To Understand the Future of MoCA, Look at its Past


With the recent decision of the MoCA board of trustees to reverse itself and open a search for a chief curator, the museum’s identity crisis may have reached a temporary respite. But a more permanent resolution isn’t in the cards until a sustainable budget is achieved, and all interested parties, including a passionate public, can agree on what that budget means in terms of programming, collection development and support, and educational outreach. It’s past time to analyze, consider, and restate the museum’s mission. 

Let’s start at the beginning.

Early Laid Plans

At East of Borneo, the online art magazine I edit, we have been collecting and posting a wide range of historical materials concerning the first years of MoCA in an attempt to better understand the current situation. Looking at these early news items and interviews it becomes clear that the gap between ambition and funding has been a characteristic of the museum since its founding over thirty years ago when MoCA was created by an unusual coalition of artists, collectors, and downtown business interests, each with very different interests at heart.

In the late 70s artists and collectors were still deeply troubled by the loss of the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art in what had been essentially a  the hostile take-over by the mega-wealthy Norton Simon, who had “saved’ that museum from an unsupportable deficit while abandoning its mission to present modern and contemporary art and turning it into a vanity project showcasing his own collection of pre-modern art. There was also a shared disappointment with the decade-long failure of the civic museum, LACMA, to address contemporary and local art in any meaningful way. Artists felt they had no hometown support; and collectors lacked the essential validation that comes when a network of professional curators have the necessary institutional support to do the research and present compelling narratives of the best local and national art.

Driven by a mixture of civic pride and self-interest, these determined art mavens were ultimately able to persuade downtown real estate interests that the first museum of contemporary art in the United States would add cachet to the Bunker Hill development, and earn it valuable tax breaks. The deal gave the nascent museum a valuable location near the city’s most visible cultural venue, the Music Center. But it was also in a forbiddingly corporate environment, surrounded by inaccessible office towers, cut off from the lively street life of nearby Broadway, and—a crucial misstep in a car dependent city like Los Angeles—without its own parking. 

Despite these serious limitations everyone shared in the upbeat delusion that such a shiny new thing would attract millions of visitors from across the region and around the world, upping rents and hotel and restaurant revenue, and generally helping revive business in downtown while providing the local art scene with the kind of museum support it needed to grow.

An Exciting First Director

While MoCA was still more of an idea than a reality, Sam Francis and Robert Irwin, two of the artists on the board, scored a coup in persuading Pontus Hulten, the founding director of the Centre Pompidou, to leave Paris and become the first director of the new museum. Hulten was one of the most highly respected museum professionals in Europe, with a long career promoting American Pop art and related interdisciplinary forms with populist appeal. He came to Los Angeles with ambitions to develop surveys of American art through the lens of automobile culture and Hollywood, and envisioned working in a space that would be large enough and flexible enough to allow the same kind of depth he had achieved in Paris. 

None of this materialized. Once in Los Angeles Hulten discovered that the museum was committed to the jewel-box like design of Arata Isozaki and the Bunker Hill site. He did work to develop another, larger space more suitable to present the sprawling forms of contemporary art, but the Temporary Contemporary (now the Geffen) was not to be ready for several years—too long a wait. In addition he grew frustrated with the American reality that a museum director is an administrator with the primary responsibility of soliciting funds from private sources, and not the kind of curatorial impresario he preferred to be. He quickly returned to Europe, but not before he and his chief curator, Richard Koshalek, persuaded the Italian collector Count Guiseppe Panza de Biumo to endow the museum with a significant portion of his astonishingly rich collection of mostly Minimal and post-Minimal contemporary art, much of it from California artists. Hulten’s vision for MoCA was to establish a west coast version of the Pompidou, a venue capable of mounting intellectually demanding investigations of all aspects of visual culture while also nurturing a world class collection of contemporary art; when he realized that he did not have adequate space or money, he went home.

One Director Job, Two Opposing Goals

Koshalek inherited the job, and the contradictory ambitions. When the museum finally opened it was a game changer, firmly putting the Los Angeles art world on the map. People admired the Isozaki building, but loved the Temporary, a space that could do justice to the best art being made anywhere. And since Koshalek was a very persuasive fund-raiser he never really had to resolve the underlying tension inherent in his job. But the funding never matched the ambition and in the 20-plus years from the opening until the financial crash of 2008, there were certainly times when the Temporary lay unused. There were stretches when it seemed the collection had been put forever languished in storage. Throughout, the curatorial team consistently mounted a range of important, thought-provoking and satisfying shows, and for the most part, the art world was satisfied.

In time Koshalek moved on, leaving the task of sorting out the budgetary mess to his unfortunate and apparently unwitting successor, Jeremy Strick. Then the financial crash exposed the impossibility of the museum’s position, and having spent down the endowment, Strick had to go, as did many of the trustees.

It was not simply that they had failed in their fiduciary responsibilities; they had not even tried to shape an argument for their vision of the musuem’s future and had thus been unable to garner support. As the full dimension of the crisis unfolded, a good number of curators sought refuge elsewhere. The museum seemed headed for disaster.

Jeffrey Deitch to the Rescue?

Jeffery Deitch was an unexpected choice as the new director, but not a crazy one. He came of age in the mid-70s under the tutelage of Andy Warhol and Leo Castelli, and has a long history promoting experimental art in ways Pontus Hulten would have recognized. The fact that he had done most of his work in the commercial system was a source of unease for many. Others were troubled that he was an art dealer, but it turned out that perceived conflicts of interest were not the problem. Deitch’s difficulty has been a managerial one; with his experience as the sole proprietor of a small business he expects to have his way. He came to MoCA unprepared for the complex interplay of interests and ideas characteristic of non-profit organizations. Like colleges and universities, museums are concerned with the processes of knowledge creation; final results like exhibitions or publications are obviously important, but the institution itself exists to nurture the process of discovery, and that task requires an extraordinary degree of cooperative self-management. This is why the idea that any one person could be both museum director and chief curator seemed so wrong to so many. It seemed a recipe for turning MoCA into a vehicle for a very narrow argument supported by an increasingly stagnant collection.

A Museum at Crossroads  

It is truly good news that a search is now on for a new chief curator, for now MoCA and its broad constituency can enter into the long deferred debate about the future. Now Deitch gets to lead a far-reaching conversation about the mission of the museum.

Is there a way to sustain Pontus Hulten’s expansive vision, or must MoCA find a way to retrench? Can it do enough if its only venue is the iconic Grand Street building? This would imply a greater degree of attention on the collection, with a limited program of modestly conceived, good-looking shows like The Painting Factory that examine a limited section of contemporary art practice.

Or, does it make more sense to sell that building and refurbish the Geffen? This would allow more flexible space for the expansive shows that have been such a signature of MoCA’s success over the years, from Helter Skelter to Art in the Streets. It would also limit the museum’s ability to explore its collection in any depth, and remove it from the now more substantial civic/cultural nexus on Bunker Hill.

Beyond these practical questions lurks the larger issue of the contemporary itself. When MoCA was conceived there was a developing consensus that modernity had become an historical concept, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York found itself at a fork in the road; could it find a way to continue working with living artists, or should it focus on the task of re-evaluating the great body of work that made up its collection? Is “contemporary art” now also an historical concept, a way to understand the Minimal, Post-Minimal and Conceptual art forms that make up the bulk of MoCA’s collection? Or are we in a post-contemporary moment when non-schooled, non-professionalized forms like street art are in the ascendant and ought to be the proper subject of the museum’s attention?

This should be interesting. 

Thomas Lawson is an artist, the dean of the School of Art at CalArts, and editor-in-chief of East of Borneo.

Photograph courtesy

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