Debate Ignites in LA Over MOCA Hire

LOS ANGELES — The board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles may have voted unanimously this week to hire Klaus Biesenbach from MoMA PS1 as its new director, replacing Philippe Vergne, who resigned in May. But so far there has been little consensus outside the boardroom about his selection.

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Jori Finkel
, New York Times

LOS ANGELES — The board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles may have voted unanimously this week to hire Klaus Biesenbach from MoMA PS1 as its new director, replacing Philippe Vergne, who resigned in May. But so far there has been little consensus outside the boardroom about his selection.

Biesenbach’s supporters here maintain he has the vision and skill set to help MOCA reinvent yet again — to become a more compelling destination backed by more committed donors. The museum, which averted financial collapse a decade ago, currently has a $125 million endowment but no chief curator and a long-ineffective board. Just one example of the dysfunction that Vergne could not escape: last year, its board co-chair Maurice Marciano started his own competing museum across town.

“Maybe Klaus can do for MOCA what Michael Govan did for LACMA,” said Nicolas Berggruen, a trustee of that museum, pointing to Govan’s rebuilding of his board and his reinvention of a sleepy campus into a popular destination. Biesenbach “understands art, artists and cities and he understands museums from both sides, institutional and entrepreneurial. MOCA has a great collection and history but in other ways it is like a new startup.”

Deborah McLeod, director of the Gagosian Beverly Hills gallery, called the hire “radically good news.” Referring to Biesenbach’s experience managing the staff and board at PS1, she added, “MOCA needs this level of organizational leadership and vision. It’s really the caliber of appointment we were all hoping for.”

Well, not everyone. From other corners of the city artists and art professionals have been quick to voice concern that Biesenbach, who enjoys collaborating with pop-culture royalty like Tilda Swinton, Björk and James Franco, will reprise some of the blunders of Jeffrey Deitch’s short-lived, celebrity-studded (Franco and Dennis Hopper both had shows) tenure as MOCA director from 2010 to 2013.

At a time when leading museums are trying to diversify their staffs and audiences alike, some critics here noted that Biesenbach is another white male director in a long line of white men since the museum’s founding in 1979.

“It’s a slap in the face to the LA art world: a great disappointment, a missed opportunity of epic scope,” Shana Nys Dambrot, the arts editor of LA Weekly, posted on Facebook. “They (the Board) have apparently learned nothing from the sketchy performances of their string of (only) white men (largely) imported from New York, like we need to be saved from ourselves. No qualified LA-based professionals? No women, people of color …? No understanding of this cultural moment, certainly.” The artist Max Maslansky, responding to this reporter on Facebook, criticized the hire as the museum again “kowtowing to celebrity-culture-oriented arts administrators, who still see LA as a provincial outpost ripe for international transformation from the outside, as if its native arts culture needs an upgrade.”

Some critical responses share a nostalgia for MOCA in the days when it functioned as the serious contemporary art museum in town, offering an alternative to slicker forms of Hollywood entertainment. From its founding in 1979 until near the time it hit rock-bottom financially, in 2008, having spent its endowment down to under $10 million, MOCA was easily the most ambitious contemporary art museum here. Over that time its curators organized important retrospectives and generation-defining shows, ranging from Paul Schimmel’s 1992 bad-boy artist extravaganza “Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s” to Connie Butler’s 2007 feminist survey “WACK!”

Biesenbach, known as an advocate for new ideas and emerging artists, has had a long and largely successful run at MoMA PS1, starting at the smaller institution in 1995, when it was an artistic laboratory called the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. (It became an affiliate of The Museum of Modern Art in 2000). At MoMA, he organized the landmark show “Pipilotti Rist: Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters)” in 2008 and Marina Abramovic’s giant retrospective “The Artist is Present” in 2010, before his Björk survey in 2015 prompted intense backlash.

So has Biesenbach’s comment this week dubbing LA “the new Berlin” because so “many artists are moving there,” which irritated many artists here. They took to social media to point out that the LA art community was already active decades ago, when Berlin still had a wall.

“I would think the new MOCA director of all people should be excited about LA for its own sake and not see it through another city,” said Micol Hebron, the feminist artist and Chapman University art professor.

Reached by phone in New York, Biesenbach acknowledged that it wasn’t a great comparison. “What I wanted to say is that as a curator I follow the artists, and I have the impression that LA is the new center for emerging artists because of affordable studios.”

He also maintained that it was a mistake to think his focus is celebrity or pop culture. “I think my legacy at MoMA has different chapters; I work in series,” he said, describing a series on Mexico City, another on large-scale video and a recent program on Puerto Rico. Just one of them, he said, was devoted to “people who work between media, like Tilda, Björk and Antony and the Johnsons. It was an experiment. I’m not planning on repeating exhibitions.”

Hebron said that she was an early fan of Biesenbach’s video and performance program at MoMA PS1. “I’m not bothered by his flashiness and think some of his programs have been interesting,” she said. But she added, “I am bothered by the profile: MOCA hires middle-age white man from New York, again.”

“It’s not about the person only, it’s about the program,” Biesenbach responded, ticking off a long list of women and black artists he has championed. “I think diversity is written all over my program.”

And going forward, at MOCA, would he commit to hiring a chief curator who is not a white male? Biesenbach said that hire would not be his first step. “I’m very mindful of the need for diversity on the staff. The first thing I want to do is to talk to all the staff members there, listen carefully and figure out what they need,” he said.

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