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L.A. museum survives cuts of Prop. 13

King Tut had packed his bags and Howard Jarvis had just detonated Proposition 13, the California property tax-slashing measure. It was June 1978. Morton J. Golden called that month "the depth of despair" for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Despite the fact that the traveling Egyptian exhibit of the treasures of Pharaoh Tutankhamen had just ended a highly successful four-month visit to the museum, county officials, panicked by Prop. 13, would later that summer pencil in a tentative budget figure for the Museum of Art: zero.

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"If there were a couple of hundred people down in the dumps who didn't know what they were doing or where they were going, it was our staff in July and August of 1978," says Mr. Golden, the deputy director of administration for the museum.

But -- bolstered by the prospect of rescue via the state budget surplus -- county officials did not cut the museum out of the fiscal 1979 budget. They just trimmed the county contribution by $336,000.

King Tut may have helped. More than 1.2 million people clicked through the turnstyles to view his glittering treasures. The exhibit stirred public interest in the museum and perhaps helped convince county officials that the museum's budget was not just another expendable notch in the belt-tightening process. The financial commitment was renewed.

"It's a much brighter outlook now," Mr. Golden says. "We're more mature, and we'll take things as they come." But he still winces. Next June, California voters will decide on another tax-cutting measure. Dubbed "Jarvis II," it would slice state income taxes and thus is likely indirectly to affect the county budget. In its second budget after Prop. 13, the county trimmed $187,000 from the Museum of Art's allotment. The total museum budget for fiscal 1980 is $2.6 million, plus $1.2 million for a new security system.

To boost revenues after Prop. 13's impact, the museum started charging admission and the staff was cut. Despite the residue of interest from the King Tut show, the number of visitors dwindled -- perhaps by 40 percent, the museum estimates.

Outside sources have helped. In the last six months, the county has accepted a $3 million gift from the Atlantic Richfield Company to build a new ARCO Gallery for Contemporary Art and a $4.5 million gift from the Ahmanson Foundation, believed to be the largest donation ever made by a private foundation to an American museum, to expand exhibition space and ease overcrowded galleries. In accepting the gifts, the county agreed to maintain the new facilities.

"Those were two of the most significant things that have happened to this museum since it opened," Mr. Golden says. "From the financial point of view, the picture might be more bright than bleak."

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To maintain the upswing, the museum board of trustees is scouring the country for a new director to replace director-emeritus Kenneth Donahue. Several candidates have been interviewed, but none chosen.

Mr. Golden insists that the museum's financial straits are not turning prospects away. Rather, he says, no one has been found who can grapple with the challenges that will confront the new editor. Those include battling inflation, dealing in a market in which art is becoming very expensive and very scarce, managing blockbuster exhibitions like the Tut show, building the new galleries, negotiating with corporations that want to fund exhibitions, and working with curators, the art community, and politicians.

While not mentioned in the same breath with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is developing a reputation as an important cultural center, especially on the West Coast. In just 15 years the museum's Asian, Indian, Islamic, and Japanese art, as well as its European sculpture, silver, and mosaics, have been nurtured into impressive collections. Among the jewels: Rembrandt's "The Raising of Lazarus," George de la Tour's "Magdalen with the Smoking Flame," and Jean Simeon Chardin's "soap Bubbles."

Touring the four-story museum in central Los Angeles, one does not feel as though the galleries and their contents extend forever, as they appear to at the large and decades-older establishments in the East.

"We compare like babes in the woods," Mr. Golden says. "But what we've done in 15 years -- it's remarkable that we've come this far. We'll be here for some time to come."


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