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Hammer Museum's Controversial Mohn Award Returns - With a Twist

Meleko Mokgosi's paintings in the Hammer Museum's 2012 "Made in L.A." exhibit won him the inaugural $100,000 Mohn Award.
Meleko Mokgosi's paintings in the Hammer Museum's 2012 "Made in L.A." exhibit won him the inaugural $100,000 Mohn Award.
PHOTO BY BRIAN FORREST

The Mohn Award launched in 2012 as Los Angeles' first $100,000 art prize, given to an outstanding artist in the Hammer Museum's biennial "Made in L.A." survey of local, contemporary art. Now it's back and, like any good Hollywood sequel, it's sporting some extra bells and whistles.

For this year's biennial, which runs June 15 through Sept. 7, there will be not one but three awards: The Mohn Award itself, which remains $100,000 and includes the publication of a book on the winner's work, plus a Career Achievement Award of $25,000 and a Public Recognition Award of $25,000. The first two will be decided by an appointed jury while the last will be decided by public vote. All three awards are funded by Jarl and Pamela Mohn - collectors of minimalist and Light & Space artists such as James Turrell and John McCracken -  and the Mohn Family Foundation.

The splashy debut of the Mohn Award generated international media attention along with a firestorm of debate in the local art community. A jury of arts professionals chose five finalists for the $100,000 prize, with the ultimate winner chosen by public vote.Many in the city's close-knit artist community were uncomfortable with both the huge award and its American Idol - style voting structure, which they felt would lead to competitive behavior, a watered-down appreciation of the art at hand and a predictably crowd-pleasing winner. There also was some confusion about the uneven playing field, as the biennial included both older, well-established artists such as Simone Forti and those fresh out of graduate school, including the winner, Meleko Mokgosi. Other art-world onlookers debated the merits of turning a museum art show into a reality TV-style spectacle.Members of the general public, it turns out, also were disgruntled, complaining to museum personnel that they resented the finalists being chosen for them - they, too, wanted a purer process in which they could vote for whomever they pleased.

The new award structure took into consideration all of these concerns. Following the announcement of Mokgosi as the winner, the Hammer Museum held two in-depth debriefing sessions with staff members, members of its Artist Council and some artists from the first biennial. During those sessions, the various constituents talked and argued at length, with little held back.

See also: "American Idol Meets the Museum," L.A. Weekly's chronicle of the first Mohn Award

Jarl Mohn attended one of the sessions. "It was eye-opening," he says by phone from his Santa Monica office. "There was every variation of opinion, from being fine with the award to not wanting one at all. I was fearful at first that there might be too many opinions for a workable solution, but I like a challenge."

As a former executive for E! and MTV Networks and the current board chairman of KPCC, Mohn is no stranger to negotiating consensus. He went home and gave it some deep thought, eventually coming back with a proposal for the current structure and chipping in an extra $50,000 for two additional prizes.

"I had a very clear goal for this award - to make a dramatic statement about the breadth and quality of the work being created in L.A. today," he says. "But if my ideas don't work for the artist, it's kind of dumb. For this to work, everybody has to be in agreement. I really commend the Hammer for their openness in this process. It's made possible what I like to call a collaboration - something that works for everybody - not a compromise, which implies that you are giving up opportunities or watering them down."

Mohn's presence in the process made a crucial difference to the artists, whose anxieties waned considerably when they saw how amenable he was to constructive discussion. Meg Cranston, who showed in the first biennial and also sits on the Artist Council, gives credit as well to the museum. "Some people think of dissension as a sign of instability, but for the Hammer it's actually a sign of the health, vitality and security of the organization," she says.

Artist Council co-chair Lisa Anne Auerbach, who in 2012 was vocal about her displeasure with the award, concurs that the new structure is a better solution than the first one. "Having a professional jury is a good idea for the big award," she says. "The smaller public award now makes that part of it more of a fun thing."

 

Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin calls the new awards structure a "fantastic solution. We pride ourselves on being an artist-centric institution, and we wanted to make sure first and foremost that their concerns were heard. At the same time, however, we really wanted to keep the public-participation aspect of the award. This is a new thrust in our reality, giving people the power to participate more actively in their culture, and we have to acknowledge it. We can't pretend that this trend doesn't exist and doesn't have significance."

When asked if she would change the award again should more controversy erupt this year, Philbin's answer was an emphatic no. "At some point you just have to make an executive decision," she says. "We made the mistake of not consulting the artists the first time out - this time, we consulted plenty. If we consulted again, we'd be overdoing it. There will always be someone who's unhappy with the result."Additional changes are in store this year. The exhibition, curated by Hammer chief curator Connie Butler and independent writer-curator Michael Ned Holte, will be smaller, comprising only 30 to 40 artists, instead of the sprawling 60 featured in the previous outing. And the multiple venues, which proved too taxing for art seekers and award voters last year, have been eliminated in favor of confining the exhibition to the Hammer.

The jury this time out will have three members (down from last year's four): Jack Bankowsky, an Artforum editor and Art Center College of Design faculty member; Naomi Beckwith, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and Apsara DiQuinzio, curator of modern and contemporary art at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. A complete list of participating artists will be released in late February.

Meanwhile, the Mohn Games, a betting pool started by a group of artists and friends (full disclosure: This writer is a member of that group) is still in effect, with a $1,000 pot (which includes a $500 match from Mohn) rolled over from the last pool, which no one won, since no one placed money on Mokgosi. Ever the good sport, Mohn happily declared that he would match the pool again.

When asked for advice on how to restructure a betting pool in response to the new award structure - which makes it possible for one artist to win two of the available awards - he offered the following: "Keep it simple. And think about how to have the most fun. Because you gotta have fun, right?"


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