Klaus Biesenbach’s Sudden Departure from MOCA Leaves Lingering Questions

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s director seemed happy to lead the museum with a partner—until he wasn’t

Like contemporary art, Klaus Biesenbach is an acquired taste. Since he took over as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in February 2018, the German-born, 54-year-old eccentric—affectionally known as Cashmere Klaus—has drawn a lot of fire for paying more attention to his celebrity pals (like Yoko Ono and Patti Smith) than to increasing diversity at an institution headed by a long succession of white men. After curator Mia Locks quit last April (emailing the staff that “MOCA’s leadership is not yet ready to fully embrace IDEA,” an acronym for inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility), followed by the resignation of human resources director Carlos Viramontes (also citing a “hostile environment”), Biesenbach was given a new job title, artistic director. The change was seen by many in the art world as a demotion, as the MOCA board launched a search for a partner to help Biesenbach run the museum in what was being presented as a new power-sharing leadership structure.

Turns out there won’t be much sharing, at least not in the immediate future. Just days after MOCA announced on September 2 that Johanna Burton, director of the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, was being brought on as executive director, Biesenbach quit MOCA to return to Berlin and run Neue Nationalgalerie and the Museum of the 20th Century. Although Biesenbach initially praised Burton’s hiring—“I personally could not have asked for a more gifted and inspiring person to lead MOCA with,” he posted on Instagram—his sudden resignation raised more than a few eyebrows. As one Angeleno familiar with the inner workings of the institution put it to Los Angeles: “He must have been very insulted by this demotion to have sharpened his knives like this, just waiting for the perfect moment to resign. Who knew he had it in him? It kind of makes me like him a little more.”

Of course, the last 19 months have been challenging for MOCA, which was hemorrhaging money during the pandemic shutdowns (it laid off 97 part-time employees) as Biesenbach ran the show via Zoom from his famously minimalistic downtown-adjacent loft (where, until recently, he lived with his pet goose, Cupcakes). But he leaves L.A. with some accomplishments under his belt, such as bringing in new board members like Berlin megacollector Julia Stoschek and heavyweight New York philanthropist Marina Kellen French. By mid-September, however, Biesenbach was already in Berlin for the first time in two years, posting a photo from the studio of artist Olafur Eliasson. His grin was positively Cheshire.

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