The celebration of birthdays, whether my own or my friends, is not something that I care too much about. But in the life of a young city like Los Angeles, with its cultural institutions barely out of the cradle, by the standards of other metropolitan cities, there are some special birthdays that simply must be honored. This year, believe it or not, MOCA, the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art, is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
It all started so matter-of-factly. In 1978, Marcia Weisman, one of the better-known and most influential collectors of contemporary art in L.A., suggested over dinner to Mayor Tom Bradley: "Don't you think it's time we had a museum of modern art in this town?" Shortly afterwards, the Mayor, sufficiently intrigued, called her back to discuss this idea further.
Those who had the privilege of visiting her Beverly Hills home filled to the brim with art, knew how serious - no, let me take it back - how passionate she was about art collecting. Every square inch of wall space was covered with works by major modern and contemporary artists. In any other house in Beverly Hills, a lack of windows in the living room would be difficult to imagine, but Marcia Weisman followed her own logic. Running out of wall space and looking for where to hang new paintings, she decided to board up her windows so her favorite art works could be shown to full advantage. Do you know many people who would do that? Give me their names. I'd love to meet them.
I remember her telling me that she was thinking about donating her collection to MOCA which, at the time, was no more than a set of rented offices in a nondescript Downtown building. I asked her, "Will you expect the museum to display your art work separately from the rest of their collection, as other influential collectors often insist?" "Absolutely not," she responded. "One is lucky to be a custodian of great works of art while they're alive. No one has the right to impose their will, from beyond the grave, on how and where museums should display art."
Luckily for us Angelenos, a number of other collectors followed her generous and enlightened example. There was so much enthusiasm in this city that before Japanese architect Arata Isozaki finished building the new museum, temporary quarters had to be found to host the inaugural show. These temporary quarters were renovated by Frank Gehry, and for a quarter of a century proved to be the most versatile and inspiring place to see a number of groundbreaking exhibitions.
With special affection I recall the first show of painting and sculptures from the eight best private collections from around the world. I do remember the controversy surrounding the price paid for the outstanding collection of Contemporary art from Italian collector Count Panza. Looking back, it's clear that the money was extremely well-spent for art that would be absolutely out of reach today.
Among my favorites were exhibitions by Christian Boltansky, Barbara Kruger, Sam Francis and Richard Serra, presenting the artists in depth and doing it with a flourish. And who can forget "Helter Skelter" and "One Hundred Years of Architecture" or the recent retrospectives of Andy Warhol and Lucian Freud. Here's to the most adventurous museum in L.A.: Happy 25th birthday, MOCA.
MOCA at California Plaza
250 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary
152 N. Central Avenue
Little Tokyo, Downtown L.A
The MOCA Gallery at the Pacific Design Center
8687 Melrose Avenue
West Hollywood, CA 90069