For a few days there was a rare apparition of calm at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. After months of searching for an executive director to share tasks with the art director Klaus Biesenbach, the museum announced earlier this month that it had poached Johanna burton of the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. The two would share responsibilities in a carefully calibrated leadership structure. After months of turmoil, with staff resignations, declining incomes, layoffs of 97 part-time employees and leave of more than 30 full-time employees, MOCA finally seemed to have a roadmap for the future.
“I don’t think it’s a single job” Maria Seferian, the former lawyer who is now chairman of the board of directors of MOCA, said The New York Times upon Burton’s appointment. “I think he’s the right role model for us right now. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked 20 years ago and it won’t work 20 years from now, but now is the right time for us.
“Personally, I couldn’t have asked for a more talented and inspiring person to lead MOCA! Biesenbach wrote on Instagram.
But despite the sincere legend, Biesenbach will not lead MOCA with anybody. Last Friday, just seven days after the museum made Burton’s appointment public, Biesenbach revealed he would set off nearly 6,000 miles from Berlin to become director of the Neue Nationalgalerie, as well as its future 20th century museum. . He informed the board just days after the duo format was hailed as the only way to move MOCA forward. (MOCA has confirmed that Biesenbach informed the board and staff of his departure on September 10, the same day an article about the appointment in the Art Newspaper was published at 3:09 p.m. London time, or 7:09 a.m. Los Angeles.) In a way, everything was business as usual at MOCA, one of the country’s most respected contemporary art institutions and a hotbed of bad press for years.
“The MOCA board is united in supporting Johanna,” Seferian said in a statement for the story. “He’s a smart star. His leadership and curatorial skills will propel MOCA forward in an impactful and inclusive way. “
“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that MOCA is a directors’ chop shop,” said Alex Logsdail, the director of the Lisson Gallery, which represents Garret Bradley, the artist and filmmaker who is still expected to have his retrospective at Geffen’s contemporary outpost at MOCA in September 2022. “No one lasts there more than a few years, so something’s wrong with the museum. It’s not that these people are all bad at their jobs. The common denominator is MOCA.
According to sources, that common denominator is specifically the MOCA board, which has long demanded more control over the museum than in many institutions – former curators have left amid feuds with the board, and one of them complained publicly that he was forced to make the programming reflect what is on the walls of the MOCA bosses’ houses. (MOCA said this characterization of the board was inaccurate.) It also doesn’t help that a few donors have opened their own LA museums. The Broad, founded by late MOCA lifetime administrator Eli Broad, hosted 917,489 spectators in 2019, largely eclipsing that year’s final MOCA tally of 357,747.
Biesenbach’s tenure as artistic director has been beset with criticism since his debut in 2018, when it was announced that a white European man would replace another white European man, Philippe Vergne. But to get a feel for the long history of controversy at MOCA, it is instructive to review the shock appointment of Jeffrey Deitch as museum director in 2010. Deitch’s brash MOCA remake performed to the crowd—Julien schnabel hosts a Dennis Hopper review! Let’s do a whole show on the disco with LCD Soundsystem! Following James franco the art of performance! – and caused a collective panic among the intelligentsia Angeleno. Artists Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, and Barbara kruger all have resigned from the board of directors. Exhausted Deitch raised the white flag in 2013. MOCA said Ruscha, Kruger and Opie returned in 2013 to help find Deitch’s replacement. Kruger is currently one of the museum’s four artist trustees.
This replacement was Vergne, the serious director of the Dia Art Foundation. But controversy also followed, this time in the guise of its chief curator. Helene Molesworth, who resented the way the council’s collecting habits seemed to dictate who got exhibits in his museum. In 2017, while onstage in San Francisco for an Artadia-sponsored interview series, Molesworth was asked about the challenges she faced in her job. She reportedly expressed an ironic voice and said, “I am never under pressure to support the work of extremely wealthy white male artists who are brought together by the wealthy white men who run the museum. I would love to have this fight, because then I could really test myself against how it might feel. Vergne fired her in March 2018, citing “creative differences”, initiating more headlines and hindsight from then-board member Opie. The museum and Vergne have decided not to renew his contract.
Enter Biesenbach. From a 2019 perspective, Klaus and MOCA seemed to be a perfect match. Long a celebrity dog, his apartment parties beyond the Grand Street minimalist would draw Courtney Love, Lady Gaga, Franco, and many others. He was also an Instagram enthusiast who often broadcast his exploits live to his nearly 300,000 subscribers. When visitors met him at Frieze Los Angeles in February 2020, he looked tanned and rested. As he worked the aisles as a Hollywood energy broker, it was as if the City of Angels had razed a decade of his life to him.