in News | 15 MAR 18

Ex-Employees of Fired LA MoCA Chief Curator Helen Molesworth Claim Poor Leadership

The museum cited ‘creative differences’ for her departure but former colleagues suggest problematic management on her part

in News | 15 MAR 18

Helen Molesworth. Courtesy: LA MoCA

Helen Molesworth is out from her job as chief curator of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The news was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, which claimed Molesworth had been fired by director Philippe Vergne.

An initial announcement to museum trustees sent on Monday, seen by the Times, said that Molesworth was 'stepping down’, effective immediately – suggestive of a resignation. But artist and trustee Catherine Opie told the Times’s Christopher Knight that she had called Vergne after receiving the email, and was told that he had fired Molesworth for ‘undermining the museum’. Opie told Vergne that he had made a ‘terrible mistake’. In a statement, MoCA told the Times that Molesworth and the museum had ‘decided to part ways due to creative differences’.

However, two ex-employees of the museum, who wish to remain anonymous, have suggested to frieze that Molesworth’s tenure was more troubled. One source told us that Molesworth was regarded internally by colleagues as a ‘very problematic leader’, with significant departures from several critical departments such as development, registrars and preparators, under her jurisdiction. One ex-employee told frieze that they had ultimately left the museum because they felt that they ‘could not work for someone whose public politics were so far removed from the more immediate everyday treatment of the employees working for her’. Molesworth did not respect her colleagues ‘and made their daily work lives miserable’, they told us.

A second ex-employee agreed that Molesworth was a ‘poor manager’ but pointed out that structural problems the museum was facing did not help: ‘the underfunding and understaffing of her curatorial department made her task of overseeing five installation spaces … nearly impossible’. The museum’s budgetary problems have been well documented, stretching back to before Vergne and Molesworth arrived at the institution in 2014.

The LA Times account meanwhile suggested a conflict over curatorial values. Molesworth joined MoCA in 2014, and has since organized well-respected exhibitions including a Kerry James Marshall retrospective and Anna Maria Maiolino survey. But according to Knight’s report, Vergne continued with his own curatorial activity even as director, leading to a clash between him and Molesworth over MoCA’s artistic programme. The Times’s report drew attention to the distinction between Vergne’s curating of exhibitions for high-profile white male men (recently, Carl Andre and Doug Aitken) compared to Molesworth’s more diverse exhibition-making. The museum also faced a widely reported and embarrassing incident last month when board member and artist Mark Grotjahn refused the 2018 MoCA Gala held in his honour, citing a lack of diversity in the choice of previous honorees and himself.

But the comments made to frieze by ex-employees indicate that problems with Molesworth’s tenure at MoCA went further than mere differences over curatorial vision and diversity between her and Vergne. And both sources pointed out that the decision to fire Molesworth would ultimately have come from the museum’s board.

We have reached out to both Helen Molesworth and MoCA for comment, but neither have responded at the time of publication.