An interview with Jean-Patrice Marandel, curator of paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Jean-Patrice Marandel has been a curator at the LACMA for almost 15 years now. He is especially active in his acquisitions policy which is particularly discerning, often favoring Old Masters, French and Italian from the XVIth to the XVIIIth centuries. We met him in Paris where, as a French-American, he frequently comes to buy paintings and where he anwered our questions about his background, his museum and the evolution of museums both in the United States and Europe. He spoke frankly.

Can you tell us something about your background ?

I hold dual citizenship, French and American, and I have been living in the United States since 1968 when I moved there at the age of 23. So, accidentally, my career has been American. I was trained at the Institut d’Art by André Chastel who helped me to obtain the Focillon scholarship to spend an academic year at Yale. Françoise Cachin and Yves Bottineau preceded me there, Jacques Thuillier was my successor ! Instead of returning to France, I stayed. At the time New York was an incredible place, much younger than it is today. I discovered the world of modern art ; I met artists, art historians, Robert Rosenblum among others : the art world then was not as commercialized as it is now. I was taken by the air of youth, of happiness, of freshness that floated over New York and all of the United States at the time. I just managed to make a living with art reviews and working also for Dominique de Menil who let me organize an exhibition on “grisaille” : Grey is the color. Thanks to a former Focillon scholar, Henri Zerner, who today is a professor at Harvard University I immediately obtained a position at the Providence museum. I started out in my first job as chief curator. This charming museum which is located between Boston and New York holds a rich collection : the famous portrait of Berthe Morisot by Manet, the only Primatice in the United States, a superb landscape by Bourdon, a marvelous XIXth century, in short a real museum. I spent three years there followed by a series of changes in my career that some have qualified as chaotic, accusing me of changing places too often. But I was very young and I liked the idea of change and exploring the United States through its museums. So I moved to Chicago where I found myself curator of paintings, and by extension, of Greek and Roman Antiquities. I spent five years there. Although it is known essentially for its Impressionist collections, the museum holds some amazing Old Masters and I was able to make some fine purchases which I don’t regret, especially a magnificent La Hyre which was on the cover of Pierre Rosenberg’s catalogue on XVIIth century French paintings in the United States. I organized a few exhibitions there including the first American retrospective on Frédéric Bazille. Then things changed : the death of the director, John Maxon, a temperamental figure, but a great friend, affected me as much as it did the museum. I no longer felt at home there and left for Houston. What a mistake ! Houston was going through a severe economic depression. The museum was very young and was nothing like what it has become today under the direction of Peter Marzio. Even Texas seemed like a foreign country to me. I was pretty unhappy there. The next museum was in Detroit, a great museum of German tradition due to its founder William Valentiner, assistant to Wilhelm von Bode. I spent 13 years there in charge of European paintings. That is where I started to make my way as a curator. The director at the time was Frederick J. Cummings, a very cultivated man who believed in major international exhibitions and had managed to place the Detroit museum in the circuit of exhibitions organized in collaboration with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux : he had co-organized The Second Empire, I was able to do Boucher with the Louvre and the Met, L’âge d’Or de Naples with Chicago and Naples, Polish symbolist painting with Warsaw during the period of martial law in Poland and Solidarsnosj ! I also had an active acquisitions policy, particularly in the XIXth century, among which works by Puvis, Bazille, Gérard, Menzel, and the first Hammershoi ever bought by an American museum entered the collections. The day I left Mrs. Ford donated the splendid Postmaster Roulin by Van Gogh ! Detroit was an important moment in my career.

Was that just before Los Angeles ?

Yes. I left Detroit in October 1993. It was pure chance. One morning I got a phone call from Michael Shapiro, today director of the High Museum in Atlanta. He was then working in Los Angeles where he only stayed a few months. He offered me the position of curator for European paintings and I didn’t hesitate for a single second. A lot of people think I went to California to get away from the winters in the Midwest ! In fact, I like rain and snow and I hate hot weather, but the museum in Los Angeles (LACMA) had fascinated me for a long time. The collections seemed erratic, incomplete but I could feel that the directors were determined to do big things, especially in the field of old masters. There were major collections, especially that of Mr. and Mrs. Carter, a superb ensemble of Dutch art, which had been more or less promised to the museum. The collection is today entirely on display, thanks both to the magnificent donations of paintings by Saenredam, van Huysum, Ruisdael, Bosschaert, Clara Peeters etc. and to loans of works which will revert to us in the future. There was also the Ahmanson Foundation, a private institution which is unique in the United States. It acts as a patron in the fields of education, culture and hospital care essentially. It supports the Burlington Magazine and the Frick Library in New York, but even more importantly it makes acquisitions for the Southern California University libraries (UCLA especially) : rare and precious books, manuscripts – did you know that Los Angeles owns one of the largest collections of Oscar Wilde manuscripts ? – and incunabula. The Ahmanson Foundation is our major patron in terms of Old Masters. Its directors are not very interested in the XIXth century or Impressionism, preferring Renaissance, Baroque and XVIIIth century painting and sculpture. We took an instant liking to each other, a deep friendship founded on a common philosophy. Robert H. Ahmanson, who alas has just left us, was a strongly civic-minded man. He always told me that he was tired of hearing that Los Angeles was a cultural desert. He kept repeating that we would never be on a level with the Louvre, but that we could at least try to approach it. He was a modest man but strong and determined. He had the convictions of those early XXth century men like Carnegie or Morgan who were proud of their cities and ambitious in the projects they outlined for them.

1. Giovanni Baglione (1571-1644)
The Ecstasy of Saint Francis, 1601
Oil on canvas - 199.4 x 161.3 cm
Los Angeles, County Museum of Art
Photo : LACMA

2. Simon Vouet (1571-1644)
Angels, 1625
Oil on canvas - 40.6 x 61.6 cm
Los Angeles, County Museum of Art
Photo : LACMA

We work together in a very pleasant manner. I do not have a budget. Each purchase is presented individually and the Foundation’s Board of Directors votes on it. So far, I have never been turned down. I know that the Foundation will not buy probably works that are going today for 20 or 30 million euros, but they are immensely generous and make my work very pleasant for me. This foundation is not obsessesed with big names. Instead of the modest Caravaggio works which recently appeared on the market, I preferred for example to suggest purchasing Caravaggesque paintings of high quality : Honthorst, Saraceni, Valentin or Baglione. The Foundation enthusiastically accepted my choice – before the sale in Paris – of studies from the Ciechanowiecki collection : a total of 47 ranging from Vouet to Carpeaux. The purpose was to develop the French holdings in order to round out acquisitions of works by Boucher, Watteau, Fragonard, Robert, Lemoyne and Natoire. We also have five by Boucher, five by Carle van Loo, two by Jean François de Troy, two by Brenet, etc. The list is a long one and French painting is very well represented in Los Angeles ! Furthermore, this purchase enabled us to enlarge our XIXth century which is still the weakest part of the museum ; but thanks to the acquisition of these studies, we now have works by Flandrin, Falguière, Carpeaux, Diaz, Gérôme and especially the admirable study of The 10th of August 1792 by Gérard, the only painting in our collection that, I must admit, should have entered a French museum...

What other funding sources do you have ?

My other resources include donations. Every year I receive donations mostly from friends of the museum. Thanks to them we have been able to acquire some XIXth century, non-French artists, mainly Danish and Germans : Bocklin, Hans Thoma, Kroyer among others, oftentimes extravagant or strange paintings.

Which schools do you prefer in old masters ?

I try to limit myself to specific fields to make the collections stronger. Besides the Caraveggesque painters I already mentioned, I’ve tried to buy some XVIIIth century Venetians : a very beautiful Gian Domenico Tiepolo, a Sebastiano Ricci ; from Roman painting, or should we say rather “Grand Tour”, a major Batoni, a portrait of Mengs. I would like to have some XVIIIth century Germans and Austrians, but I haven’t found what I want, except for a study by Baumgartner purchased from a modern art gallery in Los Angeles !

And in French painting ?

Unfortunately, we still do not have a Poussin. Will we ever ? Perhaps we will be satisfied with our splendid La Tour, de Champaigne, Vouet (we have three), Poerson...I managed to buy a fine Le Brun, a painter who is poorly represented outside France, a La Hyre, two by Charles Parrocel. As I said, the XVIIIth century is well developed. It is one of the strong points of our collection. We lack however an Oudry (we have Desportes) and portraits. Maybe it’s the fault of Californians : people here just won’t accept “wigs”. I don’t present any ; I know they won’t be approved.

We also have done a lot to develop the neo-Classical school. When I arrived, we had a grand total of one important Gros, one Robert Lefèvre and a major Blondel. We now have David – the last painting that the artist did in France – the Gérard and all of the studies that entered with the Ciechanowiecki collection, that we have rounded out with other purchases. Thus we have three paintings by Jacques Sablet, two by Saint-Ours, three by Boilly, Regnault, etc., a long list.

In France we have just had a debate about deaccessioning. In the United States, museums sell...

True, it is an accepted practice but it is a strictly regulated procedure which has often been violently criticized. There have been disastrous cases : the sale of Picasso’s Life by the museum in Providence (thank goodness it was bought by the one in Cleveland !). In Detroit Valentiner sold a superb Degas (in Chicago today) to buy a fake Raphael, which in turn was sold to make room for a fake Leonardo... I think that first of all you have to look at how different French and American museums are : our collections didn’t have a Louis XIV to help them, nor looting by the French Revolution, nor Napoleonic conquests. The idea of artistic heritage does not really mean anything in the United States. Still, things are changing and the recent exhibition of the Metropolitan’s Dutch collections highlighted the role of New York collectors at the beginning of the XXth century. Many works come to us thanks to advantageous tax deductions for art donations. Let’s take an example (this is a real case) : someone has a major Degas on his walls that we have had our eye on for a long time and a small Eugène Boudin that we don’t particularly care for because we have nicer ones. This person offers us the Boudin. We accept it gratefully, we display it for a while, and then if everything goes as it should, the Degas painting is finally donated to us. We generally wait until the person has passed away, and even the children. Then we can sell the work that we did not really consider indispensable to our collection but we systematically inform the heirs. It sometimes happens, but rarely, that they refuse and in that case we don’t sell. Another example. We have two Greuze works in the museum : one that I find mediocre and the other rather vulgar. If both could be exchanged for a higher quality Greuze, I’m not saying that I would do it, but I would think about it. This is very American, and not accepted in Europe for historical reasons. It is also true that in order to avoid selling, one should be careful about receiving donations and select wisely. I’d rather not have a painting than keep it in storage.

We have also been debating the Louvre’s operations abroad. What do you think, for example, about the Louvre in Atlanta ?

The Atlanta event certainly surprised American museums. It’s a remarkable advertising move but which, in fact, does not really go beyond Atlanta itself. The public in the city is of course delighted to have the Louvre present in their museum and I think that attendance has increased. But the real question is whether this operation is beneficial for the museum and what it gains in the long run. Unless you totally redefine the function and the mission of this museum – or of any other museum – and you make it a kind of “Kuntshalle” in a more or less permanent way – it seems that it is forgetting its main purpose. Isn’t it supposed to develop its own collection ? Let’s not forget either that owning a major collection gives you entry into a new club, the club of museums that are sollicited, that lend, but only temporarily. One wonders if the money devoted to this operation ($13, 000, 000, I think) – an important sum – could not have been used to acquire art works. Such a budget opens up the possibility of purchasing entire collections of Korean, African or Chinese art or going to Maastricht and buying three good paintings, a Dutch, a French and an Italian... It seems to me that the museum’s identity would take on a new meaning...the Louvre label, excellent, but the Atlanta label, what is it ? A second-class brand name ?

What about the Louvre Abou Dhabi ?

Abou-Dhabi, which raised enormous controversy in France is seen in the United States as a Franco-French problem. Museums everywhere, be they European or American, are constantly looking for new ways of financing their expenses. American museums cannot criticize the Abou Dhabi project in the name of the same moral principles that outraged many of the major figures in the French museum world. Boston set the example with Nagoya many years ago already. France until now had not been faced with this kind of commercialization of its cultural institutions. It is a fact of the times. In saying it, I am only making an observation and in no way justifying it.

And the fact that a museum deposits works for extended periods abroad ?

Depositing works abroad is not in itself a bad thing, but who are they being lent to ? Only to the rich... Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book, “Cosmopolitanism” should be translated into French, if it hasn’t been already. This philosopher of African descent speaks very eloquently on the subject.

French curators are going to help in selecting acquisitions for this museum.

There you have another problem. It is difficult to work for two museums at the same time. The risk of conflict of interest is too great. Besides, if the works come from France, who would authorize their export ? The same people who suggested they be purchased ? I think a new procedure will have to be put in place if this is the case.

Are there any examples of this in the United States ?

I don’t think so. In any case, I don’t know of any.

What about the risks due to transportation ?

I’m not as worried about this, even if all shipping is risky. A lot of progress has been made in the last few years in the way art works are handled.

In France, administrators, often graduates of the state school ENA, are more and more often appointed to direct museums. Our impression is that this is also the case sometimes in the United States.

Quite often, directors do not know how to run a museum. American directors were usually well connected and with a background in art history, but not particularly specialized. As museums developed, trustees thought they had to adapt, find money. Today we have different models : next to the art history director, there is an administrative director, either above or below him, sometimes on the same level. None of these models has been really satisfactory. In the mid-seventies and in the eighties, a new generation of art history directors appeared, backed by personnel that were in charge of fundraising. The impression was that these people were more important to the museum than the directors. It’s not that we don’t get along with them, they are often friends, but they have a very different mission, and we have to convince a whole new kind of people. It’s the equivalent of the “énarques” in France. Just like you, we have too many administrators in our everyday life. It’a worldwide phenomenon, except in England where the director is generally an art historian specialized in his field. Even if many of the directors in the United States are still art historians, the administrators around them put pressure on decision making because they are usually economic choices. When a curator wants something, there’s an obstacle between him and the director.

Does the Board of Trustees intervene in decision making ?

Not usually, but it depends on who is on the board. When a new director is appointed, even if he works for the board, he can also be influential in gradually changing its makeup. Each case is different. Conflicts between the board and the director are rare and they lead to the departure of the director.

Before the interview, you told me about the visit that the American Friends of the Louvre paid you. Can you tell us about it here because in France no one’s ever heard of doing this ?

It is in fact a new situation and a bit surprising for us. We have always been used to being treated on equal terms with the Louvre or other French museums. Exhibitions, for instance, were always organized together. It is still so today, true, as in the case of the Musée d’Orsay which is working with us right now to prepare an exhibition on Renoir and modern art. In fact, with internet nothing could be easier. It’s become a virtual office for us. The American Friends of the Louvre whose aim, if I understand correctly, is essentially to obtain American aid for the Louvre (they organize dinners with local collectors, dinners to which American museums are not invited !), offered us exhibition “packages”, fully finished. Everything is ready, the catalogue, the choice of works. When I suggested that we might want to participate, I did not find the enthusiasm that my suggestion always aroused in the past. The times have changed, as have the methods no doubt, but that still doesn’t keep me from feeling that some of us are being strangely excluded.

Interview by Didier Rykner

Didier Rykner, mercredi 27 février 2008

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Museums : Interview with Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, founder of The Princes Czartoryski Foundation

Next article in Museums : The Musée Calvet, a rebirth ?