Amid signs of trouble, can MOCA find its footing?

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Amid signs of trouble, can MOCA find its footing?
The Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary, a warehouse exhibition space in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles, April 24, 2021. MOCA’s current trials have come just as the museum was hoping to emerge from a tumultuous history that has included two short-term directors, a raid on its endowment to pay the bills and a proposed merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Alex Welsh/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

LOS ANGELES (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Klaus Biesenbach, stylish in his signature midnight-blue suit and black ankle boots, recently strutted through the Geffen Contemporary, which is the Museum of Contemporary Art’s warehouse exhibition space. Talking about plans to reopen June 3 and about recent building improvements he has made as director, he came across like a guy with his hands on the steering wheel.

Yet just days before, MOCA had confirmed two key resignations: a senior curator, who departed citing museum leaders’ resistance to diversity initiatives, and the director of human resources, who said he left because of a “hostile” work environment.

And just two months earlier, the institution had announced that Biesenbach, hired in 2018 from MoMA PS1 in the New York City borough of Queens, would no longer hold the title of director but would be called “artistic director” and share power with an “executive director” for whom a search is underway.

To be sure, museums all over the country have been dealing with economic challenges caused by the pandemic and with staff pressure over diversity issues in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. During MOCA's yearlong closure because of COVID-19, its revenue and membership dropped 26% and 32%, respectively. The museum also laid off 97 part-time staff members. (About 30 full-time employees who were furloughed have returned.)

But MOCA’s current trials have come just as the museum was hoping to emerge from a tumultuous history that has included two short-term directors, a raid on its endowment to pay the bills and a proposed merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

MOCA’s founding chairman was billionaire philanthropist and contemporary art collector Eli Broad, who died Friday. In 2008, he brought the museum back from the brink of collapse with a $30 million bailout, and five years ago, he opened the Broad contemporary-art museum across the street.

Many in the art world say MOCA, which opened in 1979, has been overshadowed by the Broad, which reported annual attendance in 2019 of 917,489; MOCA had 357,747 visits (although attendance has grown over the past five years).

Some interpreted the recent leadership reorganization as a sign that Biesenbach, like his predecessors, was not long for MOCA, a manifestation of the concerns some expressed when he was appointed.

But in his first in-depth, in-person interview since taking the helm, Biesenbach, 54, said the chance to share the workload with an executive director was “a great opportunity.” And while acknowledging the challenges ahead, he said things are moving in the right direction.

“We’re coming out of a year of a lot of internal focus, pause, reflection. I'm humbly doing my best,” Biesenbach said, adding, “Every day is a chance to improve.”

Maria Seferian, who became MOCA’s chairwoman in 2018, said the incoming executive director will oversee operations, management and diversity efforts, enabling Biesenbach to concentrate on his strengths: programming exhibitions, working with artists and cultivating donors.

“This is not an example of getting rid of one director and bringing in another,” she said.

Asked if the move was a demotion for Biesenbach, Seferian said, “No, we’re thinking of it as an expansion and asking Klaus to do more of what he’s excellent at, like activating the artistic and philanthropic community.”

But the museum’s former human resources director, Carlos Viramontes, who quit in February after less than two years, said in an interview that an internal “360” review — in which staff members offer anonymous feedback — revealed negative evaluations of Biesenbach’s management performance, as well as that of other members of the senior leadership team.

In particular, Viramontes said, the reviews indicated that Biesenbach was often reluctant to make tough decisions because he didn’t want to be the bad guy and that staff members didn’t feel adequately supported by him.

“I don’t know if it’s so much that he’s unable, but he’s unwilling to be the leader,” Viramontes said. “He did not know how to manage others.”

When Viramontes shared the results of the 360-review process with his own supervisor, Amy Shapiro, MOCA’s deputy director, he said she took it out on him, as she — along with other senior leaders — had also received negative feedback.

“I just read the reviews to them, I didn’t write them, but my boss decided to make it a personal thing,” he said, adding, “I became the scapegoat. These same reviews that they say were problematic are what were used to demote Klaus.”

In an email, Shapiro responded: “I do not agree with Carlos’ allegations and characterizations, and his attempts to hurt MOCA are very upsetting.”

The museum said in a statement that an independent adviser had reviewed the same data and concluded that Viramontes had negatively skewed the conclusions in summarizing the feedback about MOCA’s executives. The museum also said the change to its leadership structure was not in response to the reviews.

“MOCA, together with Klaus, determined that an expanded leadership structure was in the museum’s best interests,” the statement said. “The new structure comes out of a pandemic year that allowed introspection on how the museum may best serve its staff and communities and is designed to strengthen artistic and philanthropic outreach.”

In an interview, Seferian pointed to Biesenbach’s accomplishments to date, including moving the museum to free admission with a $10 million gift from Carolyn Clark Powers, MOCA’s board president, and establishing Wonmi’s Warehouse, a performance program with a $5 million gift from Wonmi Kwon, a trustee, and her husband, Kihong.

Biesenbach said he was particularly proud of having animated the Geffen Contemporary in the city’s Little Tokyo section, a few blocks from MOCA’s Grand Avenue flagship, by installing two billboard-size works by conceptual artist Barbara Kruger on the facade; of planning an expanded sculpture park outside the entrance; and of reconfiguring the vast interior of the Geffen to create distinct exhibition spaces.

“When I arrived, this was just a warehouse and a parking lot,” Biesenbach said, surveying the area. “It’s going to be really beautiful.”

He noted that MOCA over the past year voluntarily recognized a new union — although the museum in a statement initially said that “we do not believe that this union is in the best interest of our employees or the museum” — and raised more than $450,000 for operating costs during COVID by selling artist-designed face masks.

MOCA is about to announce the addition of six new board members, bringing the total roster of trustees added under Biesenbach to 10 — three of whom are people of color.

Catherine Opie, a member of the board, said that splitting the director’s job made sense, given the prodigious workload, and that the museum had looked to two-prong models, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Serpentine Galleries in London (where Bettina Korek is CEO and Hans Ulrich Obrist is artistic director).

“It’s too big a job for one person,” Opie said.

Seferian emphasized that MOCA had regained a position of financial stability, having completed a campaign to build its endowment to more than $100 million in 2013. It now stands at more than $150 million. The operating budget — reduced to about $16 million from about $22 million during the pandemic — is balanced, Seferian said.

Moreover, some noted that since the museum was shuttered for nearly half of Biesenbach’s tenure, it was difficult to assess his leadership.

“It’s easy to say it’s not working out, but it’s not fair to evaluate any situation during COVID,” said Deborah McLeod, senior director of the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. Of Biesenbach, she added: “He’s great with collectors, has brought wonderful new people to the board and he’s great with artists. That’s a lot.”

Seferian explained in a February email to the staff that the incoming executive director “will be responsible for the overall management and operations of the Museum, including establishing key strategic, institutional and capital priorities, long range planning, as well as the implementation and advancement of critical initiatives of the Museum, including IDEA and other staff-forward initiatives.”

It was the museum’s current handling of IDEA, which stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility, that prompted Mia Locks, MOCA’s senior curator and head of new initiatives, to resign in March after less than two years on the job, saying in a parting email to the staff and cited in the Los Angeles Times that “MOCA’s leadership is not yet ready to fully embrace IDEA.”

Locks, who did not respond to messages seeking comment, was a significant loss for the museum, a rising Asian American woman in an art world eager to promote more women and people of color. A former curator, with Christopher Lew, of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, she also helped organize the 2015 Greater New York show at MoMA PS1.

Biesenbach said he is committed to diversity and pointed out that of 183 artworks acquired by MOCA since he arrived, 82 of the 124 artists who created them were Black, Indigenous, people of color (or BIPOC), female, and/or nonbinary. “I’ve made it a goal in terms of collecting and exhibiting,” he said.

Three of the board’s top officers are women: Seferian, Powers and the secretary, Heather Podesta. The museum has upcoming shows by several artists of color, including Henry Taylor, Jennifer Packer, Cao Fei, Tala Madani and Daniel Joseph Martinez.

Over the years, some have dismissed Biesenbach as more flash than substance — less good at running a museum than at bonding with artists and posting Instagram photos of himself with famous friends such as Patti Smith, Yoko Ono and Lady Gaga. He has also become known for attention-getting shows such as Björk’s in 2015 and Marina Abramovic’s in 2010 (both at MoMA).

Biesenbach said the criticism was unfair, adding that he simply posts good wishes to artists on their birthdays and that he otherwise works on behalf of the museum “24/6” — on Sunday, his one day off, he needs to “go to nature” and takes hikes in the Angeles National Forest. (He does not drive but plans to learn.)

Several of those who have attended Biesenbach’s Zoom studio visits during COVID have commended his lengthy, detailed discussions with artists such as Mickalene Thomas, William Kentridge and Arthur Jafa.

Biesenbach said he spends hours preparing for these interviews, which are broadcast from the spare warehouse home near MOCA that he shares with his Egyptian pet goose, Cupcakes. (He incubated the goose from an egg purchased online.)

“He has a really long history with artists all over the world,” said Bennett Simpson, MOCA’s longtime senior curator. “That’s great for the museum.”

Although MOCA has one of the finest collections of postwar art in the world, conventional wisdom is that the institution has been foundering.

Some in the art world posit that a merger still makes sense, either with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or with the Broad. But Seferian said that prospect is off the table. “We are committed to remaining independent and financially stable,” she said.

Although Seferian stands by Biesenbach, he sounded comfortable with the possibility of being a transitional figure, doing what he can for MOCA until the museum is turned over to “a new generation with a strong and different voice,” he said. “We must pass the baton when the time is ready.”

“Aggie would say, ‘Just think about if you can make a difference,’” Biesenbach added, quoting his good friend Agnes Gund, a prominent philanthropist. “I hope I can make a difference.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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