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MOCA fires its chief curator

Helen Molesworth had been responsible as lead curator for the museum's two most critically admired shows.

Helen Molesworth, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art whose exhibitions have included the critically acclaimed 2017 Kerry James Marshall retrospective that was also a rare popular hit, has been fired, according to sources close to the museum.

MOCA Director Philippe Vergne took the dramatic step on Monday, sources say.

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An email sent to MOCA trustees Monday afternoon and obtained by The Times announced that Molesworth "is stepping down" from the high-profile post, among the most coveted of its kind nationally, effective immediately. The implication was that Molesworth had resigned.

"No," artist and board member Catherine Opie said by phone when asked about the email wording. "He fired her."

Efforts to reach Molesworth were unsuccessful. MOCA responded to The Times' requests for comment with a statement Tuesday afternoon that said: "The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and Helen Molesworth have decided to part ways due to creative differences. MOCA is grateful to Helen Molesworth for her work over the past 3 and a half years as Chief Curator at the Museum." The statement also said Molesworth "will continue to work with MOCA on her upcoming exhibition 'One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art,' scheduled to open in October 2018."

Opie said she called Vergne after receiving the surprise message and was told that Molesworth had not written a letter of resignation but was terminated for "undermining the museum." Opie was nonplussed.

"I think you have made a terrible mistake" by firing her, she said she told Vergne.

Molesworth joined the MOCA staff in 2014, moving to Los Angeles from the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Since then she has been responsible as lead curator for the museum's two most critically admired shows — "Kerry James Marshall: Mastry," a blockbuster that saw galleries crowded with visitors during its run last spring, and "Anna Maria Maiolino," a retrospective of the Brazilian artist that was a highlight of the citywide, Getty-sponsored initiative "Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA" in the fall.

Firing a chief curator is highly unusual. The post is responsible for setting the museum's general artistic agenda, which had been adrift at MOCA following a lengthy period of fiscal and board turmoil marked by the 2008 departure of former director Jeremy Strick and the tumultuous four-year tenure of New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch. For a museum of its size and international reputation, MOCA now has a small curatorial staff — just one senior curator and three assistants, in addition to the chief curator.

Typically, a director is charged with marshaling administrative support for the chief curator's agenda, with backing from a board of trustees. Observers knowledgeable of MOCA's inner workings say that conflict had arisen between Vergne and Molesworth over the direction of the artistic program, with Vergne assuming curatorial duties less commonly the purview of a museum director.

Vergne, himself a former chief curator at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, was lead curator for two large MOCA exhibitions — "Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010" in 2017, a traveling show that he brought with him from his prior post as director of New York's DIA Art Foundation, and "Doug Aitken: Electric Earth" in 2016.

Last month the museum was embarrassed by the mishandling of plans for the 2018 MOCA gala honoring one of its artist board members, Mark Grotjahn. After the event was announced, Grotjahn withdrew his acceptance of the honor, citing rumblings of constituent concern about a lack of diversity among the museum's three previous gala honorees, all of whom have been straight, white men.

The gala was quietly shelved on Friday, according to a museum insider not authorized to discuss the matter, with $1.4 million in pledges set to be returned to donors. The dust-up reflected a similar distinction between Vergne's high-profile exhibitions for two white male artists and Molesworth's for an African American male artist and a Latin American female artist.

Twitter: @KnightLAT

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UPDATES:

3:20 p.m.: This story has been updated with a statement from the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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