Sunday, July 29, 2012

FBC! Will Be Dormant For The Rest Of The Summer

Howdy, thin but devoted readership!

This short message is brought to you by my cat, who you can see napping above with a favorite toy. It's Summer, FBC! Central has some other stuff to do, so barring any emergency or weird coup like a ditched Deitch  or a broad sweep of the Board at the MOCA sinking ship, there won't be any writing of note on here for quite a while.

The FBC! headquarters will be busy with many things not directly art-related save for a massive writing endeavor of the print variety that should keep us occupied for about a year and a half,  so we don't foresee much blog writing for several weeks, or even for a few months. There might be some fundraising appeal on here for that project in the next few weeks but that should be all.

Lastly, I had tried to write a blog post about how fantastic the Jack Goldstein retrospective at OCMA was but somehow that draft kept on turning into mud. So I will only urge you to drive down and see it, because it's amazing. And if you live in NYC, happiness will be bestowed upon youse as well, because the retrospective is going to the Jewish Museum in the Spring.

Ah, and incidentally, FBC! is 5 years old, yeepee! Not sure it will live to be 6, to be honest...

Have a great end of the Summer ya'all.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Incidents Of Time Travel In The MOCA Drama

[Note about the following blog post: it was written about 3 weeks ago for another online publication operating as a journal, and finished on July 5th. As every day brought a new series of articles, op-eds, letters to the Los Angeles Times (LAT),  articles in the national and international press, etc.  the journal small staff was overwhelmed and the article wasn't published. I'm posting it now with permission from the editor, unadulterated and without any updating, save for a few grammatical edits here and there.
It is written in my normal academic style, without the snark and the smirks and the jokes I usually add on the blog. Consequently it is far less fun to read than this weekend's last post, but probably easier to forward to anybody who doesn't know the current local situation in Los Angeles. Please feel free to re-post anywhere you see fit,  with appropriate due credit  given to FBC!
Lastly,  the article was written as a Word document and exported as a html Webpage; however some of the formatting might conflict with Blogger's settings, especially for the footnotes, my apologies in advance: I'm a writer, not a computer scientist.
All images © Susan Silton]

It is with a certain sense of bitter irony that the Los Angeles art community is currently witnessing the brutal slide into provincialism of our Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), as it coincides with the recent Pacific Standard Time (PST) series of exhibitions organized under the Getty’s aegis, and meant to celebrate the rich history of modern and contemporary art in Los Angeles and the city’s elevated status on the international art scene.

 Founded in 1979 by contemporary art collectors and devotees at a time when there wasn’t a local collecting institution entirely devoted to modern and contemporary art in Los Angeles, the museum was created with the mission “ […] to be the defining museum of contemporary art. MOCA engages artists and audiences through an ambitious program of exhibitions, collection, education, and publication. MOCA identifies and supports the most significant and challenging art of its time, places it in historical context, and links the range of the visual arts to contemporary culture. MOCA provides leadership by actively fostering and presenting new work, emerging media, and original scholarship.”[i]

Welcomed and supported enthusiastically by the region’s art community, the museum rose to international prominence in the following decades, with epoch-defining exhibitions such as A Forest of Sign, Helter Skelter, Out of Actions or Whack!, organizing key retrospectives for the likes of Robert Rauschenber, Martin Kippenberger or Dan Graham, acquiring major, significant artworks with the Panza di Biumo Collection, and generally supporting seminal Los Angeles-based international artists such as Mike Kelley, Charlie Ray, Andrea Zittel, Liz Larner or Edward Ruscha.

A crucial figure in articulating MOCA’s historical achievements was Chief Curator Paul Schimmel, whose announcement of his abrupt departure on June 28[ii] has created a commotion in the national and international art community, sending rumors around about its exact circumstances and what it all means for MOCA, with conflicting reports of either his firing or his resignation.
Whether Schimmel has been fired, has resigned, or been coerced into resigning, is at this stage perhaps irrelevant. More significant is MOCA’s recent statement that he won’t be replaced. Other staff members layoffs were announced on the same day; beyond Schimmel’s personal case and the natural outcry resulting from his leaving an institution shaped and defined by many of his exhibitions and acquisitions, the latest turn of events is just the very last in a series of departures that has seen both curatorial talent and financial staff steadily leaving a troubled institution.

The curatorial brain drain is the most spectacular, as MOCA has since 2007 lost its historical curators Connie Butler to MoMA, Ann Goldstein to the Amstersdam Stedelijk Museum, and  now Paul Schimmel. A more recent hire, Philipp Kaiser, is also departing the museum to take the helm of Cologne’s Ludwig Museum . As highly visible and troubling as these departures are, as they seem to denote a pattern, they are nonetheless in keeping with the high turnover that is the norm in the profession.
What is abnormal is the absence of a search for suitable replacements, which signify a lack of intellectual ambition in maintaining MOCA’s cultural standing on the international art scene. Not launching a new curatorial search to fill Schimmel and Kaiser’s posts clearly marks a lowering of standards for an institution that seems to be abandoning all pretenses for educational or scholarly attainments, which are nonetheless the fundamental missions of any museum[iii], as defined by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), in addition to the MOCA’s own mission’s statement reproduced above.
 Even more troublesome for MOCA is a continual pattern of departures and layoffs over the last few months that goes beyond curatorial differences, as key financial figures have also recently left the institution, according to a March Los Angeles Times article[iv]. Furthermore, the same article explains that billionaire philanthropist and collector Eli Broad’s pledge to match every dollar donated to the museum to raise its endowment back to a healthy level, up to $15 millions, has stalled because MOCA hasn’t raised enough funds yet. This news added to the recent spate of layoffs paint a pretty bleak financial picture for the museum, despite the museum’s triumphal press release dated from March 27, 2012[v], announcing its “closing of its fiscal year with a cash balance”, curiously announced three months ahead of the normal ending of the fiscal year .

Placed in this context, it seems that beyond the personality clash between MOCA’s Director Jeffrey Deitch and Schimmel presented in the press as an explanation for the latter’s departure, an urgent need to reduce expenses by laying off one of the highest paid museum staffers as well as a half-dozen other employees ahead of a new fiscal year is a possible reason[vi]. Indeed, MOCA is now operating with a skeleton staff, outsourcing a lot of its tasks to corporate businesses and contractors. Whether the museum can accomplish great things according to this business model still remains to be seen. MOCA’s current delicate financial situation and how it got here is pretty well documented, as its ambitious program under the governance of its previous director Jeremy Strick was funded by dipping in the museum’s endowment, always a dangerous management strategy under any circumstances, but made even more catastrophic with the 2008 recession, leading to a series of deficits.

 Former art dealer Jeffrey Deitch was brought in as the museum’s director in 2010 with the understanding that his business experience would help focus the board of trustees on rebuilding the depleted endowment and bring the museum toward fiscal stability. Logically, it would have followed reason to see the museum’s governing body launch into a large-scale, strategic capital campaign aiming to bring back the endowment to a healthy amount, and its director recruiting new trustees with far-reaching financial clout and art collecting reputation to the Board.
Unfortunately, not such thing has taken place, with the only fundraising effort of note being the annual celebrity-studded museum gala. Deitch has made himself conspicuous on the local party circuit, fulfilling every New Yorker clichés about Hollywood superficiality[vii], while going on the record about his own difficulties in his new role as a fundraiser[viii].
Recent press releases celebrating the underwriting of two exhibitions by corporate sponsors tend to highlight his inexperience in museum matters; as they underscore the absence of personal support by the museum board members in financing specific museum projects.

 Much have been said in local and national medias about the celebrity-driven, corporate-funded exhibitions insisted upon by Deitch at MOCA, many prominent bloggers and critics adamantly decrying the evident lack of critical scholarship generated by the museum, while MOCA’s PR played the populist card by revealing the record attendance for its Art In The Streets exhibition[ix]. While many in the local and national art community rightly point out that this type of demagogic exhibition damage the international critical reputation of the museum to the point serious art collectors might balk at promising gifts to the permanent collection, the most pressing concerns expressed locally is the fear of the demise of a museum that was once an international reference for contemporary art, at a time when Los Angeles art is more than ever being celebrated abroad.

The memory of the failure of the Pasadena Art Museum, once a leading US contemporary art institution that staged the very first Duchamp retrospective, and its ignominious end due to massive debts, followed by its takeover by financier Norton Simon, is still haunting the community. Many see parallels between this sad precedent and the current climate, as Eli Broad is currently building his own private museum right across from MOCA. Fears have been expressed that should MOCA go financially bankrupt, Broad might repeat history by taking over its collection and its assets for the benefit of his own museum. These speculations are a bit spurious, as such a move would no doubt launch a federal investigation into possible conflicts of interest -Broad is a MOCA trustee – but they nonetheless underscore the anxiety felt within the community, helplessly witnessing the precipitous decline of what was our crown jewel, the pride of the Los Angeles art community.

 History doesn’t necessarily have to repeat itself as a tragedy nor as farce, but precedents should come as a warning to MOCA’s Board of Trustees whose members, no doubt, chose to join to ascertain the importance of knowledge, education, aesthetic and scholarship in contemporary art, as well as establishing their own philanthropic legacy. It is unimaginable to see this legacy tainted by a lack of financial involvement that could lead to catastrophic failure, as it is incredible for us all to witness the intellectual and aesthetic values of the museum sliding into pure entertainment. After all, Southern California already has Disneyland, there is no need for MOCA to morph itself into an amusement park just to get numbers through the doors, churning in one-time visitors who might never come back to look at serious art.

 It is up now to MOCA’s Board of Trustees to reestablish the museum finances on a sound footing by launching an ambitious capital campaign, and to restore the museum’s scholarly credibility by hiring well-respected curators to stage groundbreaking exhibitions and acquire cutting-edge art for the collection. It is up now to the Board of Trustees to hold itself and the museum’s director accountable, to uphold the museum’s international reputation in the art community, to bring back an ambitious program and assure MOCA’s permanence for the public.
By accepting to join the Board and by accepting to become the director, museums trustees and Jeffrey Deitch have made an implicit contract with the Los Angeles community to maintain “a permanent institution that exhibit the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity”[x]. Should they feel incapable of perpetuating this commitment, it is their duty to leave the Board and the museum directorship to let people of more dedication and competence take the helm of the museum. It is their duty to the museum, to the local, national and international art community, and ultimately, to themselves, so as not to taint their own philanthropic legacy.

 [i] MOCA’s mission’s statement posted on the museum’s website,
 [ii] A few gossipy blog articles have been posted late on the evening of June 27th, before confirmation was published by the Los Angeles Times on June 28th,0,7041186,full.story
 [iii] “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment”, as defined by the ICOM on its website.
[iv] See this March 2, 2012 LAT article detailing the departures of MOCA’s C.O.O David M. Galligan, Development Director Sarah Sullivan, and trustee Gary Cypress, who used to chair the board’s finance committee.
 [v] see MOCA’s website, “03.27.12 MOCA closes fiscal year with $7.3 million cash balance”
 [vi] A very conservative estimate of the reduction in salary expenses for the six employees being let go would be about $500,000. See MOCA’s 2009 Form 990 filing, available on the Charity Navigator and Guide Star websites.
 [ix] While Art In The Streets was being repeatedly bashed in the art press as lacking critical depth, no one seems to have noted that if so-called “street art” indisputably deserved a historical retrospective, it might have been better suited to a folk art museum than a contemporary art one.
[x] Op. Cit, note III.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Ongoing Soap Opera At MOCA

Museum merchandise: fridge magnet sold at a very successful Los Angeles museum during the retrospective of an older conceptual artist said to be of a generation out of touch with today's youth, despite the popular success of said retrospective. Ironical text describing populist commercial painting tips, from a painting made by the older, internationally famous and historically significant conceptual artist.

Unless you've been living under a rock, or you simply live abroad and are not that much au courant of the current nefarious going-ons at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, you know, in a nutshell, that over the last 3 weeks, respected curator Paul Schimmel  has been fired  resigned, that the four, internationally famous and historically significant artists-trustees John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Cathy Opie and Edward Ruscha have all quit the Board in protest, and that some dissident trustees (some of them founding members of the museum) have signed a protest letter in the Los Angeles Times , demanding that the museum returns to its primary educational and intellectual mission rather than stage the celebrity-driven exhibitions organized under the tutelage of current director and former art merchant Jeffrey Deitch.
Almost every day since the firing resignation departure of Schimmel, there have been statements being issued by the museum, by trustees such as Eli Broad and Wallis Annenberg, reactions in the national press, etc, etc. East of Borneo has been posting a handy aggregation of what was available online, bless them because it's not easy to keep up with the daily updates*.

To the point that it is becoming hard to follow what is really going on right now. The only thing that is clear and certain is that the whole situation is a mess, and that MOCA is the laughingstock of the international art world as it proves every day more incompetent to manage both its finances and its communication, in addition to its personnel mismanagement.
Yours truly has zero vested personal interest in the place (never worked there, never had close friends who did) nor any sentimental attachment to it (saw some great exhibitions there, some not so great, some absolutely dismal), so I can confidently and impartially say that  MOCA, right now, reeks of  incompetence and lack of professionalism.

A lot has been said over the last few days about the current programming under Deitch, with defensive trustees  claiming "populist" exhibitions are the future as foot traffic seems to be their benchmark in terms of measuring the museum's achievements. I think they actually meant "popular", but maybe they don't know the difference. So, quickly: Populist = demagogic/crowd-pleasing. Popular = widely successful.
You're welcome.

The museum PR machine (I shudder at how much money they spend to utter such silly nonsense) tries to typecast the departed staff and trustees as "old", "not in touch with the current generation", and, supreme anathema, "academic types stuck in their ivory towers".
 Never mind the ageist clichés: I just checked, Wallis Annenberg is 73, Eli Broad 79, and as of Jeffrey Deitch, his age is mysterious but there is no way he could be younger than 56 (he's more likely to be in his 60s), unless he was a prodigy who got his MBA at age 12, and if so he certainly should brag about it.
So, pot, meet kettle, I don't know how a bunch of middle-age and elderly people can claim with so much certainty to be in touch with the current 20-somethings.

As for "populist versus smart", it's a false debate. If you start saying you want to do exhibitions that are not "difficult", or worst "pretentious" (you know, the adjective all US ignoramuses use to call whatever they're too lazy to try to understand), you're basically saying your audience is constituted of complete idiots who lack the willpower to, at the very least, check wikipedia on their smartphones. How condescending and patronizing.
It's a bit like saying your child is too dumb to understand maths, so she shouldn't study it at all but learn how to make pasta necklaces instead, because they're uncomplicated and everybody loves them. So much so that you see proud mothers wearing their pasta necklaces to work every day, everywhere. If you do, please take some pictures and email them to me, we could have a contest or something.

By the way, speaking about older artist trustees not in touch with the current generation and whose work is too difficult for a broad audience to understand; I seem to recall that the retrospective of historical conceptual artist John Baldessari at LACMA was a smashing success in terms of numbers getting through the door. I'm saying this, I'm not saying anything. No, no, no. Really.

I could go on and on about the "popular art versus intellectual art", but I see it mostly as a smokescreen agitated by a panicked institution that totally lost touch with its constituents.
A smokescreen to hide the unavoidable fact: under Jeffrey Deitch's tenure at MOCA's helm, and under the current Board's governance, the museum endowment has remained flat. None of those committed Deitch defenders on the Board have deigned support their beloved Director's vision and added to the cash pot to bring back the museum to a healthy financial state.
And therein lies the real issue, my friends. It's not about changing the artistic direction of the museum, even if it's ludicrous right now, it's about a deep inability to fundraise, a problem that Deitch himself has been whining about on record, while happily bragging about his party boy lifestyle and developing a very public crush on James Franco (because there cannot be any other reasonable explanation about his being hired to "curate" an exhibition at MOCA. Pay me what he got for that job and even I would "curate" a show about rebellious celebrity  Courtney Love Adele Amy Winehouse).

To be fair, Deitch inherited a crappy financial situation from former director Jeremy Strick, and from a Board that seems to be reluctant to spend money on anything but partying at the annual, star-studded gala,  thus confirming all the most stupid clichés New Yorkers love to spread about "Hollywood" and the entertainment industry associated with Los Angeles.
There is just so much one man can do, but there is very little someone with next to zero experience in museum and non-profit management can achieve if partying with the cute boys and girls occupies most of their time.
It's a bit as if someone would pluck me out to become the CEO of deeply troubled record label EMI on the dubious grounds that I love music, and hey, I know some people who love music, too! We even buy records! We don't steal them from free off the internet! So we know how the music business works, me and my pals!
Does this idea strikes you at ludicrous? yes, I thought so too.

Museum merchandise: bumper sticker issued by a leading international art museum currently organizing a cat videos festival

I'm pretty sure that if Deitch had managed to bring in some significant money to the endowment, and in addition to this - his primary function as a museum director -  he had been more competent at handling Paul Schimmel's departure, the local art community and the national art press wouldn't be so much up in arms against him about his weak curatorial chops and skills.

After all, the Walker Art Center is organizing a festival of cat videos ("how cute!" we all go. "but is it art?", nobody asks), but the Walker, as far as we know, isn't in a deeply troubled financial situation, has an otherwise top-notch exhibition program from an intellectual. aesthetic,  and educational point of view and is highly respected in its local community as well as internationally. So one festival of cat videos won't be detrimental to its cutting-edge international reputation.
Whereas a James Franco-Dennis Hopper-Drew Barrymore-[insert a celebrity mistaking themselves for a visual artist here] series of party orgies don't really bode well for, er, you know, international museums and collectors to take your institution *that* seriously when the time comes for loan exchanges or artwork donations.
So not only Deitch doesn't really have a curatorial vision beyond pairing celebrities with artists he used to represent at his art gallery, but he's really not good at bringing in the money. Meanwhile, the PR for the museum is terrible and is damaging its international reputation.

Now the question, in the immortal words of Arte Povera artist Mario Merz quoting Lenin, is: "Che Fare?" which means, "What To Do?" in plain English (for those of you who are too lazy to use Google Translate).

As far as the museum side of the story is, it's pretty obvious to everybody except the Board, apparently,  what they should do: collectively donate enough money for the museum's endowment to go back to a healthy level; maybe 50 millions, which may look like a lot to you and me but is peanuts for all the billionaires sitting on that Board.
It's probably the cost of one lone freeway overpass (?), or a couple of McMansions, or a private jet and a yacht (?).

Then letting go of Jeffrey Deitch, who I'm sure is charming in person but truly proved a wrong match for a museum both as a managing director and as a programmer, and hire a real professional to do the job. It was an interesting experiment, it didn't work well, it shouldn't last.

If they need to save money, meanwhile, then instead of wasting some on schlock celebrity exhibition cutesies, just commission local artists who, YOU KNOW, ARE INTERNATIONALLY FAMOUS AND MAKE LOS ANGELES A FIRST-RATE ART CITY**, to make artworks that not only would thus enter the collection, but the commission would serve as the exhibition as well. Win-win situation, as they love to say in corporate industries.
Now, apologies for shouting above, but as a European curator and art writer, I can tell you the quality of art-making in Los Angeles since the 1950s has made the city famous as a first-rate art destination. Nobody abroad gives a damn about stupid annual galas that the audience cannot attend,  even if "Los Angeles talks about it for months", what the art world at large cares about in respect to Los Angeles is how amazing the artists living here are, and how when they come to visit the city there is very little in our local collections they can see.

 End of the rant, and back to what can be done by us, the Los Angeles art community, and the international art community as well. I don't really know what actually, because I don't know what could sway the current Board and decide them to do what they are there for.

All I can recommend is if you want your voice to be heard, participate in the lively debates on this Facebook page, and maybe boycott the museum until the situation changes?
If you're an artist, stop donating your work for their annual benefit auctions, and if you are really, really noble and selfless, refuse to exhibit there if invited to do so and make public your refusal (it would be awesome if that did happen, but seriously it's understandable if nobody did it)?
Don't renew your membership?
Write concerned letters to the trustees, to the director, inundate their mail room with protest correspondence?
Write blog posts, comment on their website, write articles?
Just gather in front of the museum in large groups but refuse to set foot on the premises?
 Don homemade t-shirt saying "Ditch Deitch and Bring Some Dough"?
Any idea?

Because you know what is so beautiful about  Los Angeles as an art city?
 It's a community, and a community that cares passionately about its contemporary art museum and what it has meant to us as a leading institution. A community that cares that MOCA should continue to be that smart, forward, critical voice.
 It's a shame that the MOCA's Board of Trustee and Director have so lost touch with the Los Angeles art community they can't recognize the harm they're doing to the museum by not listening to our concerns and not acting to solve the museum current issues.
It's not as if the city was devoid of  successful contemporary art institutions, as evidenced by LACMA and the Hammer, so if these two museums can do it, it's mind blogging that MOCA can't.

*Please consult these links as I won't be linking individually to each LAT or artinfo, etc. site myself.
**As evidenced in the international reception to the Getty-led series of Pacific Standard Times exhibitions, the 2006 Los Angeles exhibition at the Pompidou Center, the many international exhibitions our leading artists have been in, the private collections they are in such as Pinault's in Europe for example, and the massive amount of critical articles, monographs and books published about the many artists who have called Los Angeles home since the postwar era. Yours truly has 5 metric feet of books devoted to LA artists in my library, and I'm still short of at least a couple hundred books to really own what's needed.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Help Pat Fish And Max Eider Record A New Jazz Butcher Album!

Howdy, beloved if thin readership. It's going to be short. The Jazz Butcher, one of my favorite bands growing up, has lots of material to make a new records, but no funds. They started  a fundraising effort today, and in less than 8 hours have already enough pledges that it is 99% funded. Now, the last 1% is the hardest to reach, so please, help those two gentlemen adventurers get out of their Weston-Super-Mare retirement home and pledge some $$$. You'll get goodies in exchange, and my eternal gratefulness. And if you live in Europe and are a bit more loaded than yours truly, you might even get Max and Pat to play in your living room. To pledge some dough, go here. And yes, they accept Paypal.

Come on, be more generous than MOCA* Board members doing nothing to save their institutions, give some of your hard-earned money to the Jazz Butcher!

*I'm not going to write anything about the MOCA crisis as it develops. In a nutshell, the Board of Trustees needs to get replaced en masse, and a new director who knows what they're doing hired.