In 2009 MOCA had miraculously survived a financial crisis that left them vulnerable to bankruptcy and acquisition. After receiving an infusion of capital that required them to tighten their belts, the museum was anxious to move forward when they announced their new attitude under the guise of a turnaround campaign called “MOCA New”. When that didn’t work, its trustees went on a media blitz that called for “A Different MOCA” that needed to focus on curatorial rigor vs celebrity-driven content. That was 2012, and since then, MOCA has tried to regain its curatorial footing while remaining fiscally sound. When they hired Helen Molesworth in 2014, she brought institutional gravitas and delivered an expanded curatorial vision that was inclusive among artists and visitors. When MOCA fired Molesworth this week, they managed to prove once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
MOCA was conceived by a group of artists in 1978 and in the years to follow it grew an impressive, internationally recognized collection of contemporary art. MOCA’s evolution led to some growing pains when its leadership shifted away from artists in favor of business leaders who would bankroll the sizable endowment required to run a world-class institution.
At the beginning of the financial crisis of 2008, MOCA’s fiscal leadership was in dire straights as they depleted their endowment from $38.2M to $5M and the museum was desperate for an influx of cash. Eli Broad stepped in and pledged to invest up to $30M in MOCA—a vital lifeline that turned into a lit fuse. The museum thought they had turned a corner by 2009, but in 2010 Jeffrey Deitch was brought in to lead the museum during a 3 year period marked by controversy and internal strife. While Deitch brought buzz, younger visitors, and one record-breaking, boundary-pushing show, I can’t forget that the fact that he unleashed James Franco on us which ushered in a period of celebrity-laden spectacle. When the museum gutted its curatorial ranks in 2012 with their firing of Paul Schimmel, MOCA once again raised eyebrows as they showcased their struggle to define themselves within the changing cultural landscape of Los Angeles. When the Times reported that board member Eli Broad fired Schimmel after a board vote, it exposed the blurred lines of leadership between the museum and its trustees. Leaders lead and boards govern, but as Deitch assumed curatorial duties in addition to his responsibilities as director, the board of trustees became more emboldened to expand their scope into the day-to-day management of the museum.
After Schimmel was fired in 2012, Deitch assumed additional curatorial duties that left the museum in a programming limbo with anemic fundraising. After he announced plans for his 1970’s New York club scene redux called Fire in the Disco, Deitch was dismissed. Philippe Vergne was brought in from DIA to take over as Director and he quickly hired Molesworth in 2014; it was a promising move that once again signaled a new era for the museum. Molesworth’s programming was inclusive and her impact on the museum was immediate. For me, slight gestures made a big impact-just moving the two Giacometti sculptures during the Art of Our Time exhibit was a refreshing change, and it became the museum I always looked forward to visiting. As a curator, Molesworth was highly visible and deeply engaged in the community. When she brought Kahlil Joseph’s Double Conscience to MOCA in 2015 it marked a palpable shift in their cultural programming that signaled that artists and visitors of color were welcome. Her 2015 work with the late Noah Davis resulted in a strategic partnership that fulfilled the mission of the Underground Museum and expanded MOCA’s reach into black and brown communities that have not historically been served by our cultural institutions. Finally in 2017 Molesworth brought Kerry James Marshall’s record-breaking retrospective Mastry to Los Angeles, signaling another seismic shift in programming. Molesworth built a small diverse curatorial staff and expanded inclusive programming to include the critically acclaimed Anna Maria Maiolino PST LA/LA show, Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s mural project, Lauren Halsey’s recent show, we still here, there.
What Molesworth didn’t do was suffer fools gladly, and her insistence on curating diverse work alienated donors whose collections lacked depth. In losing Molesworth, Los Angeles potentially loses an important cultural bridge; while I’m sad, I’m certainly not surprised. If there’s any silver lining here, I’m confident that the emerging curators and artists that have recently taken up residence in Los Angeles are uniquely equipped to build new bridges, inspired by the work that Molesworth championed. Once again, MOCA takes the L; while I’ve always rooted for this museum to win, they continue to find themselves stuck in a spectacle that has become a tired, familiar pattern that we no longer want to see.
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