A year after Ed Ruscha joined three other prominent Los Angeles artists in resigning from the Museum of Contemporary Art's board of trustees, he has signed on to the board of another major California arts institution -- the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Ruscha has been elected to a three-year term on the SFMoMA board of trustees, a position that will allow him to influence the museum at a crucial time in its history. SFMoMA is in the midst of a $610-million renovation and expansion and has closed its central building until at least early 2016.
Ruscha, a longtime Culver City resident, said in an interview that he agreed to join SFMoMA because of his admiration for the museum's work and because the museum "doesn't appear to be in any bad straits. They seem completely flush.... If they were treading water or in any sort of trouble, I wouldn't know what I could add to the picture."
The artist said he left the MOCA board last summer because he was disappointed by the departure of Paul Schimmel, the museum's longtime chief curator. "He was like a flashlight in the dark," the 75-year-old artist said of Schimmel.
Ruscha said that he was supportive of Jeffrey Deitch, the controversial director who recently announced his resignation three years into a five-year contract with MOCA.
"I was behind him and I didn't think for one minute that it might be a bad choice," Ruscha said.
Deitch's background as a commercial art dealer "didn't bother me so much. People adapt, and he had some good ideas to begin with," said the artist. "I thought he would add some unconventional touch to the picture. Maybe it didn't work out for him. But he started to get the engine rolling."
But after Schimmel's departure, Ruscha joined fellow L.A. artists John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie in resigning from the MOCA board.
"I felt like I had done what I could do there, and it was time to move on," said Ruscha. The museum currently has no artists on its board.
Ruscha said that the MOCA board has been focused recently on increasing museum attendance, which has traditionally lagged other major L.A. museums. The board has also been raising money to increase the institution's endowment to $100 million.
SFMoMA reserves one seat on its board for a working artist who serves for a three-year period. Neal Benezra, the director of SFMoMA, said in a separate interview that the special board position comes with no financial obligations to the museum but includes the right to vote and participate in committees.
Benezra said that he invited Ruscha to join the museum's board specifically because he's not a local artist.
"I hope [the renovated museum] will launch us to another level nationally and internationally and so it seemed to be the right time to elect an artist trustee who wasn't from the Bay Area," he explained.
Another factor was Ruscha's popularity among the city's elite. "He's been avidly collected in this community privately so it seemed like a natural fit," said Benezra.
The SFMoMA board is chaired by Charles R. Schwab, the billionaire founder of the eponymous financial services company. Its president is Robert J. Fisher, who heads the clothing retailer Gap.
The museum has so far raised 90% of its $610-million capital campaign for the renovation and expansion, according to Benezra. The museum is nearly doubling its size. During its public hiatus, which began in June, it is co-presenting exhibitions with other Bay Area museums and art institutions.
Ruscha said he won't bring much financial acumen to his new post.
"I thought maybe I could bring the innocent eye of an artist and that might help," he said. "I thought maybe it could help integrate the L.A. and San Francisco arts picture, where maybe some people still perceive artists from Southern California as rude, crude cowboys."
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