In 1979, philanthropist Marcia Weisman and five other local art collectors announced that they would donate a number of their works to what would become the Museum of Contemporary Art. Thus began a sometimes rollercoaster-like existence for one of the most important cultural facilities in Downtown Los Angeles.
The institution lacked a permanent home at first, and staged shows in a former police car warehouse in Little Tokyo (that building is now the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA). A landmark building designed by Arata Isozaki opened at 250 S. Grand Ave. in 1986. The first exhibit at the new space was A Selected History of Contemporary Art, 1945-86, featuring more than 400 pieces from 77 international artists.
In the ensuing decades MOCA has experienced tremendous ups and downs. There have standout shows that drew huge crowds, with single-artist exhibitions displaying the work of Claes Oldenburg, Jean Michel-Basquiat, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rauschenberg, Kerry James Marshall and almost every other blue chipper. The 1992 survey show Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s, curated by Paul Schimmel, was the first of numerous group exhibitions that garnered international attention.
On the other hand, MOCA has endured severe financial stumbles and, in the past decade, a revolving door of directors. Top curators, including Schimmel, were fired, sparking outrage from the art community.
Still, MOCA has persevered, and 40 years and approximately 500 exhibits after its debut, the institution still bills itself as “The Artist’s Museum.” MOCA is now celebrating that history, with a pair of recently opened exhibits and another coming up this month that all draw on the institution’s rich history, its extensive collection and its role in the city.
On April 14, the museum debuted two exhibits: Open House: Elliott Hundley is part of an artist-driven series featuring work pulled from the permanent collection. The second show, 40 for LA, explores the museum’s history, from a fledgling institution to a place that todays plays a leading role in Los Angeles art circles
Mining Old Material
Amanda Hunt and Bryan Barcena curated 40 for LA. The pair dug through four decades of documents, programs, letters, newspaper articles and photographs, and also got some items on loan from former and longtime MOCA employees.
Hunt said spending time in the museum’s vaults was initially daunting, but eventually the thesis behind the exhibit fell into place.
“It a little dusty, but fun,” Hunt joked. “It’s always overwhelming at first, but the priorities emerge because we are curators and we are trained to find the best material, and to edit and to shape that material to a story and history.”
The exhibit tackles four essential components of MOCA’s history: the artists, the architects, the patrons/staff, and the exhibitions.
One wall features the names of artists who have had a solo exhibit at the museum or were part of a group show — there are 1,928 names. Hunt said it was important to place the artists at the forefront of 40 for LA.
“So often you see, and rightfully so, the people who support the institution recognized officially on a plaque in the lobby or outside,” Hunt said. “We wanted to do that for the artists.”
On the opposite wall is a timeline that traces the museum’s history, from its first exhibit to Zoe Leonard: Survey, which wrapped on March 25. It includes forgotten shows as well as ones where the reputation endures, among them 2012’s Tribute to Mike Kelley, and 2007’s Wack!: Art and the Feminist Revolution, a historical survey that explored feminist activism and art making from 1965-1980.
There is also a wall dedicated to the two architects who designed MOCA’s buildings: The Japanese-born Isozaka, who in March was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize (essentially architecture’s Nobel), and Frank Gehry, who turned that Little Tokyo warehouse into the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.
The display showcases Isozaka’s geometric designs of the Grand Avenue building, as well as early photos of the sites.
“We wanted to turn to the things that don’t change,” Barcena said. He added that the goal is to determine, “what is central to our mission that doesn’t turn up in the headlines, and those things are our history, our permanent collection and artists.”
The show is a natural lead-in to an upcoming MOCA exhibition. The Foundation of the Museum: MOCA’s Collection, debuting at the Geffen Contemporary on May 19, will present a selection of art from the museum’s archives that represent its history.
The exhibit is organized around artist Chris Burden’s 1986 installation “Exposing the Foundation of the Museum,” in which the artist literally dug three large trenches into the ground, revealing the physical foundations of the property. Though Burden died in 2015, it is being re-created on site.
Other galleries in the exhibit will look at the importance of artist gifts to the museum and the intersection between illustrations and the political world.
Works from Maria Nordman, Laura Owners, Judy Fiskin, Albert Oehlen and others will also be on display.
The Artist’s Eye
While 40 for LA traces the history and evolution of the museum, the show it is paired with draws on the artists who made that history possible.
Open House: Elliott Hundley, was organized by Hundley, a Los Angeles-based multimedia artist. It is the first in a series of Open House shows that will pair a local artist with a curator to organize an exhibit through the lens of the artist. Future artists have not yet been announced.
Hundley worked with Barcena, and the effort was collaborative and cooperative, Barcena said.
“The curator and the artists sometimes have different aims,” Barcena said. “With Elliott, it is very much about having different kinds of people in the gallery; overlooked artists and the more well-known ones.”
Barcena said that Hundley was given carte blanche to look through the museum’s vaults. Over the course of a year, Hundley devised nearly 10 different ideas for an exhibit before settling on the current iteration.
Barcena said that the exhibit holds works that would not typically be shown together, and focuses on collage and assemblage pieces created across various mediums. It encompasses this while also representing the themes and techniques of Elliott’s own creations.
The pieces on display include Betye Saar’s “The Destiny of Latitude and Longitude,” which depicts large ships trapped inside of a large, gray-hued birdcage that represents the African diaspora. Nearby is Bruce Connor’s “Eye-Ray-Forever,” a collection of rapidly changing black and white video images.
“I don’t think it was ever really about showcasing the genius of one single artist or work,” Barcena said. “It was about showcasing the craft.”
Both 40 for LA and Open House: Elliott Hundley are on view until Sept. 16.
40 for LA and Open House: Elliott Hundley are at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 621-2766 or moca.org.
Goodbye MOCA Gala, Hello MOCA Benefit
Last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art cancelled its annual fundraising gala amid a controversy over diversity.
This month, MOCA will hold a different fundraising event, sans the “Gala” nomenclature.
On April 22, the museum now headed by Director Klaus Biesenbach announced that the MOCA Benefit will take place at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA on May 18. The event honors “all the artists that have made, do make and will make MOCA, MOCA,” the museum said in a press release. It added that the event will showcase “the museum’s renewed commitment to be of service to the City of Los Angeles.”
Last year, Mark Grotjahn, one of MOCA’s artist board members, declined to accept an award at the gala, charging that there had been a lack of diversity in past gala honorees, with the museum continuing to fete heterosexual white males. MOCA initially indicated that the 2018 gala would continue, with a different focus, but the museum, then run by Director Philippe Vergne, opted to cancel the event.
Historically, the gala has been one of the biggest sources of funding for the museum. The 2017 event raised nearly $3 million.
The new “benefit” will invite 700 guests, nearly 300 of whom are artists. MOCA Trustee Marina Kellen French made a donation that will cover the cost of admission for the artists.
Throughout the evening, artists will help celebrate the museum’s history and future. That includes Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, who will reimagine their performance work “Temperament and the Wolf (2014).”
The benefit will also celebrate the exhibit The Foundation of Los Angeles: MOCA’s Collection, which will open at the Little Tokyo satellite space the following day.
Additionally, the event will help benefit the institution’s “WAREHOUSE Programs,” a revamped effort at the Geffen Contemporary that promotes performances, public programming, arts education and community engagement.
Individual tickets to the MOCA Benefit are not currently available, but there are table purchase opportunities. For information call (213) 633-5318 or email
—Sean P. Thomas