Choice of New Director Proves Insecurity of MOCA Trustees

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The job of an American museum Director is a tough one. First of all, his or her focus must be on museum administration. And then – fundraising, fundraising, fundraising… When the Founding Director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Pontus Hultén, realized that he was expected to raise money, which he had never done in his previous capacity as Director of Centre Pompidou in Paris, he quit.

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Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010 at MOCA Geffen Contemporary. 2017. Photo by Edward Goldman.

He was seceded by Richard Koshalek, who ran MOCA for almost 20 years. Then came Jeremy Strick, who was Director for the next decade. During these years, largely with Paul Schimmel as Chief Curator, the museum established a reputation as a major international institution for contemporary art.

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Diamond Sea. Doug Aitken. 1997. Part of Doug Aitken: Electric Earth at MOCA Geffen Contemporary. 2016. Photo by Edward Goldman.

When, in 2010, MOCA Trustees appointed NY art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as Director, he lasted only 3 years. He had no administrative experience, and he considered himself to be, first and foremost, a curator. So, Chief Curator Paul Schimmel’s resignation during Deitch’s years – or was it a firing? – shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.

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School of Beauty, School of Culture. 2012. Kerry James Marshall. Part of Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at MOCA. 2017. Courtesy Birmingham Museum of Art. Photo by Edward Goldman.

Months ago, news came that the current director of MOCA, Philippe Vergne, would leave his post before the end of his five-year contract. Vergne proved himself not to be a very good administrator, either. His relationship with the curatorial staff was problematic and tense, which led to his firing of Chief Curator Helen Molesworth.

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(L) Untitled (Club Couple). 2014. Kerry James Marshall. MOCA, promised gift of Mandy and Cliff Einstein. (R) Untitled. 2009. Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery. Photos by Edward Goldman.

In my opinion, Vergne succeeded more as a curator than as Director. He curated high-profile solo exhibitions for two major American artists, Doug Aitken and Carl Andre. And, while he was Director, Helen Molesworth was able organize a brilliant retrospective of Kerry James Marshall’s work.

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Installation shots, Give and Take: Highlighting Recent Acquisitions. MOCA. Top Left: Elizabeth Murray. Top Right: Jenny Saville. Bottom: Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Photos by Edward Goldman.

Waiting for the MOCA Trustees to announce their next choice for Director, I hoped that maybe it would be someone who is not only highly qualified, but also has deep, insider knowledge of Los Angeles’ cultural scene. LA is a huge city, with a unique, multi-ethnic population. It’s not easy to get to know the city. I remember asking the Director of one of the major museums here, whose previous job was in New York, “How many years it took you to get a grasp of Los Angeles?” The answer was, “3 years.”

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Installation shots, Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin. MOCA. 2018. Works by Diane Arbus. Photos by Edward Goldman.

So, I hope the newly appointed Director of MOCA, Klaus Biesenbach, will take less than 3 years to get to know Los Angeles. His previous job as Director of MoMA PS1 definitely qualifies him to become Director of MOCA here, in LA. But the question is – why do the MOCA Trustees always choose outsiders – most of them from NY? Is it because no man or woman in all of LA is qualified? It’s ironic that while our City of Angels has become globally recognized as a major center for contemporary art, MOCA Trustees are still too insecure to choose an Angeleno to lead their museum.



Kathleen Yore