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.


Video by Dana Duff said...

Brilliant and hilarious, Noellie! The best yet written on the subject.
Thanks! Dana

CHI SPHERE said...

Right fucking spot on Frenchy!

CHI SPHERE said...

Right fucking spot on Frenchy!