MOCA Doesn’t Make Mistakes, Just Happy Little Accidents

Klaus Biesenbach, a museum executive and curator at MoMA PS1, will be the third consecutive New York-based figure selected to lead Downtown’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

DTLA - Two weeks ago, the Museum of Contemporary Art announced that Klaus Biesenbach, a New York museum honcho who has nearly no in-depth knowledge of how Los Angeles works, will take the reins of the venerable institution. He will replace Philippe Vergne, who when he started four years ago was a New York museum honcho who had nearly no in-depth knowledge of how Los Angeles works. Vergne, by the way, succeeded Jeffrey Deitch, who had arrived in 2010, and if you expect me to say that Deitch was a New York museum honcho who had nearly no in-depth knowledge of how Los Angeles works, that’s not the case at all — Deitch was a New York gallery honcho who had nearly no in-depth knowledge of how Los Angeles works.

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What does this mean? For one, the MOCA board, which hired Biesenbach, has an inexplicable crush on New York, and doesn’t think anyone in L.A. can run an L.A. arts institution. Beyond that, all I can come up with is a couple famous quotes. One is Albert Einstein’s, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Then there’s the artistic angle, and maybe the MOCA board will come to echo kitschtastic, curly haired sage Bob Ross’ gem, “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.”  

One should never quote Ross in a piece about serious art, but when Biesenbach and MOCA come into play, anything is possible. MOCA, after all, is the institution where Deitch was planning a show about the influence of disco music, though he got canned and it fortunately never came to pass. 

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Then there’s the 2015 exhibition that Biesenbach built around musician Björk at New York’s MoMA, where he previously worked (he was curator at large of that museum and director of MoMA PS1). The show was excoriated, instantly infamous, and wound up as the museum equivalent of Ishtar. In its review the New York Times declared that the exhibit “reeks of ambivalence,” and later stated, “the Björk exhibition stands as a glaring symbol of the museum’s urge to be all things to all people, its disdain for its core audience, its frequent curatorial slackness and its indifference to the handling of crowds and the needs of its visitors.”

After that it got really negative.

This was only three years ago, but MOCA has apparently decided that the Biesenbach Björk bomb was an aberration, and that his decades of experience make him the right guy to guide the Los Angeles institution into the future.

The phrase “failing upwards” comes to mind.

Board Bungles

Is the above unfair to Biesenbach and MOCA? Perhaps, and I hope Biesenbach succeeds, because I’ve been a MOCA fan for decades and have repeatedly visited the Downtown Los Angeles locations on Bunker Hill and Little Tokyo. I’ve taken in fantastic exhibitions built around big names such as Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among others, and have been exposed to lesser-known artists, too; like many people I was thrilled by last year’s Kerry James Marshall: Mastry.

The problem is, MOCA has been so darn inconsistent and unpredictable in the past decade. Occasional awesomeness — even Deitch had a moment, with the 2011 graffiti-powered Art in the Streets — is matched by a baffling ability to effectively stab itself in the eye with a paintbrush. 

The MOCA board of directors bears ample responsibility for this. Museum boards are generally comprised of high-net-worth individuals who are brought on to donate cash and occasional art, and a board’s primary responsibility is to watch the finances. In the mid-2000s MOCA’s board apparently decided it would rather attend cocktail parties, and under then-Director Jeremy Strick an endowment north of $35 million shriveled to about $6 million, putting the museum’s very existence in jeopardy. It took an Eli Broad bailout to keep MOCA afloat.

Strick soon left and the board tapped Deitch, a successful gallery operator who had never overseen a museum. While Art in the Streets drew praise and record-setting crowds, Deitch clashed with and fired Chief Curator Paul Schimmel, the widely admired dude who was responsible for many of MOCA’s most important exhibits, including the 1992 survey Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 90s. Why a board member couldn’t mend that rift remains a mystery.

Seven Groundbreaking Exhibits From Jeffrey Deitch

Other moves deserve credit. A board-powered giving campaign has boosted MOCA’s endowment to an unprecedented $130 million. The museum’s self-sufficiency is now assured for decades, as long as no financial gophers come a-tunneling. 

Yet this achievement was countered by current Director Vergne pulling a Deitch and clashing with his chief curator, Helen Molesworth. She arrived in 2014, orchestrated the Marshall exhibit and curated this year’s lauded show by Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino. Molesworth was adored in local art circles, but something was rotten in MOCA, and Vergne orchestrated her departure in March.

No one has clearly explained the divide, but more importantly, no board member prevented the past from repeating itself. Shortly after Molesworth left, Vergne announced he would step down when his contract expires.

Enter King Klaus.

More Competition

In 2018, MOCA is like the onetime most popular kid in class who now shuffles on the side of the playground, hoping for occasional attention. The L.A. County Museum of Art generates far more buzz these days, and the Getty Center, with its castle on a hill, is the place most visitors want to see. There’s more competition than ever, including, oddly, from a Wilshire Boulevard museum opened last year by Maurice Marciano, who just happens to be co-chair of the MOCA board.

MOCA has also been knocked from its high perch in Downtown, where the primary art attraction is now The Broad, across the street from MOCA’s location on Grand Avenue. The $140 million Broad opened in 2015, and although the approximately 2,000 artworks in Eli and Edythe Broad’s collection pales compared to MOCA’s extraordinary 7,000 objets d’art, The Broad’s beautiful building and free admission win out. Unless there’s a Marshall-caliber exhibit, do people really want to pay $15 to enter MOCA, or do they wind up there because the line at The Broad is too long?

This isn’t an effort to slag MOCA, but these are the issues Biesenbach must wrestle with when he arrives. Plenty of people are skeptical, and his hiring also prompted some grumbling about choosing another white male leader, an issue that gained fuel this year when artist Mark Grotjahn declined to be honored at the museum’s annual gala, citing a lack of diversity in gala honorees. The party, a major moneymaker, was canceled. Oops!

Yet perhaps this is where Biesenbach’s potential lies. He has been touted for growing the board at MoMA PS1, and maybe a board that thinks different is what MOCA needs. It’ll be fascinating to see if, over time, Biesenbach tries to weed out the board members who hired him.

With any luck Biesenbach will prove to be a director equivalent of a Rauschenberg or Marshall exhibit, and will have a long tenure and make MOCA the stable jewel it should be. On the other hand, he could wind up the next Deitch/Vergne, or maybe even our very own Bob Ross. The fun will be seeing how the paint dries.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2018