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 clich├ęs 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.

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