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True Colors: Inside the Director Scramble at MOCA

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For a few days there was the rare appearance of calm at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. After months of searching for an executive director to share duties with artistic director Klaus Biesenbach, the museum announced earlier this month that it had poached Johanna Burton from 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, a revenue drop, layoffs of 97 part-time employees, and furloughs of more than 30 full-time employees, MOCA seemed to finally have a road map to the future.

“I don’t think it is one job,” Maria Seferian, the former lawyer who now serves as chair of the board at MOCA, told The New York Times upon Burton’s appointment. “I think this is the right model for us right now. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked 20 years ago and it won’t work 20 years from now, but it’s the right moment for us now.”

“I personally could not have asked for a more gifted and inspiring person to lead MOCA with!” Biesenbach wrote on Instagram.

But despite the heartfelt caption, Biesenbach won’t be running MOCA with anyone. Last Friday, just seven days after the museum made Burton’s appointment public, Biesenbach revealed that he’d be leaving—jetting nearly 6,000 miles away to Berlin to become the director of the Neue Nationalgalerie, along with its future Museum of the 20th Century. He informed the board just days after the duo format was hailed as the only way to move MOCA forward. (MOCA confirmed that Biesenbach informed the board and staff of his departure on September 10, the same day that a story on the appointment in the Art Newspaper was published at 3:09 p.m. London time, or 7:09 a.m. in Los Angeles.) In a way, it was all business as usual at MOCA, one of the country’s most respected contemporary arts institutions—and a hotbed of bad press for years.

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“The MOCA board is united in support of Johanna,” Seferian said in a statement for this story. “She is a star with smarts. Her leadership and curatorial chops will propel MOCA forward in an impactful and inclusive manner.”

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“I dont think it’s a surprise to anyone that MOCA is a chop shop of directors,” said Alex Logsdail, the director of Lisson Gallery, which represents Garrett Bradley, the artist and filmmaker who’s still slated to have her retrospective move to MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary outpost in September 2022. “No one lasts there more than a couple years, so something else is 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 MOCA’s board, which has long demanded more control of the museum than at many institutions—former curators have departed amid squabbles with the board, and one publicly complained about being forced to make programming reflect what’s on the walls of the homes of MOCA’s patrons. (MOCA said this characterization of the board was inaccurate.) It also doesn’t help that a couple of donors opened their own L.A. museums. The Broad, founded by the late MOCA life trustee Eli Broad had an attendance of 917,489 in 2019, vastly eclipsing MOCA’s final tally that year of 357,747.

Biesenbach’s tenure as artistic director was beset with criticism from its 2018 start when it was announced that a white European male would replace another white European male, Philippe Vergne. But to get a sense of the long history of controversy at MOCA, it’s instructive to go back to the shock appointment of Jeffrey Deitch as the museum’s director in 2010. Deitch’s brash MOCA remake played to the crowd—Julian Schnabel curates a Dennis Hopper revue! Let’s do a whole show about disco with LCD Soundsystem! More James Franco performance art!—and caused a collective freak-out among the Angeleno intelligentsia. Artists Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, and Barbara Kruger all resigned from the board. Deitch, exhausted, raised the white flag in 2013. MOCA said Ruscha, Kruger, and Opie returned in 2013 to help the search for Deitch’s replacement. Kruger is currently one of the museum’s four artist trustees.

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That replacement was Vergne, the serious-minded director at the Dia Art Foundation. But controversy followed as well, this time in the guise of his chief curator Helen Molesworth, who chafed against the way in which the collecting habits of the board seemed to dictate who got shows at her museum. In 2017, while onstage in San Francisco for an interview series sponsored by Artadia, Molesworth was asked about the difficulties she faced in her job. She reportedly went into an ironic voice and said, “I am never under pressure to support the work of extremely affluent white male artists who are collected by the affluent white male people who run the museum. I wish I had that struggle, because then I could really test myself against what that might feel like.” Vergne fired her in March 2018, citing “creative differences,” initiating more headlines and pushback from then board member Opie. The museum and Vergne decided not to renew his contract.

Enter Biesenbach. From the vantage point of 2019, Klaus and MOCA seemed like a perfect fit. Long a celebrity hound, his parties at his beyond minimalist Grand Street apartment would draw Courtney Love, Lady Gaga, Franco, and many others. He was also an avid Instagrammer who would often livestream his exploits to his nearly 300,000 followers. When visitors encountered him at Frieze Los Angeles in February 2020, he looked tanned and rested. As he worked the aisles like a Hollywood power broker, it was as if the City of Angels had shaved a decade off his life.

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