The artists have officially abandoned LA MOCA, Los Angeles’s only museum devoted to contemporary art. Pioneering LA-based painter Ed Ruscha was the last to resign from the board of trustees, following fast on the heels of three other major LA artists: John Baldessari, Catherine Opie, and Barbara Kruger.
This must be getting embarrassing for museum director Jeffrey Deitch, contemporary art’s master showman, who left his New York gallery in 2010 to guide the museum out of an enormous budget crisis. A recent op-ed by philanthropist and MOCA trustee Eli Broad congratulated Deitch on the museum’s improving financial situation. However, the op-ed came as an attempt at damage control after the museum fired highly respected curator Paul Schimmel, whose exhibitions and acquisitions contributed to making MOCA a world-class contemporary art institution.
Deitch has already developed a reputation for glitzy, hastily-organized, and celebrity-fueled exhibitions, like a group show curated by James Franco and a Dennis Hopper retrospective. Baldessari commented on Deitch’s recently announced exhibition about disco culture in an LA Times interview: “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.”
The resignations are particularly significant for a museum that was founded in 1979 in part due to the advocacy of local artists. Opie and Kruger used their joint letter of resignation to voice larger concerns about the climate for contemporary art:
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.
The situation is starting to look similar to the problems plaguing higher education lately, where we’ve also seen clashes between management decisions and institutions’ values.
Image: Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1965 – 1968. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution © Ed Ruscha 2009