It's an unusually quiet fall morning outside Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. A lone office worker scurries past in skirt and tennis shoes, heels peeking out of her purse; otherwise, the street is nearly deserted of cars and only sunlight splatters the sidewalk.
Inside, however, MOCA's interconnecting galleries are alive with transition. Installation crews for the exhibition "Room to Live: Recent Acquisitions and Works from the Collection" bang and thump away, hanging artworks on blinding white walls that reek of fresh paint. Framed photographs rest on the floor, lining the side of one gallery. An orange scissor lift beeps as it rolls toward a towering sculpture that needs attention.
The exhibition's curator, Bennett Simpson, pauses amid the activity, an island of calm in the chaos.
"There's a lot to think about," he says in a fluid, metered tone, surveying the room.
"Room to Live," on display through mid-January, showcases several of MOCA's newer acquisitions of the past several years — though nowhere near all of them — as well as works from the 1960s to the present from the museum's permanent collection. Many of the pieces have never been shown publicly.
It's very much a curator's show in the sense that there wasn't a built-in structure or obvious checklist that might guide a show about a particular artist or historical period. Instead, Simpson sifted through some 6,800 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photography, video and installation pieces — sometimes working from memory, other times with the help of a computer database or checking the museum's on-site storage area — to decide what to fish out from the permanent collection and pair with the recent acquisitions.
"The inspiration always starts by talking with artists in their studios," Simpson says. "But whenever you get into the galleries and you're installing work, your ideas about a show change. It becomes physical and spatial. I sketch, I make a million checklists, I pick a few anchor works I know I want to include and then build around that."
Many of the newer works are enormous sculptures or sweeping, multifaceted installations that need lots of space — or "Room to Live." Marnie Weber's recently acquired "Giggle of Clowns" is a brightly colored, theatrical piece that takes over an entire gallery with fiberglass clowns and an eerie soundtrack of funeral and carnival music.
Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch's video installation "The Re'Search" — part of their "Re'Search Wait'S" movie quartet seen in 2010's "Any Ever" exhibition at MOCA's Pacific Design Center space — fills a room crammed with home-decor-style paintings and living room furniture. Just outside of the gallery are more than 125 photographs from Nan Goldin's "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" series — likely familiar images to many museum-goers, but infused with new context when set against the late-night psychodrama of the Trecartin-Fitch collaboration.
"There are a lot of connections to be made between them," Simpson says. "About friends, youth culture and late-night bohemia, images of a kind of death and camaraderie and intimacy."
The title of the exhibition also speaks to its themes: many of the works, new and old, deal with ideas of architecture, domesticity, growth and sense of place. William Leavitt's new-to-the-museum "Warp Engines," for example, is a re-creation of a kitschy, SoCal Midcentury living room anchored by a giant, plastic molecule.
As a somewhat insular and self-referential show, "Room to Live" is also timely, if strategic. MOCA itself is in a state of transition. The museum recently brought on an interim director, Maria Seferian, to oversee much-needed fundraising efforts and help complete its search for a permanent director. Earlier this year, philanthropist and life trustee Eli Broad said he would not be continuing his $3 million-a-year gift to MOCA, ending his five-year run as the institution's primary funder to focus on the 2014 launch of the Broad, his museum directly across the street from MOCA. Seferian says the museum hopes to have identified a permanent director by year's end.
All of this puts MOCA in the spotlight as museum-goers anxiously await news of how the museum —and its collection — will grow and change.
"This show — it's telling the story of a museum too," Simpson says. "The museum needs room to live, the collection needs room to grow, the curators need room to think within the collection, so in that sense, the museum itself is also the room — or the room is the museum."
From an artist's point of view, Weber says, "It's a very beautiful and well thought-out show. It's curated with Los Angeles and the importance of a museum in mind. When MOCA first opened, it was called the artists' museum. And I felt this was a curated show that celebrates artists in L.A."
MOCA acquires on average 50 works a year, although in 2011 one collector made a gift of more than 125 works by Southern California artists, including John Baldessari, Mike Kelley and Sharon Lockhart.
The acquisition process is long and involved. Curators propose a work, then there's a vote by one of three committees — one devoted to photography, another to drawings and works on paper, and one to paintings, sculptures and large installations. The members are mostly museum trustees and upper-level donors, many of whom are art collectors. Gifts to the museum, which typically come out of curator relationships with patrons, artists and others in the art world, can take years to develop.
Simpson personally makes studio visits and will spend years tracking a particular artist's work before isolating one piece to suggest for acquisition. One such piece in "Room to Live" is a wall-length, allegorical painting by Henry Taylor of Crips gang co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams confined to a prison yard. Simpson discovered it when he stopped by Taylor's Chinatown studio one afternoon to talk about an upcoming MOCA show, 2012's "Blues for Smoke."
"It was leaning up against the wall, upstretched and nailed to the wall. I said, 'Oh my God, I want this for 'Blues for Smoke!' We included it in the show, and then we bought it."
Hanging in "Room to Live," the newly acquired painting works particularly well — both thematically and with its muted earth tones — next to an acquisition from about five years ago, a giant Andreas Slominski sculpture of a monstrous, human-sized bird trap.
Simpson says it's a good example of how pairing new material with works from the permanent collection is an opportunity to re-contextualize the art, juxtapose ideas and aesthetics, tell new stories and offer new meaning. And it brings together work in an unexpected, charmingly counterintuitive way, crossing mediums, time periods and artistic styles.
"Finding new ways to show our growing collection — that was the basic impetus here," Simpson says. "It's a really important part of what a museum does, interpreting its collection. Framing new acquisitions with other works, and telling stories with its collection, that's the heart and soul of what a museum does."