Even before MOCA’s Ecstasy is about the art in the show, it is a really good example of an arts institution doing lots of things right — and a show that could really only happen in LA. I’m going to do two posts on Ecstasy today. This first one is about the idea of the show and not the art. The second post will be about the art.
Ecstasy asserts the role of the contemporary art curator, positioning him somewhere between exhibitor and evangelist. Too many contemporary art curators make shows for each other, exploring narrow concerns within obscure sub-categories. MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel’s Ecstasy is an exhibit intended to share contemporary art with people who want to go to a contemporary art museum but are afraid they won’t understand what they’re looking at. It’s also a show smart enough that everyone this side of the New Criterion will enjoy the heck out of it.
Ecstasy could never happen in New York or Washington, mostly because those cities don’t have a sprawling, single-floor space in which a seemingly random show could be installed. Maybe one of the reasons New York (and Washington) don’t offer interesting group shows is because much contemporary art is tuck-proof and can’t be shoehorned into square, vertical spaces built to conform to the urban grid. MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary is somewhere between a parking lot, Little Tokyo, a masturbating Dov Charney, and LA’s City Hall. (When I walked out of Ecstasy and looked up at City Hall, made famous around the world as the phallic visual lynchpin of the TV series Dragnet, I laughed myself into an altered state as I remembered Dragnet’s moralizing anti-drug preachiness.)
Finally (for this post), this show is a wicked argument against government funding of arts institutions. Can you imagine how politicians would use this show if MOCA received substantial public funding? (Nevermind that there’s plenty of plausible deniability built into the exhibit.) Fortunately for the artists, the curator and for us, only one percent of MOCA’s FY 2004 revenue came from government grants (that’s pretty close to its recent norm, too). The result is an institution free to welcome visitors into an exhibit with an allegedly drug-laced fountain, an immediate challenge to the viewer. Do you believe? Or are you at least willing to suspend belief? Can you imagine this show at the National Gallery of Art? (The NGA version of this show is here.)
Related: I Get My Show on the Road.