in Critic's Guides | 01 NOV 12
Featured in
Issue 151

The Year in Review - LA MOCA

Contemplating recent events at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

in Critic's Guides | 01 NOV 12

Terry Richardson, James Franco in Drag II, 2011, c-type print, shown as part of ‘Rebel’, 941 North Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, 2012

Do institutions have a half-life? A life cycle? An astrological chart? These are the questions that arise when contemplating recent events at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles.

Four years ago, a fiscal crisis sent the institution into a near-death spiral that was only allayed by a bail-out from LA collector and philanthropist Eli Broad, after a proposed merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was rejected. These events have been well documented, but they notably include the departure of one director, the appointment of a care-taking CEO, staff lay-offs and the surprising appointment of New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as its director. This set the table for a tumultuous summer in 2012. Long-standing MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel was either fired or ‘asked for his resignation’ by the board of trustees. MOCA’s four artist trustees (John Baldesarri, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie and Ed Ruscha) all resigned from the board citing – in the case of Kruger and Opie – a more pervasive ‘crisis in cultural funding’. The remaining trustees first suggested that they would not hire a new chief curator and then reversed course. Finally, word surfaced of dissention within the board itself, signalled by a vote of no confidence in the form of an open letter written by four MOCA life trustees who had taken umbrage at the museum’s current philosophical direction, which they defined as ‘celebrity-driven programmes’ under its current leadership. All the while, Broad has been fending off subtle insinuations that he has been attempting a quiet takeover of MOCA, as construction of the Broad Foundation’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed museum across the street has proceeded apace.

These events recall the troubled history of another LA institution that went through even more serious gyrations before collapsing into the arms of a single patron. The story of the rise and fall of the Pasadena Art Museum is a convoluted one in which negligent governance in the 1960s and early ’70s led to a veritable short-sale of the museum to collector Norton Simon, ending the legacy of an institution that – under the curatorial leadership of figures such as Walter Hopps – initiated the first retrospective of Marcel Duchamp along with numerous significant exhibitions of contemporary art by the likes of Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, Claes Oldenburg, and an important early reconsideration of the work of the Bauhaus. In the words of John Coplans in Artforum in 1975, the tale could be seen as a ‘diary of a disaster’.1

MOCA’s founding in 1979 could be read as the collective response of the LA art community to the need for a contemporary art museum in the wake of the Simon debacle. Resulting from a critical mass of support from artists, collectors, philanthropists, gallerists and city politicians, an institution was created from scratch to provide an incubating venue for the experimentation in the visual arts that LA had become known for in the previous decades. Legendary curator Pontus Hultén was imported from Europe to oversee the birth of this institution, fresh from his tenure as the founding director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Richard Koshalek was brought in from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to become the institution’s first deputy director and chief curator (later its director). MOCA would come to be seen as one of the most cutting-edge places to see contemporary and modern exhibitions in the US, hosting many groundbreaking shows such as Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer’s ‘A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation’ (1989), Schimmel’s ‘Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s’ (1992) and ‘Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979’ (1998), and Connie Butler’s ‘WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution’ (2007). It was only after the global financial meltdown of 2008 that the wheels started to come off the cart, as the museum’s finances could no longer keep up with its curatorial ambitions.

Crucial questions have been raised by the recent problems at MOCA, not just in relation to its own future but to the future of contemporary art institutions in the US and beyond that are subject to the American patronage model, which relies principally on individuals, corporations and foundations for funding. Firstly, do numbers really matter? Is it heretical in the age of museum metrics and audience engagement initiatives to suggest that sometimes the numbers of people who pass through the turnstile are not necessarily indicative of the importance of an exhibition, intellectually or culturally? Broad published an op-ed piece this summer in the Los Angeles Times suggesting that the institution ‘needed a director who could create exhibitions that would dramatically increase attendance and membership and make MOCA a populist rather than an insular institution’. He went on to equate exhibition costs and attendance by lamenting that some past MOCA shows ‘were costly and poorly attended, [the exhibition costs] often exceeding US$100 per visitor’. This accountant’s calculus neglects the fact that, typically, many museums generate only a fraction of their overall revenue from admissions. While increased attendance is no bad thing, is it an end in itself to which programmes should be sacrificed? More importantly, is there still a place for the experimental, marginal and challenging in contemporary art museums today or is that ground to be ceded to alternative spaces and even to commercial galleries, who both operate with much more freedom? Can contemporary art museums continue to be the R+D centres of the cultural world or are we going to be forced into a competition with all the televisual crassness of Jersey Shore and Survivor? One wonders if museums of contemporary art are being voted off the island.

Deitch’s exhibition ‘Art in the Streets’ (2011), generated record attendance figures for MOCA, provoking vigorous debate regarding its populist approach. In fairness, a number of the artists included in that exhibition have shown at other contemporary institutions around the world and a similar exhibition, ‘Beautiful Losers’, was organized at the Orange County Museum of Art in 2005. We also might ask how different this exhibition was on the populism meter than, say, the Tim Burton retrospective organized by MoMA in 2011? It seems ironic that ‘Art in the Streets’ would raise so many eyebrows considering the heat that MOCA took in 2008 for allowing a Louis Vuitton store to be set up inside Schimmel’s exhibition ‘©Murakami’. That exhibition hardly seemed ‘insular’ and in some ways raised some of these issues much more provocatively. It is safe to assume that an exhibition like ‘Art in the Streets’ attracted an audience that normally would not come to a museum of any kind, and that’s commendable. As Deitch suggested this summer, he is searching for a new audience: ‘They’re not the people who make a living as artists, art critics or professional art collectors, which is the traditional MOCA audience. These are people who hear about a great new film they want to go to. They hear that there’s a terrific new fashion store that’s very cool – they want to go there. They don’t differentiate between these cultural forms.’2

These are hardly revolutionary pronouncements. Many museums today realize that they are competing for an ever-dwindling demographic in the face of today’s media environment but this begs the question of what the purpose of a museum of contemporary art is. This issue is one of consumption versus contemplation, of immersion versus visual grazing. Are contemporary art museums really in danger of dying out in the face of a Red Bull-fuelled world of gamers, Twitter junkies and celebrities? Do they have to cater to those people in order to be seen as relevant? If so, what are we losing in that transaction? Aren’t these old questions that date back certainly to the 1950s and to the advent of television if not before? Perhaps this model of audience suggests we are all the distracted consumer children of Warhol’s Factory and an exhibition is simply one more event to choose from as an app on your smartphone. Maybe it’s OK to have a sublime moment of quiet in a gallery with a painting and then head out to a club, but won’t we lament the loss of a critical space for ideas if we turn the galleries into discos? Is Pablo Picasso a bigger celebrity draw than the actor James Franco, who did a collaborative art project at MOCA this past year? (Or, to mess it up even further, is Warhol?) It’s a question of whether or not spectacle and scholarship can cohabitate. The answer is yes, if a curatorial programme is balanced.

Institutions do have a life cycle. Their visions change, as do definitions of contemporary art; the best shift and adapt with the culture that they reflect. What is crucial to understand about the longevity of these institutions, however, is that – regardless of specific programmes – without good governance none of these competing visions will be able come to fruition. If moca and other institutions like it hope to avoid the fate of the Pasadena Art Museum, they need both sound fiscal management from their staff and even more solid governance from their patrons. We know the fate of Pasadena; moca’s is still in the process of being written.

What can be deduced from these case studies is that, under the US model, financial security in the form of a major endowment is precisely the bedrock on which great programmes of contemporary art can be developed. If you build a solid endowment, the programmes will come or, more importantly, their independence will.

1 John Coplans, ‘Pasadena’s Collapse and the Simon Takeover: Diary of a Disaster’, Artforum, February 1975
2 As quoted in Reed Johnson, ‘MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch Defends “Seriousness” of Shows’, Los Angeles Times, 4 August