The crisis at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, which exploded with the June 27 ouster of longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel but has been simmering since the museum's near financial collapse in 2009, has provoked nonstop international media coverage over the last few weeks.
At the heart of the discussion is the sustainability of museums and what their role should be in a shifting cultural and economic climate. How should museums address their audiences in the 21st century? What can they do to remain both socially relevant and financially solvent? What should their programs and outreach look like?
Eli Broad, MOCA's trustee and biggest donor, and museum director Jeffrey Deitch appear to believe that they can bring in a bigger and younger crowd by enlisting Hollywood celebrities to both curate and exhibit in shows, and that this “populist” approach will eventually build a more “cost-effective” museum. Their critics point out that after two years of celebrity-oriented shows, MOCA is as far in the hole as it ever was, while its once-lauded programs have lost significant depth, rigor and quality.
After resigning from the board in protest along with artists Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, artists Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie memorably noted, “Parties and galas are OK, but sometimes these things called 'museums' have to have things called 'exhibitions.'” In rebuttal, new MOCA board member Wallis Annenberg put out her own statement, in which she huffed, “There's great irony in those who would cling to an old formula, as if this were a museum of paleontology and not one whose purpose is to celebrate the new and the modern.”
While many stellar commentators have discussed the crisis, with “the current cultural landscape” and “the youth demographic” hanging over much of the debates, we have so far heard very little from people who are either young or directly connected to the current cultural landscape.
In an attempt to correct this balance a bit, we sought the opinions of artists and writers age 30 and under who are deeply engaged in the Los Angeles art scene, asking them: What kind of MOCA do you want? What would make it a relevant contemporary art museum for you? Their answers are below.
Kenneth Tam, 30, artist:
As someone who's been to enough Deitch Projects [Deitch's gallery before he took over MOCA in 2010] openings and shows in New York, I know firsthand how savvy he was in appealing to a younger audience. That position was fine to have within the confines of a commercial gallery, but for an institution like MOCA to adopt that style of programming seems like folly for the long term, and most artists I know share that outlook. The MOCA I would want is one with an active and robust conversation with the concerns of contemporary art; it should showcase more emerging/midcareer artists, from L.A. or abroad, and find a balance between massive, sweeping shows and more intimately scaled exhibitions. MOCA should embrace the challenge of presenting the many complications of contemporary art to the widest possible audience by creating an environment that supports such work, instead of running from that responsibility. It must not choose the path of least resistance.
Melinda Guillen, 28, writer, curator and Ph.D. student in art history:
I don't understand Mr. Deitch's preoccupation with a supposed “climate of change.” It's used to justify the ousting of respected people at MOCA that have fought tooth and nail to produce programming that challenges the prevailing reductive and harmful stereotypes of cultural production in Los Angeles — that we are no more than a confused, celebrity-obsessed city lacking in rigor and engagement. You want celebrities to party at MOCA? That's fine. But how does that necessitate the elimination of critically rigorous initiatives like Engagement Party [MOCA's showcase for artist collectives and socially engaged practices, which now appears defunct following the ouster of founder Aandrea Stang]? How come we aren't invited to the party anymore, Mr. Deitch? Why are we being shunned in favor of the Hot Topic-fication of MOCA?
Travis Diehl, 26, artist:
MOCA's decline is an incredibly demoralizing spectacle — a slow public illness. Deitch as director was a corporate-minded decision from the beginning, and the predictable symptoms are now taking hold. I would prefer to see a MOCA not much different from the one that existed pre-Deitch: an institution that is comfortable with its own slow metabolism. It seems to me that the museum is the one place that has the luxury of time, that doesn't need to respond to the pressures of trends but can instead spend months and years in careful consideration of projects. That is how good, solid history gets made — and that's how you lay the groundwork for further experimentation. I don't want to see a “dead,” rotten institution, but the museum is a mausoleum by definition, and that's a great thing.
Patrick Michael Ballard, 24, artist:
I imagine this time period in Los Angeles art will largely leave many amazing talents and thinkers unrecognized within the walls of MOCA. It is amazing and sad to think that we, in a time when art scholarship has come so far, have somehow let this happen. When I think about what kind of MOCA I would like to see, I think of one that represents the entire spectrum of audiences for art — the people who make it, the connoisseurs and the broader public. I want to see an institution that takes chances or flights of conceptual fancy in every direction: digging into the various trajectories of Los Angeles art, shooting outward to bring artists of other origins into its walls, and perhaps even using spectacles to generate public interest in the museum. I want to see MOCA not only challenge its art audience but also challenge entertainment to get better, deeper and more engaged in underlying critical problems. (Does anyone remember The Twilight Zone?)
Tracy Molis, 27, artist:
As an L.A. native who now lives in New York, I can attest that the artists I know are perplexed by MOCA's current situation. How on earth can people be convinced that Jeff Koons and disco are somehow at the forefront of a “new” museum movement? The new programming makes L.A. far less relevant to the young (and youthful-at-heart) international art world. I have bonded with artists from Frankfurt and London over L.A. artists like Robert Heinecken and others exhibited at MOCA over the years. Why not put on shows by artists from all over the world who have been influenced by the city's internationally respected art culture, made famous by Paul Schimmel? While the current museum leadership has some good exhibitions scheduled (like Mark Bradford), if they truly had an interest in making history in Los Angeles, they wouldn't have canceled the retrospective of Jack Goldstein, an incredibly influential artist to future generations. Fortunately, L.A. still has the Hammer, LACMA and scores of alternative spaces like Machine Project, where cutting-edge ideas can continue to generate and make history.
Lee Rachel Foley, 26, co-director of Actual Size, an artist-run space in Chinatown:
At one point I and several of my colleagues were open-minded and intrigued that Jeffrey Deitch had the bravery to take on the challenge of running MOCA. It was amusing to see that he attended small performance-art events and a wild New Year's Eve party. In an interview for Bad at Sports, he described the art world in contrast to the Hollywood film industry: “It's a special place where people who want to be serious are treated seriously. It certainly applied in the 1970s, and it still applies now. And it's a situation where people who have a vision and ambition are able to realize it, starting with nothing.” In his stewardship of MOCA, Deitch seems to have forgotten about this sense of community, especially in relation to celebrity influence and the movie industry.
Corrie Siegel, 27, co-director of Actual Size:
I believe in the integrity of Los Angeles. I believe people are looking for content. Blockbuster exhibitions and sensational events are great, but it's a disservice to the institution and the people it pulls in if there is not an opportunity to engage more deeply with the subject matter. When museums are at their best they are alive, they give the work they exhibit a voice and let it speak with the visitors that encounter it. The arts are flourishing all over Los Angeles — in storefronts, museums, apartment spaces, pop-up stores, on the web and all the cracks between. It's because of the innovation, excitement, generosity, thoughtful attention, critical discourse and collaboration of individuals that Los Angeles is such a dynamic city and art capital. This is the great decentralized place that fostered artists who took history and institutional constructs into their own hands to form MOCA, and this is the place that can fix MOCA.