Scholarship or Spectacle? MOCA Shake-up raises questions on the goals of the Contemporary Museum

Edward Ruscha, The Back of Hollywood, 1977

A little more than a week ago, the American art world was left reeling from the messy dismissal of LA MOCA’s esteemed curator, Paul Schimmel. Schimmel’s resonance is indisputable: for many, exhibitions like “Helter Skelter” helped to give form to a scene that at times seemed as widespread and complicated as the city itself. The standout of last year’s Pacific Standard Time program, Schimmel’s recent exhibition, “Under the Big Black Sun” dared to take on a particularly dark period in America’s recent past. Just the weekend before, Schimmel had been invited to present the exhibition at CCS Bard as part of its 20th Anniversary festivities (the tagline for the Gallerist write-up: “I’m Not Subtle.”)

So what went wrong? Most fingers flew towards Jeffrey Deitch, who, in his two year tenure as Director, has managed to fill the museum with Franco. To be fair, Deitch is just doing what he was paid to do – which is incidentally, what he does best: rowdy, public-pleasing exhibitions, that graffiti-tag the notion of the museum as a polite institution. This brings up a larger issue: the LA MoCA has become the case study for running a museum like a business. As LA critic Christopher Knight points out, of the “billionaire-clogged board”, at least four have “a total net worth in excess of $21 billion.” The more convenient scapegoat, of course, is Eli Broad, the collector whose 2008 $30 million endowment of the museum marked a sea change in its operation (even formally – the museum took on a CEO.) (The man might be said to be asking for it. Amid news of his own Zaha-Hadid-designed museum in Michigan on the verge of opening,  he also went so far as to publish a book cheekily titled, The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking. While many seemed prepared to give him “unreasonable,” the jury’s still out on “unconventional”: the popular blog site Hyperallergic recently deemed Deitch’s street art show, “The Safest Show on Earth.” It certainly didn’t include Nixon’s resignation letter.)

Piotr Uklanski, Untitled (Dance Floor), 1996

Broad discussed these allegations with Los Angeles Times‘ Mike Boehm, and then decided to release his own statement the following day.  In it, he outlines the museum’s fiscal situation. “In today’s economic environment, museums must be fiscally prudent and creative in presenting cost-effective, visually stimulating exhibitions that attract a broad audience.”

This letter in turn prompted another letter, this time from four other trustees:   Lenore S. Greenberg, Betye Burton, Audrey Irmas,  and Frederick M. Nicholas. In their short letter (worth reading in its entirety, as it paints a much more optimistic image of the museum as something other than a subway turnstile) they outlined another future for the institution:

Restoring the artistic and curatorial integrity of MOCA is crucial in regaining its respect and prominence. MOCA has not shepherded its finances well; it has overspent and is now paying the price. But bringing down expenditures does not mean bringing down the caliber of its exhibitions as well.

The celebrity-driven program that MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch promotes is not the answer. Committed donors contribute to museums that pursue the highest quality programs under prudent financial management. MOCA needs to get back to its core mission and to the kinds of programs that made it the exemplary contemporary art museum that it once was…

As for Deitch, he has tried his best to avoid comment on the matter, instead focusing on promoting upcoming exhibitions. As he told Gallerist’s Michael Miller:

I urge you to look into what our program really is. It’s such a rigorous program with very strong historical exhibitions. I think before people start railing on about the so-called dumbing down of MOCA, they should see what we’re actually doing here. I think it’s one of the most rigorous and engaging programs in the country.

It’s unfortunate that his double- “rigorous” might follow a description of the museum’s upcoming “Fire at the Disco!” show, which has been curated by esteemed.. no, wait, by former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy. That’s not to dispute that the exhibition may be “engaging.” Indeed, Deitch notes, “One of the goals is to have people dancing in the museum.” And the fact that so many tickets are selling would seem to indicate that there is a cultural demand for these types of exhibitions. What’s more, what is a contemporary museum for, if not to put recent history in a new context? Who says a Piotr Uklanski Disco floor might not provide new insights into a movement, which, as Deitch points out, transcended boundaries of traditional notions of race, gender and sexuality?

Not every one has the Fever, however.  Just this week, artist John Baldessari tendered his resignation from the board, explaining, “To live with my conscience, I just had to do it.” In the LA Times interview, he adds: “When I heard about that disco show I had to read it twice. At first I thought ‘this is a joke’ but I realized, no, this is serious. That just reaffirmed my decision.” His decision was shortly followed by resignations from artists Catherine Opie and Barbara Kruger. In Opie and Kruger’s joint “resignation email,” they clarify their position in terms of an overall skepticism of what the art world has become:

But this is not about a particular cast of characters, about good actors and bad. It’s a reflection of the crisis in cultural funding. It’s about the role of museums in a culture where visual art is marginalized except for the buzz around secondary market sales, it’s about the not so subtle recalibration of the meaning of “philanthropy,” and it’s about the morphing of the so-called “art world” into the only speculative bubble still left floating (for the next 20 minutes). Can important and serious exhibitions receive funding without a donor having a horse in the race? Is attendance a sustaining revenue stream for museums? Has it ever been? These are questions we have been asking.

Monday, July 16, Ed Ruscha – the last remaining artist on the board of what was originally an institution founded and grounded by artists – also resigned, though he has yet to release a statement.

It is a shame to see so many talented players at odds with one another, but we hope that this conversation can lead to more productive discussions about what purposes the contemporary museum can serve in the present moment.

(For a non-LA perspective, check the New York Times wrap-up, published this weekend.)

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2 Responses to Scholarship or Spectacle? MOCA Shake-up raises questions on the goals of the Contemporary Museum

  1. Pingback: The Power of Positive Patronage: The Vera List Poster Project | Baibakov Art Projects

  2. Pingback: Philippe Verne tapped as Director of LA MOCA | Baibakov Art Projects

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