Tuesday, March 20, 2018

We're Baaaaaaaaaaack! With More MOCA Drama!

Pope L. at MOCA, March 2015

Howdy, FBC! readers. Long time no see, right?

I had happily left this blog to peter out, busy as I was elsewhere (I invite you to buy back issues of Frog Magazine to read my prose, and wait for the next one coming out this year) and also I was tired of the format. Writing online is a pain, compared to good old MS Word.
Yet not only I cannot bring myself to study linguistics today (did you know that old pronouns are the new determiners? Me neither) but the new events unfolding at MOCA have caught my attention, with friends left and right asking for my take on the news. That, and apparently there was a huge spike in readers of an old blog post about past drama, so I guess I should give my unsolicited opinion on that new turn of events. Anything but studying subordinate clauses, I'm telling you.

First of all, I need to preface whatever I'm going to write with a word or caution: as I obviously don't live in LA anymore, all that I know about the firing of Helen Molesworth by Philippe Vergne comes from online sources and of course juicy stuff people have told me. So whatever you, gentle readers, are going to read is just my interpretation of what I've read.
Secondly, as I said before  I know Vergne vaguely, but not beyond the "friendly acquaintance" stage. I've seen him a couple of times when I was in LA in 2015 for the  remarkable Pope L. exhibition at the Geffen, where Vergne was his usual unfailingly urbane and polite self. As for Molesworth I've met her only once about a decade ago at a curatorial conference we were both attending that lasted about 3 days. She struck me as someone visibly enamored of her intellectual abilities and not shy about broadcasting them, but we didn't chat or socialize or anything and since I don't think I've ever seen any of the exhibitions she's curated, I can't comment on their brilliance or genius beyond what I've heard, which is generally positive.
Come to think of it, I didn't meet her for Pope L. when I was there, at least I don't remember meeting her but as I'm a small potato it didn't strike me as odd.

I must say I was surprised when she was hired at MOCA because I would have expected some super safe choice out of MoMA or the Whitney or even SFMOMA, in terms of seasoned professionals who know how to do fundraising, and not someone who was so vocal about positioning herself as political, if I remember correctly the few interviews I had read of her when she came to MOCA. Back then I assumed it was a strategic choice, to reassure the local art community that had been so bruised under Jeffrey Deitch's tenure, and that maybe the museum's finances were in good enough order to withstand some potentially controversial exhibitions or acquisitions. In any case, I had moved out of the country and didn't really think about MOCA whatsoever, I had other stuff to worry about anyway.

Fast forward to last week, and the shockwaves sent from her firing. My first thoughts were, "Hhhm, Vergne is generally extremely tactful and diplomatic in whatever he does, so if he fired her the Board must have asked for her head," immediately followed by reminiscences of all the hearsay that ever got back to me about Molesworth's management style, which was generally not positive. Yet no curator is ever laid off for poor management style, because typically the Board never hears about it.
I have also had the privilege during my distinguished career of working under women curators* with poor management style but great curatorial chops, and they lasted decades in their jobs (and still last as I write) because whichever way they dealt with folks under them, they delivered when it came to acquisitions, donations, and exhibitions that attracted both foot traffic and great critical reviews.
So obviously there must have been some very serious stuff behind Molesworth's eviction, which I thought would come out as more information would unfold. I did recall that around the time Mark Grotjahn announced he was withdrawing from the MOCA gala, Vergne and Molesworth's respective statements seemed a bit at odds.
There has been a spate of articles from the LA Times (obviously on Molesworth's side) to more nuanced takes in Frieze, Hyperallergic and finally the latest one in Artnews, probably the best informed of all from my point of view. This morning Christopher Knight was demanding some statement from MOCA regarding all of this, but as lawyer friends of mine explained to me, in all likelihood MOCA is legally barred from saying anything about the firing, so we can wait for a long time before a statement comes out.

Initially most people reacted to the news of the firing in the light of the #MeToo movement, casting Molesworth as a victim of her gender kicked out by a white male, and lumping her eviction with two other recent firings of senior female art figures, the former director of the Queens Museum Laura Raicovich and Maria Ines Rodriguez from the capcMuseum in Bordeaux, France.
As for Maria Ines Rodriguez, lost in translation in the international online outcry was the local political context, which would be incredibly long and complicated to explain here but basically what happened is the local, city government removed her because French provincial authorities tend to be complete Philistines when it comes to contemporary art and would like to show crap like Ai WeiWei or Banksy for one tenth of the price, rather than actually support decent programming.
I am not sure Rodriguez's gender played that much of a role into that story, because there was a precedent in that exact same museum when founder and director Jean-Louis Froment was laid off  maybe 15 years ago, after right-wing former Prime Minister Alain JuppĂ© was elected mayor of Bordeaux, following the death of his predecessor Alain Chaban-Delmas (who, despite being an old school conservative himself was always a staunch defender of the museum and its director.)
Juppé is still mayor of Bordeaux, where he had also slashed the budget of the local Opera house when he came into power, and whatever his other presumed qualities high cultural priorities don't find any echo in his agenda.

Sturtevant, at MOCA in 2015

Now reading the various articles about Molesworth and Vergne, it appears that gender doesn't have that much to do with her firing, however tempting it would be to cast it under that frame of thought in the light of the Carl Andre retrospective –which was terribly mishandled if you ask me.**
Rather, the picture painted in the Artnews article tells a tale of hubris from a senior curator who doesn't seem to understand the role of donors and trustees in a privately funded museum, and who appears to ignore the fundamentals of good manners when dealing with them.
Not showing up at an event is one thing, but not apologizing and simply explaining months later that one was elsewhere doing something else (a studio visit, which is easy to reschedule I guess?) is just plain rude. I get it, when you want to demonstrate you are on the artists's side, you make a point to say that this elsewhere you were at was a studio visit.
Nevertheless,  if you fundamentally want to be on the artists's side, you need to understand it's in their best interest, for example, to rally trustees, donors and collectors to their cause and thus ensure a place of honor for their work within the museum you work at. If you don't get this, maybe you have no business being a museum curator.
It is also just plain rude not to alert your coworkers and staff that you won't attend the event they spent weeks planning, so they cannot even explain away your absence to the host. It is bad politics, generally, to make your coworkers and boss –for Vergne, as the director, was Molesworth's boss– lose face in front of others, and if you're a mature person it is something you should have understood by your late twenties at most. Unless maybe you've never worked anywhere under a supervisor or boss, but aside from freelance people and scions of wealthy families, I'm unsure where you can grow into middle age without ever having the experience?

There are other examples of her rude behavior toward donors in the various articles recently published. Is biting the hand that feeds you and foots the bill for your exhibitions the smartest thing to do when donors and trustees are the people who actually fund your salary? If you have an issue with the way museums are funded in the United States and with the need to diplomatically rub elbows with the deep-pocketed individuals who make them possible, it's better to rethink your career choices and either go work at some publicly-funded place, or campaign for public money to fund them.
I know it is incredibly tempting to just yell "fuck you" at rich people in the current political context where some loudmouth, uncouth orange person has hijacked the presidency just because they were male and rich, and that some exasperation can only seep through the cracks if some of your donors are also GOP stalwarts, but if you really need to frame your rudeness in political terms, then you should take a hard look at yourself and wonder if the way you treat your (working-class) staff aligns with your stated politics. There are myriads people in the arts and elsewhere who are very vocal about their left-wing opinions  yet treat waiters, janitors, hotel maids or retail workers like crap, who brandish their progressive politics like a badge of honor yet are incapable of an act of kindness toward anybody in real life, let alone treating everyone with respect. In passing, this is not about Molesworth specifically, as I haven't worked with her and only can report what I've read here and there, but about countless art people I've met over the years who're always happy to loudly express their political choices, preferably on social media, but tend to act poorly in real life.

There is a point where I can understand Molesworth when it comes to curatorial choices, because I too would be totally unenthusiastic about curating a Mark Grotjahn's retrospective. I also know how discouraging it is to look at so-so contemporary art collections and feign enthusiasm about the umpteenth Kaws or whatever is in fashion right now and whose shelf life won't exceed eighteen months. As for donors and collectors, I often felt very uncomfortable meeting them when I was still in the game, because I haven't grown up around money and it took me a very long time to at least have an understanding of it. Very wealthy people can sometimes be rude themselves, or at least totally oblivious to the power they exert on people surrounding them, which can make them at their worst impatient, demanding or tactless. As Fitzgerald said, the rich are not like us, and it takes some effort to comprehend how and why.

Yet I have also met collectors and donors who were passionate, enthusiastic, generous and well-meaning, and wealthy people who were kind and understanding. I have also met rich people who were genuinely philanthropic and devoted to improving their local community, who enjoyed supporting not only the arts but also homeless charities and children hospitals, who donated money to support victims of natural disasters or to environmental protection organizations, who got involved in progressive politics because they understood their money would be well-employed there, who made a point to support Planned Parenthood and the ACLU and to give more than small change to the homeless people they encountered, who gave to such unsexy causes as mental illness charities.
Some of these people no doubt are of the same kind whose donations paid for Molesworth's salary, and footed the bill for her exhibitions.

Whether she liked Grotjahn's or not, it would have been tactful and easy to just go to that meeting with him along with the junior curator and simply say, "so-and-so will curate your retrospective because I have too many obligations to be able to fully commit to it myself and your work deserves  full attention and support, but of course I will be at hand if any help is needed" and keep it at that. If I, Ms. Foot-in-her-mouth-incarnate, can come up with a sentence like this, I'm sure a woman as smart as Molesworth could have done much better, not even mentioning the career boost it could be for the junior curator to actually curate this retrospective in their own name –as a senior person, Molesworth's job is also to mentor less seasoned colleagues.
Whatever her own feelings for Grotjahn's work, her job as a senior curator would have been to placate him before the gala drama came to light and ask him to stick with it, pairing him with another co-honoree more in keeping with his wish for diversity –after all, the Hammer routinely honors two people for its gala, it's not an unusual proposition in itself.
This type of diplomatic stuff might be annoying, but it is not difficult. It doesn't demand enormous brain power or painful ethical contortions. One might not like Grotjahn's work, but if his chairing the gala can help raise enough money to support a more progressive, diverse programming, so be it. Any curator worth their salt know that blockbusters or mainstream exhibitions are necessary to get people through the door, as long as the programming isn't 100% crowdpleasers, and for this now Los Angeles has the Broad anyway.

Sturtevant, MOCA, 2015

From what transpires in these various, recent online articles, the main reason why Molesworth was fired was that her whole attitude toward both the top brass and her underlings was too harsh and abrasive, and that it interfered with the fundamentals of museum curating, where all your energy is focused in two directions: the collection, and the programing. 
Her attitude got in the way of her talent, and her talent couldn't save her from the realities of the job. Her refusal to do spectacular exhibitions is to her credit, intellectually speaking, but to survive a museum has to do blockbusters once in a while and for all the praise her Kerry James Marshall show has attracted and the slight spike in visitors, it can only pale in comparison to what the Broad does.
The Broad is obviously the elephant in the room in this story, as it sits across the street with its spectacular building and its blockbuster exhibitions and public programs: it's amazing what you can accomplish with a lot of money, right? 
Doubtless that for MOCA's Board of Trustees, they look at the beached whale on the other side of the road and wonder, why do they have Kusama and why cannot we have Kusama? If Molesworth had brought at least one Infinity Room to MOCA, she might have been forgiven all the quirks of her personality, her standing up donors, and the rest. As I said, it is to her credit that she hasn't given in to doing that kind of thing, yet people in LA remember that for all his faults, and God knows he was not an easy man to deal with, Schimmel did bring in spectacular harmless stuff that got people through the door, too, like the stoner show that was nothing but a giant carnival ride for adults. 
That failure to bring in blockbusters cannot rest squarely on Molesworth's shoulders in any case,  because Vergne is also responsible for the programming of his museum. As a director, his job is also to talk to other institutions and see what "take" shows he can bring in, even if he doesn't have the staff himself to originate such shows.

If you want to change your institution from within, the only way to do it is first of all to avoid alienating everyone who works there, because you need allies to effect change. 
Secondly, you need to understand its history, and its relation to the local context. Reading between the lines, it is entirely possible that with all the internal hoopla that happened under Molesworth and Vergne's tenure, Molesworth might have done some of Vergne's dirty work in getting rid of some historical staff. I wouldn't know, I wasn't there, but it's a relatively common situation when a new director takes over, however generally misguided. It is foolish to get rid of the institutional memory of a museum, especially when it is the head preparator who has overseen everything from digging new foundations for Richard Serra's sculptures, built a cascade for Robert Gober, to installing the sprawling, magnificent mess of the Whack! exhibition.
As for donors, the job of a curator is also to educate them and guide them toward what you want them to do for the institution. Granted it is not given to everyone to be eloquent and persuasive, but it is at least sensible to avoid rubbing the wrong way people who might just be persuaded to give enough money to make your cutting-edge, forward thinking new exhibition possible. 
After all, regardless of how their taste, politics and tax exemptions might diverge from yours,  as my best friend says you are dealing with people who chose to devote a large part of their available income to supporting the arts, rather than some incredibly stupid thing like buying a gold-plated private yacht, or something horribly harmful like funding climate change deniers or neo-Nazis. Just for this we should be grateful, even if they buy Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst by the bucketful rather than commissioning a memorial to Kathy Acker. Some of them might even fund Peter Hujar retrospectives or Kara Walker exhibitions, if you know how to talk to them.

In the end, it is an incredible sad story of failure for the institution, for Vergne and for Molesworth herself; because there is no doubt she is a talented individual who simply failed to understand that with a modicum of diplomacy she could have accomplished great things there. Maybe she was not suited for what that specific job entailed, but then as a seasoned professional she should have known what she was in for when it comes to trustees and fundraising. It is also a spectacular failure for Vergne, who no doubt truly believed in Molesworth's talent when he hired her and who was apparently very close to her if that Artnews article can be trusted. As such the moment must be particularly painful for him, too.
As for MOCA, it could certainly have done without the additional drama, and it will be complicated for the museum to attract the right kind of curator now, someone who can balance an accute understanding of funding and finances with the desire to organize great exhibitions and significantly augment museum holdings.
There is no shortage of great curators out there,  indeed they are a dime a dozen. Many of them are underemployed or even unemployed, or simply undiscovered. Some of them are homegrown (Naima Keith is a stellar example of someone from LA who does great things with undiminished enthusiasm) some others do good things on the other coast (Ian Alteveer comes to mind) or even in the hinterlands.  There might be some fabulous person in Chicago, Detroit or New Orleans who would do a great job in LA, if only given the chance. Whether they'd want to come to MOCA now is another story, especially since the museum is singularly understaffed at present. Whoever comes there will need vision in addition to everything else. Many of the museum's woes are due to increased competition in terms of both fundraising and programming, now that Los Angeles counts LACMA, the Hammer, the Broad, the Marciano Foundation, in addition to all the other spaces such as The Underground Museum, the Mistake Room, 356 Mission or Hauser & Wirth's mega space, not even mentioning historical artist-run spaces such as LACE or POST and places like the MAK and the Armory.

Obviously MOCA has to find a way to distinguish itself from all these other LA art institutions. The artist Vincent Johnson recently told me it needed a new building, yet I think the museum could still be stellar within its current premises. Besides, as LACMA is decimating all local donations to create its foolish new building and disfigure the cityscape, I doubt MOCA could raise enough money for a new architectural venture right now.  Its best strength is the Geffen, which should still be used for what it does best: ambitious solo exhibitions where artists are commissioned to create large-scale projects. 
Maybe it could use the production money for these shows as acquisition money and keep the work made onsite as part of his permanent collection, who knows. There is no lack of women artists and POC who historically never had the opportunity to create large-scale work for lack of means and lack of recognition. The Pope L. show at the Geffen was a great step in that direction, evidently the museum should continue to mount this sort of spectacular yet meaningful exhibitions.

As for diversity, someone on Facebook recently published a list of all the women and Latinx artists the museum has ever exhibited, and it was very respectable. Of course it is always desirable to want to do better. Fortunately, Los Angeles is a town where there are so many great artists of all genders and colors that showcasing them shouldn't be that hard. Edgar Arceneaux for example is long due a comprehensive retrospective, and so is Monique Prieto. Jennifer Moon, Wong-Ju Lim, Juan Capistran, Ruben Ochoa, Analia Saban or Monique van Genderen all come to mind as far as local representation go, but there are countless others, not even mentioning all the younger local artists I do not know since I moved out of the country.
Another thing MOCA would be well-inspired to do would be to bring foreign artists or even people from the East Coast or elsewhere for its local audience. The Sigmar Polke retrospective for instance should have traveled to LA, ditto the Lygia Clark one. The current Zoe Leonard retrospective is scheduled to come to LA (I'm told Bennett Simpson curated it, but it opened on the East Coast first) and that's a good thing, but there are dozens and dozens of other artists who are rarely seen in LA that MOCA could showcase.
It could also reignite the Postwar art spark that seems to have departed with both Ann Goldstein and Paul Schimmel and get scholarly exhibitions where under-represented artists are contrasted with better-known ones. It could also spotlight specific moments in art history that for some reason or other haven't been shown comprehensively in LA. Why not an Arte Povera show for example?  There has been a resurgence of young painters interested in Supports-Surfaces,  and that could be done, too. People like Bernard Frize or Walter Swennen are virtually unknown in the States, and I have been vocal enough about Lea Lublin whose German retrospective has been deemed marvelous by people who saw it. Has a survey show of Jackie Winsor ever been done? The Pompidou has a great Sheila Hicks exhibition on view right now, this would be awesome in LA. MOCA could also be the site for a West Coast satellite of the Performa Biennial, too, which would make a lot of sense given the historical importance of performance art in California. I'm sure many people could come up with other ideas, and even with potential blockbusters.

There are so many different paths that MOCA could take to re-establish national prominence, but with the fragile situation it is in right now it obviously will need to not only attract talent, and a lot of it –it needs at least three curators in addition to a senior/chief curator one if it wants to function normally– but also to work internally to restore morale, because no workplace can ever be so great if its staff is demoralized and frightened. From here, the museum also needs to restore its image, not only in the light of this recent drama, but also because for a long time its exhibitions haven't been that attractive. It's time now to rethink the museum both on a local and international scale, and finally make it exciting again.

Not MOCA: the Broad across the street, before it opened.

*I have also worked under male curators with a terrible management style but who didn't deliver when it came to what mattered, and with male and female supervisors outside of the art world who were  terrible in all respects. Needless to say I didn't really learn much from them, but the point I want to make is that with one exception who has now left the field, they maintained the illusion for a while by hopping from job to job before they were found out, but eventually they all ended up being fired, demoted, or pushed toward early retirement. In the end, it all comes down to how you manage your budgets and deal with funding rather than how shitty you are toward your staff, however being shitty to your underlings is generally a good indicator of how you deal with everything including financial matters.

**If I understand that it makes sense, historically, to organize a Carl Andre retrospective, it seems to me that to do so in a sensitive manner would have entailed to simultaneously organize an Ana Mendieta retrospective at MOCA, and to set up a series of events, debates and discussions about Andre's role in her death. In short, rather than try to ignore it and brush it aside, confronting it head-on and holding panels and debates about their respective places in art history might have been a better way of asserting the museum's understanding of how to tackle sensitive issues. I have no clue whether this solution has been contemplated by either Molesworth or Vergne, but from the outset it seems like a lost opportunity for the museum to fulfill its educational and art historical role.

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