Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

So, what next at MOCA?

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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.”

(Remarkably, MOCA’s mismanagement of MOCA managed to make a near-decade-old scholarly paper on museum metrics success such an internet hit that even the New York Times picked up on it.)

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.

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  1. Lisa says:

    It’s hard to see this getting any better.

    The Board co-chairs, Maria Arena Bell and David G. Johnson, are truly clueless — egotistic entertainment industry people who want everyone to think that they “saved” and revitalized MoCA, when in fact they have helped destroy it. And everyone knows it but them.

  2. Peteykins says:

    I’m really on the fence about this one. If LA MoCA wishes to be a totally craven, commercial institution allied with fashion designers, celebrities, and shameless hacks like Sheppard Fairey (whoa, sounds like the Guggenheim when I describe it that way!)… it actually seems kind of appropriate for Los Angeles, doesn’t it?

  3. Contemporary art is,generally speaking,short on “intellectual engagement and quality scholarship”,in fact, that really isn’t the raison d’etre for most of it…so for starters,MOCA needs a new “revitalized” mission…first of all,figure out what contemp art really is…and isn’t(as opposed to culture schlock 101),and find a new savy,hip museum Director and Curator,and Board of Trustees that includes a majority of artists and those who really “get” contemp art,to float the boat…because,clearly,the Titanic’s been hit by an iceberg,and is rapidly sinking!

  4. Christopher Knight says:

    Ms. Fennessey: The post says it’s the art museum, not art, for which “intellectual engagement and quality scholarship matter.”

  5. Stephen says:

    There’s a book in this somewhere, entitled “Death of a museum.”

  6. Mat Gleason says:

    Deitch and Schimmel had a LOT in common. Schimmel was not some hermetic scholar, he loved the bombastic blockbuster as much or more than Deitch. The bottom line is that nobody is funding MOCA. The folks who used to write those seven figure checks are creating their own institutions. MOCA needs celebrity cache to attract a country club LA funding base. Sure there will be ewer shows featuring Ann Goldstein’s scholarly husband Christopher Williams in them along the way and some crowd pleaser turkeys as well. There really isn’t a need to mourn the loss of an illusion of some golden era.

  7. Gleason nails it. The art world has been courting popularity for half a century now, it just happens to be invested in the intellectual-theoretical arguments to distance the motivation from its craven origins. But when push comes to shove, what is the philosophical difference between a show organized around a sensationalized serial killer and a show about disco? Could it be there is some racism at work here? Helter Skelter = serious white thinking. Disco = trashy black idiocy.

  8. MacCruiskeen says:

    Sure, why not a disco show? It’s as much “contemporary” as Warhol or Rauschenberg. And more intellectually challenging than Koons.

  9. Cinesis says:

    Kathleen Fennessey is right. No one is considering the fact that “contemporary art” was garbage thrown on the wall – and on the floor. There may or may not have been valid concepts in conceptualism but they are concepts – not objects.

    I worked at the MOCA in 1995/96 and have even had one of my videos exhibited at what was the Temporary Contemporary. The “art” was poignant in the 80s and 90s, but it is no longer. They were a major engine for promoting the demise of culture – what do they expect will happen to their museum once the culture they were built to attack finally fails?

    California in general is disintegrating under leftist multicultural fetishism, and MOCA is suffering that fate as well.

    At least they got Kenneth Anger the exhibition he deserves before they really fell off the cliff.

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