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MOCA's Two Heads

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
WHEN RICHARD KOSHALEK LEFT New York's Hudson River Museum in 1980 to become deputy director at MOCA, the museum had $50,000, was without a permanent
facility, and was still in the process of inventing itself. Two years later, Koshalek was made director of MOCA when its original director, Pontus Hulten, left in a huff. Over the past 17 years, Koshalek has played a critical role in developing MOCA's permanent collection, which now totals more than 4,000 works, cultivating a forceful and stable board, and winning the respect of the international art community. When Koshalek leaves MOCA on June 30, he'll holiday in Europe for seven weeks, then put in an appearance at the Sun Valley Writers Conference. After that it's back to work. On September 7 he begins his new gig as president of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

 

L.A. Weekly: What led to your decision to leave MOCA?

Richard Koshalek: I have the instincts of a builder, and I'm not excited by the details of maintenance -- my interest is in creating things from scratch. I felt I'd done what I set out to do at MOCA and that it was time to slip away quietly -- in fact, I actually had it in mind to change my name and just disappear. The idea of building a school intrigued me, however, and I thought that getting involved with the educational process of artists would be a nice way to continue what we did at MOCA.

Do you feel emotional about leaving? Is there anything you anticipate missing?

I wasn't emotional about it when I made the decision to leave five years ago, and I'm not emotional now. I feel it's the right thing to do, and I like that I made my own decision. I'll miss working on shows with artists, and I'll miss several members of the board who've become dear friends. I've loved all the travel involved with my work at MOCA, but that's something I don't intend to give up.

I'm sure you've had other offers since you announced your resignation; did you consider any of them?

No. There was speculation I'd take the directorship of the Menil Collection, but I never considered it, because I've done the museum thing. There was conversation with Sotheby's and Christie's, and an agent from the entertainment industry expressed interest in working with me. I'm a sports nut and I considered going into sports, but I don't have the experience. I took a sabbatical in 1993 and went on the road with the Forty-Niners for three months, and I realized then it's a complicated world, and that you can't just walk in the door and be part of it. ã

How has MOCA changed during your tenure as director?

It's become stable. Early on there were a few times when MOCA almost imploded. I'm thinking in particular of 1982, when Pontus Hulten left. The board was struggling to develop a working methodology, leadership was trying to emerge, the architecture was in trouble -- there was lots of upheaval, but it all sorted itself out with time. When I became director, I made a list of 25 museums internationally that we wanted to do business with, and we've worked with every single one of them. MOCA's now recognized as a major forum for dealing with issues of contemporary art -- in other words, the museum has grown up.

You were trained as an architect and have said that if you can find the time, you plan to enter some architectural competitions in the next few years. You've also collaborated with curator Elizabeth Smith on a massive survey of 20th-century architecture titled "At the End of the Century" that debuted last year in Tokyo, opens this month in Cologne, then travels to Chicago, L.A. and South America. You obviously know a bit about architecture; what do you now think of MOCA's buildings?

I like the Geffen Contemporary a lot, but if I had the Grand Street facility to do over again, I'd do a different building. But this is no reflection on [Arata] Isozaki, who is a brilliant architect.

Over the course of your tenure at MOCA, government funding of the arts decreased dramatically; fund-raising has presumably become an ever more pressing part of being a museum director.

Yes. MOCA needs a yearly budget of between $10 and $15 million. Our endowment gives us $2 million, so every year we have to come up with the balance of the budget. The board is helpful with raising money, but the responsibility for funding essentially falls on the staff. People are always telling me, 'Richard, you lead such a glamorous life, you go to dinner parties constantly,' but it's exhausting. The social demands of a job like MOCA are just unbelievable, and you can assume that anyone whose name appears as a donor to MOCA is someone I've had meals with and gotten to know. Jeremy Strick strikes me as a scholarly, contemplative man, but he's gonna have to hustle, because it's part of the job.

Is it possible to be a museum director without making enemies?

No. That doesn't make me the least bit uncomfortable, however, because I accept that it's just part of the deal.

Which MOCA exhibitions have meant the most to you?

The Ad Reinhardt show, because I believe in his work so much. The Richard Serra show, which was my last show as director. The architecture survey I curated with Elizabeth Smith, "The End of the Century," Paul Schimmel's "Out of Actions," the Bob Irwin retrospective -- I could go on.

What's your favorite work in MOCA's permanent collection?

Jackson Pollock's No. 1, 1949 -- it's one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. MOCA's collection owes its identity to the acquisition of the Panza collection in 1984, because it set a very high standard for our collection. It was followed by the acquisition of the Lowen collection, the Schreiber collection, the Gersh collection, a group of works from the Lannan Foundation, and Marcia Weisman's collection of works on paper. Every major collection in L.A. ended up at MOCA. Acquisitions are all about timing, and you have to stay on your toes. Take Jasper Johns' Map, which Marcia Weisman donated to MOCA. Carter Brown was after that thing with a vengeance for the National Gallery, but because he lived thousands of miles away there was a limit to how much time he could spend with Marcia. We were closer, we spent a lot of time with her, and we have the piece.

What do you consider the most troubling gap in the collection?

Bruce Nauman. We have one of his video pieces, but we should have a strong representation of his work that covers his career from the beginning to the present.

Do you agree that attendance at MOCA is less than it could be?

Attendance should be greater, there's no doubt about that, and we need to cast a wider net in terms of the audience we attempt to reach. You'd be wrong if you thought you could reach people at UCLA by taking out an ad in the L.A. Times,
because they don't read that paper. They read a different paper. The black community reads yet another paper. You have to be very sophisticated and have loads of money to spend in order to effectively market an institution like MOCA.

Ideally, how should museums function in society?

Museums are responsible for setting a standard of uncompromising commitment to quality. If that commitment is compromised for any reason -- fund-raising, increasing attendance, whatever -- the institution loses its integrity. There are always forces at work in any institution bent on corrupting that commitment, but at MOCA we've had no problem with that. That's something I'm very proud of.

What are your hopes for MOCA in the 21st century?

We've set an agenda of listening
to artists and being responsive to their thoughts on how their work can best be shown, and I hope it continues to listen to artists. I also hope it continues to take risks. The Richard Serra show, for instance, was a huge risk on every level, from funding to logistics, and I hope MOCA never backs off from challenges like that.

JEREMY STRICK, WHO ARRIVES AT MOCA on July 1 to take up his post as director of the museum, is an unknown quantity. Just 43, he comes to L.A. from the Art Institute of Chicago, where he's been a curator of 20th-century painting and sculpture since 1996, and is known for rigorously curated exhibitions of work by Louise Bourgeois, Barnett Newman, Brice Marden and Mark Rothko, among others. Self-effacing, scholarly and a trifle shy, Strick isn't the sort of guy you expect to find at the top of the corporate food chain. He concedes that Richard Koshalek will be a hard act to follow.

 

L.A. Weekly: Rumor has it you're a local boy.

Jeremy Strick: Yes. I grew up in Mar Vista and Santa Monica and went to Santa Monica High. My father [Joseph] is a filmmaker -- he directed adaptations of Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Tropic of Cancer -- and my mother is a writer who also worked in the film business. I used to visit my father on the set and I love movies, but I didn't go into the movie business for the simple reason that I fell in love with art.

Can you recall the first time you saw an artwork that meant something to you?

I was dragged to museums from the time I was very young. My parents weren't collectors, but there was art in the house -- mostly American realist paintings of the '40s and '50s -- and I had a great-uncle who was an artist, so it was a world I was always familiar with. Oddly enough, however, it never occurred to me to become an artist myself, and I didn't get seriously interested in art until high school. When I started college at UC Santa Cruz in 1973, I still didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to take art-history courses. I loved Santa Cruz, but I wanted to see what museum work was like, and that's why I did my graduate work at Harvard -- their art-history program is based in the Fogg Art Museum. My plan was to focus on 16th- and 17th-century art of Northern Europe, but I quickly moved into 19th century, which in turn took me into the 20th century. When I was young, the thing that interested me most was 20th-century art, so as it turns out, I got a historical foundation, then returned to where I'd started.

What's the central challenge the directorship of MOCA presents?

MOCA has a relatively brief history, but it's done a huge amount in a short span of time. So keeping that momentum going while making appropriate changes will be the biggest challenge.

Where might change be appropriate?

Electronic media is an area of our
programming that could be enhanced.
ã Julie Lazar [MOCA's director of experimental programs] knows this territory very well, but the museum could do more. And in recent years the development of the permanent collection hasn't been as strong as it was early in MOCA's history. There have, of course, been extraordinary acquisitions, but that's fallen off in the late '90s, and I'd like MOCA to have a reputation for collecting that's equal to its reputation for exhibitions.

What are the strengths of the collection?

Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. MOCA is preparing a show on Minimalism curated by Ann Goldstein that opens in April of 2001 and should be fantastic. It's an area that hasn't been explored in depth for a while, and it was a remarkable period.

If you could add a work to the collection, what would it be?

I have a serious interest in Gerhard Richter and would love to see him represented.

You've said attendance at MOCA is a concern "at top of the list."

Many people feel MOCA is better known internationally than it is locally, and that it's not used to the degree that it might be by a broad mix of people. I think there's some truth to that. I don't know if that's a reflection of Southern California's cultural community or of MOCA's failure to connect with the local population, but either way, it's something we want to address.

The Weekly recently ran a highly critical piece on MOCA's publications program; did you read it?

Yes, I did, and I didn't agree with it. MOCA's publications program has generated some brilliant writing and made significant contributions in terms of research.

Ideally, how should museums function in society?

Different museums have different responsibilities. A museum of contemporary art has a responsibility to show new work and to explore the historical context for that work. For instance, one of the fascinating things going on now is the globalization of contemporary art, and Paul Schimmel's working on a show called "The Global Academy" that looks at this. What you find now are art centers with specific local interests, but artists everywhere are aware of the international conversation. It's an interesting moment, because in terms of geographic spread this situation has never existed before. This is the sort of thing you want a museum like MOCA to present.

What did you miss about L.A. during the years you were away?

The fluidity and informality of the culture here.

What's the most significant change you've observed in the city?

L.A. has become much more urban and culturally confident, and that's part of the reason I jumped at the opportunity to be director of MOCA. I've always thought of myself as a Californian, yet I never expected to return here. But because MOCA is a museum I admire in a city at an artistic high point, this seemed like a special opportunity.


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