down­town au­di­to­rium in his name). Over the course of their friend­ship with Bar­ron, the cou­ple be­gan col­lect­ing art: sculp­tures by Al­berto Gi­a­cometti, paint­ings by Kandin­sky, works by Pi­casso and Matisse.

“I watched the col­lec­tion grow,” says Bar­ron. “I would have din­ner there about once a month and I would ask, ‘Any­thing new?’ And they’d say, ‘Look around.’ ”

Over the years, she says, she was care­ful never to sug­gest how they might build or dis­pose of their col­lec­tion, nor did she breathe word of its ex­is­tence to any­one else. “They were ul­tra pri­vate,” says Bar­ron. “They didn’t lend works, and they weren’t part of the art world. I’d met them through fam­ily friends.”

One evening she ar­rived at their home to dis­cover that they had ac­quired a sec­ond ver­sion of Con­stantin Bran­cusi’s 1920s bronze sculp­ture “Bird in Space” — a piece that is a touch­stone in the devel­op­ment of Mod­ern art. Bar­ron says she was floored when she saw it. LACMA, at the time, didn’t have a sin­gle Bran­cusi to its name.

“Who has one Bran­cusi? Much less two? In dif­fer­ent sizes?” she ex­claims. “And I blurted out, ‘This would be ter­rific in the mu­seum!’ To my sur­prise they didn’t ask me to leave.”

And thus be­gun a se­ries of quiet con­ver­sa­tions that even­tu­ally led the Lazarofs to do­nate their col­lec­tion to LACMA: 130 works by ma­jor artists, in­clud­ing 20 pieces by Pi­casso, seven sculp­tures by Gi­a­cometti and the two ver­sions of “Bird in Space.”

“We bandy the word ‘trans­for­ma­tive’ around a lot,” says Bar­ron. “But this re­ally trans­formed our Mod­ern hold­ings.”

But just be­cause she has an ac­com­plished ca­reer to her credit doesn’t mean that Bar­ron is tak­ing a break. In fact, she is pre­par­ing a ret­ro­spec­tive on Gehry’s ar­chi­tec­ture, which opens in Septem­ber. The fol­low­ing month, she will de­but an ex­hi­bi­tion about Ger­man art dur­ing the Weimar Repub­lic — nearly 200 works by some 50 artists — that will chron­i­cle the desta­bi­liz­ing era af­ter World War I, a pe­riod of rapid in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and high un­em­ploy­ment but also wide­spread cul­tural achieve­ment.

In 1988, The Times pub­lished a pro­file of Bar­ron that de­scribed her as a cu­ra­tor “who likes noth­ing bet­ter than to bring craggy moun­tains of art to peo­ple who pre­fer soft fields of flow­ers.”

Asked how she feels about the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion to­day, she says with a chuckle, “I think it’s still true.”

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

Richard Sch­midt David Hock­ney Inc.

2014 POR­TRAIT by David Hock­ney of Stephanie Bar­ron, LACMA se­nior cu­ra­tor and depart­ment head for Mod­ern art.

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