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Artists return to MOCA board

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Capping 12 months that moved from a potential loss of independence to a chance at a fresh start under new museum director Philippe Vergne, L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art announced the return Tuesday of trustees John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie, prominent Los Angeles artists who had resigned from its board in 2012 as MOCA fell into upheaval, uncertainty and financial drift.

Kathi Cypres and Steven F. Roth, who left the board more quietly in 2012, are also back as trustees, MOCA announced.

Baldessari, Kruger, Opie and another noted artist, Ed Ruscha, had exited within a span of a few days in July 2012, pointedly voicing concerns about the functioning of the board or MOCA's direction under then-museum director Jeffrey Deitch.

Although Ruscha has not returned — he joined the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art about a year ago — MOCA will again have four artists trustees with the election of Mark Grotjahn, a Los Angeles artist known for his brightly colored abstract paintings and drawings. 

GRAPHIC: MOCA's ups and downs with Jeffrey Deitch

Ruscha did join Baldessari, Kruger and Opie last September as a volunteer on the search committee that MOCA formed to recruit a successor to Deitch, the prominent former New York City art dealer who left after a tumultuous three-year, three-month tenure in which the museum's budget and staff were reduced, including the departure of three of five curators.

"I hope now that some of MOCA's former luster can be restored," said Baldessari, who had served 12 years on the museum's board before exiting in 2012, decrying the ouster of respected longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel and complaining about MOCA's recent emphasis on intersections between art and pop culture. "I was impressed with Philippe and want to be supportive. There's nowhere to go but up."

Opie also expressed support Tuesday for Vergne, a veteran museum curator and administrator who had been director of New York's Dia Art Foundation and deputy director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

"I really believe in Philippe," she said, later adding, "It seems natural at this point that I come back to serve and support him as well as the other board members." 

TIMELINE: MOCA in flux

Grotjahn, who is in his mid-40s, has seven works in MOCA's collection and has had solo exhibitions at the Hammer Museum in L.A. and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, among others. Also joining MOCA's board is L.A. attorney Maria Seferian, who served as interim museum director after Deitch stepped down.

MOCA's unusual tradition of including artists on its board goes back nearly to its founding in 1979, when planning began for the museum that would open in 1983. By the end of 1980, star L.A. artists Robert Irwin and Sam Francis had joined. Artist Robert Graham served as a MOCA trustee in the 1990s, and the arrival of Baldessari, Ruscha, Kruger and Opie from 2000 to 2010 brought the artist representation on the board to a peak of four. MOCA's motto, "The Artist's Museum," reflects its ideal of being shaped by artists' vision in addition to displaying it.

Unlike regular board members, who commit to donate or raise at least $75,000 a year, artist trustees are not expected to make a financial commitment. Non-artist board members also make a $250,000 one-time, upfront commitment to MOCA, in addition to the annual dues. Museum spokeswoman Lyn Winter said that Cypres and Roth are considered not to have resigned from the board in 2012, but to be returning after leaves of absence. Cypres formerly worked in book publishing; Roth is a principal owner and operator of World Oil Corp. and also serves on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In March of last year, LACMA Director Michael Govan confirmed that his museum had proposed a takeover of MOCA in response to a request by an unidentified MOCA board member. In the preceding few months, word had leaked that MOCA had been in discussions about some kind of alliance with USC or the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Exactly one year ago the MOCA board announced that it would keep the museum independent and would try to lift its endowment to $100 million from $20 million. In January, MOCA announced it had met the initial goal and would continue the campaign, with a $150-million endowment as its new target.

The official celebration of Vergne's appointment, as well as those of MOCA's new board co-chairs Maurice Marciano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz, will take place at the museum's 35th anniversary gala on March 29. The event also celebrates the arrival of the exhibition "Mike Kelley," a touring show not organized by MOCA that gives the first comprehensive survey of the L.A. artist's work.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

deborah.vankin@latimes.com 

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