A Tale of Two Museums: MOCA and LACMA

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MOCA Board President Carolyn Clark Powers, MOCA Director Klaus Biesenbach and MOCA Board Chair Maria Seferian. 2019 MOCA Benefit. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Billy Farrell/BFA.com

This is a tale of two museums, The Museum of Contemporary Art and the L.A. County Museum of Art.

I’ll admit it. I am a booster for L.A. art. When I moved here in 1979, I started writing about it because I realized that the quality and originality was very little understood or even recognized outside Southern California. Certainly not in New York or Europe. There was no Museum of Contemporary Art.

L.A.’s first free-standing art museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had opened in 1966. Being a general rather than a contemporary museum, it could not, at times would not, dedicate its programs solely to post-war art or art being made here.

As a result, a truly dedicated group of local art collectors came together to make MOCA a reality in 1979. What is now the Geffen opened with The First Show in 1983 and proved that those collectors who genuinely did not want to give their art to a New York museum had made stunningly generous donations.

They also hammered out the deal to erect the MOCA building on Grand Avenue in 1986.

Guests at Chris Burden’s Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, 1986/2019, site-specific excavation. Courtesy of the Chris Burden Estate.

Four tumultuous decades later, that history is being celebrated with MOCA's sixth director, Klaus Biesenbach. On the job seven months, he was able to announce a $10 million dollar gift by MOCA president Carolyn Powers to help fund free admission.

A benefit dinner last Saturday was underwritten by Marina Kellen French so that some 300 artists and others could attend gratis. The exhibition titled The Foundation of the Museum: MOCA's Collection is a snapshot of the staggering commitment of past directors and curators to building one of best contemporary collections in the country.

So Biesenbach is off to a running start. The night of the benefit, he spoke to the crowd about being of service, about art as a force within society, about being a family.

Given the spin cycle of directors, curators and board members at MOCA in the last decade, he has a lot of ruffled feathers to smooth. He seems remarkably willing to perform that uneviable task. A collective sigh of relief seemed to permeate the evening, which was attended by past directors and curators in a gesture of reconciliation.

Daytime view of north stairs facing east, Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner. Photo courtesy of LACMA.

All of which brings me to LACMA and its director Michael Govan, who has completely transformed a moribund museum into one of the most popular places in the city. Under his direction, the museum installed the one of the most selfied works of public art, the grove of vintage lights by one of the city’s most revered artists, the late Chris Burden. At this point, I could go on and on about their excellent recent exhibitions with an unprecedented focus on contemporary art, including Robert Rauschenberg’s previously unseen opus 1/4 Mile, closing June 9.

Michael Govan. Photo courtesy of LACMA.

Prior to Govan’s 2006 hire, Renzo Piano, an esteemed architect of museums, was on board to complete what is now the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art and the Resnick Pavilion. Even at that time, it was clear that it was not going to be cost effective or aesthetically desireable to renovate the 1966 LACMA buildings, a William Pereira design that had proved problematic and unwieldy. Curators, historians and artists have have been complaining about it since the day it opened. The 1986 attempt to disguise it with a giant facade and courtyard by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer didn’t help.

Interior view of a central gallery, Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner/The Boundary. Photo courtesy of LACMA.

Govan could have let Piano continue building, which also entailed tearing down the old museum. He chose the more difficult path.

From the outset, he wanted the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and that decision has been controversial ever since. He set the bar higher with a fundraising goal of more than $600 million.

Now that he is nearing that goal and new models of Zumthor’s design are on view, there is a belated bellow of complaint about its curvilinear design, the amount of glass, the bridge over Wilshire, the concrete exhibition walls. Suddenly, people love the existing LACMA that they have been bad-mouthing since the day it opened.

Every daring museum design has faced similar fights. Without single-minded, stubborn directors, there wouldn’t be Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao (or even the Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim in New York). This is not to say that there can’t be questions about the design or that there can’t be improvements.

But at this point, given a stellar track record as a museum director on so many levels, Govan should be allowed to finish the job he was hired to do.

Interior gallery, Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner/The Boundary. Photo courtesy of LACMA.

Same for Biesenbach at MOCA. Give the guy a chance.

Sometimes a museum needs a leader with singular focus, like Govan. Sometimes, it needs someone who can unify and motivate demoralized staff and supporters. One hopes that will be Biesenbach.

In this time of nationwide fury and schisms and internet-fueled psycho babble, I’d like to see a return to sort of civic minded perspective and loyalty to L.A. that enabled these museums to be built in the first place.