Daze of Disco: MOCA’s Culture Crisis

By now, if you’re at all involved in the arts, you’ve heard about the mess at Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The mass exodus (both voluntary and involuntary) of MOCA’s key staff including Head Curator, Paul Schimmel, several of its board members, and all of its artist-trustees occurred publicly and swiftly following Schimmel’s ousting and rumors (later confirmed) that MOCA will hold an exhibit on Disco in the near future. In total, MOCA’s curatorial department has shrunk from five to three in the last year and half and eight board members have left since February. MOCA, already floundering after years of fiscal mismanagement, seems in danger of losing its cultural credibility.

But how exactly?

Sure, there’d been hints that not all was paradise at MOCA since Jeffrey Deitch’s takeover as Museum Director. Since its financial troubles began several years ago, community activists, donors, and art world professionals have rallied to revive MOCA, making bold, often experimental, attempts to broaden public interest in its collection and events. This included the controversial decision to bring Deitch on board.

As Deitch settled into his role, staff and board members complained occasionally about the museum’s increasing pop cultural bias, which was generally attributed to Deitch’s past career in the commercial art world. But this dissent was far from a fully registered protest. Even Deitch’s critics seemed uncertain: were Deitch’s interests too commercial, or was he exactly what MOCA, notorious for its lack of a financially savvy leadership, needed?

June 28, 10:00 AM

On June 28, MOCA announced:

“Paul Schimmel is stepping down as MOCA’s chief curator. It’s amicable and there will be a release tomorrow.”

The news baffled the arts community. During his tenure, Schimmel had designed and executed the look and feel of MOCA and its exhibits. Schimmel, in effect, was MOCA.

It was Eli Broad, that arts world giant, who spoke on behalf of MOCA’s board:

“They knew that Paul was from the old culture and was not getting along with the director,” he said regarding decision. “And although they had a lot of respect for his curatorial ability, they thought it was time to move on…The bottom line is it was no surprise to Paul.”

June 28, 1:30 PM

By the end of the afternoon, the LA Times reported a slightly different story; in addition to Paul Schimmel, MOCA had also laid off Aandrea Stang, Senior Education Programming Manager, Nicholas Lowie, Senior Designer, a writer/editor, Erica Wrightson, and three Curatorial Assistants.

By comparison, these layoffs weren’t exactly surprising. Since Deitch’s take over as Museum Director, various senior staffers have exited. The curatorial staff has shrunk from five to only three. But Schimmel was Schimmel. And then, MOCA announced its forthcoming exhibit on Disco. And that was the last straw.

July 13

“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,” John Baldessari, then a MOCA artist trustee, told the LA Times on July 13, “To live with my conscience, I just had to do it.”

It, in this case, was Baldessari’s decision to resign from the board. Baldessari, who’s said that he must feel angry to work, had finally gotten angry enough to take a stand. Following his resignation, he sent a joint letter with three other lifelong trustees to the LA Times, which referred to MOCA’s recent exhibits under Deitch’s management as “celebrity-driven programming.”

[From top to bottom: The Sinking Ship, Three Artists Resigned, Baldessari, Disco, Exiting Ruscha by  Susan Stilton  ]

[From top to bottom: The Sinking Ship, Three Artists Resigned, Baldessari, Disco, Exiting Ruscha by Susan Stilton ]

July 14

It’s unusual for a museum to have artist-trustees on its board, and until last week, MOCA had four: Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie, and Ed Ruscha. The unique artist-trustee system worked like this: rather than paying yearly dues like the other trustees, the artists offered their work as a form of support.

At the time of MOCA’s layoffs, Kruger had just sold a six-figure artwork to benefit MOCA’s Land Art exhibit and its Education Department.   That was before Aandrea Stang, Kruger’s Education Department contact, was ousted. 

It didn’t take long for Kruger and Opie to echo Baldessari’s in a joint resignation.  Their email arrived on Friday in the board co-chairs’ and Deitch’s inboxes and included the following:

“[T]his 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.”

    They called for more transparency.  They called for decency.  Then, just like that, they were gone. So, the inevitable question:
    Where was Ruscha?
    Out of the country, it seemed. And unreachable.  Everyone waited to hear what his decision would be. 

July 16

    And then it came–sort of.  At 8:43 AM on July 16, Danna Ruscha, Ed Ruscha’s wife, wrote to LA Times art critic on Facebook:
    “Christopher Knight, Ed has resigned. I guess they haven’t announced it yet.”
    A few hours later, MOCA acknowledged its receipt of Ruscha’s resignation.  It had taken less than two weeks for MOCA’s infrastructure to come toppling down.

July 20
In a message on MOCA’s blog, The Curve, Jeffrey Deitch explained MOCA’s position regarding the recent changes in leadership:

Since MOCA was founded more than 30 years ago, contemporary art, its audience, and its context have changed dramatically. It is very exciting to see broader and more diverse audiences embrace visual art… It is essential that MOCA remain progressive and at the forefront of change, as it always has been. The museum’s upcoming program is a response to and an articulation of the current art and cultural landscape today.

Deitch then directs attention to upcoming exhibits, not to fiscal details.  The message is clear: no one wants to view MOCA as a company despite its recent pre-occupation with finances.

The conflict, according to Deitch and supporters like Broad, boils down to two worlds: an “old culture” personified by Schimmel (who began his tenure as MOCA’s curator in 1990) and Baldessari (who is 81), and a new era that welcomes celebrity glitz and glamor with open arms.

Are artists like Baldessari and Ruscha, known for their contributions to Contemporary Art, in fact, no longer contemporary? The artist-trustees have left many questions in their wake, the most pressing of which is about as simple as it gets:


So what’s next?

Kit Warchol