And then there were none: Yesterday Ed Ruscha resigned from the MOCA board, the latest development in a brutal three-week stretch for what was once America’s most respected museum dedicated to contemporary art.
Ruscha’s departure, announced by his wife Danna on the Facebook page of Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, leaves zero artists on MOCA’s board. (Don’t miss Knight’s latest, on the artist-resignations.) Before Ruscha’s departure, John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie all resigned. None were specifically protesting the museum’s firing of chief curator Paul Schimmel, but Schimmel’s ouster was plainly the motivating event. As if that wasn’t enough, four of MOCA’s life trustees, the art lovers who were important in building MOCA from scratch into a top collecting and scholarly institution, blasted Deitch and the MOCA board in an almost unprecedented letter to the Los Angeles Times. [Image: Jeff Koons, Cracked Egg (Red), 1994-2006. Collection of The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica, Calif.]
Not that the last year or so at MOCA had been going particularly well before that: The museum’s only real critical hit has been “Ends of the Earth,” an exhibition that was developed under former director Jeremy Strick. (The show was originally conceived as a project that would bring the history of land art into the present, complete with a daring Christoph Buchel commission.) As I noted last month, recent MOCA exhibitions have included a show curated by a B-list film and soap opera actor and staged in a furniture dealer’s gallery, a Dennis Hopper retrospective quickly thrown together by a friend of the actor’s, and a critically panned post-Warhol show. I can’t remember MOCA’s last major acquisition. Still, Deitch recently described his program as “one of the most rigorous… in the country.”
Last week, in an apparent effort to add some WTF to the situation, Deitch inexplicably announced a disco exhibit via an interview with Gallerist NY. (‘From one Gallerist NY to another,’ a friend quipped.) That planned exhibition helped encourage Baldessari to split: “When I heard about that disco show, I had to read it twice,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
So, the key question is: what now? It would be reasonable to hope that such a catyclismic few weeks, effectively a gutting of the heart, soul and brains of an institution, that the remaining MOCA trustees would realize that the last couple years have been a titanic mistake. While none of them is talking about all this with the media — and Deitch’s most recent interview primarily addressed disco — there is no indication that the remaining MOCAns have any regrets. They’re standing by their man, who is stayin’ alive.
Paths to institutional recovery — let alone to redemption — seem non-existent. There’s virtually no chance that Deitch’s program will attract traditional funders, funders to whom intellectual engagement and quality scholarship matter. (Of course, at the end of Strick’s tenure, MOCA’s board was already failing to support that kind of work.)
In other words, it’s hard to see this situation getting better any time soon. The next two opportunities for a MOCA recovery will come in several years: at the end of Deitch’s tenure, and when Eli Broad turns his attention to the forthcoming Broad Art Museum. Once they’re both out of the boardroom, maybe a coalition of old MOCA leaders, new MOCA leaders and a respected local foundation or two will coalesce to offer a new path. Then maybe they can retire the current trustee leadership and try to resurrect the institution. That’s a long-shot, a long way off and it’s optimism that’s long on hope and short on specifics. But for now, that’s all we’ve got.