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MOCA board shakes it up; elects new chairwoman, Maria Seferian

MOCA board shakes it up; elects new chairwoman, Maria Seferian
MOCA's board of trustees elected Maria Seferian its new board chair, replacing co-chairs Maurice Marciano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz. (Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art)

The board of trustees at the Museum of Contemporary Art announced on Tuesday that it’s shaking up its top leadership. At an Oct. 4 meeting, the board elected its president, Maria Seferian, as new chairwoman, replacing co-chairs Maurice Marciano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz. It also named board member Carolyn Powers new board president.

For the past decade, Seferian has played a number of key roles at MOCA. When she was a partner in the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, she served as general counsel to MOCA from 2008-13. After former museum director Jeffrey Deitch resigned in 2013, she stepped into the unpaid position of interim director and helped spearhead the search for new director Philippe Vergne. During that period, she led an aggressive fundraising campaign that brought the museum’s endowment from $22 million to $100 million. It’s currently at nearly $135 million. When Vergne joined MOCA in 2014, Seferian transitioned to board trustee and in 2015, president.

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“My involvement and dedication to the museum has been pretty longstanding,” Seferian says. “So it was a great honor to be selected by the board for this new role.”

The leadership changes come after a tumultuous year at MOCA, one that saw the firing of chief curator Helen Molesworth, the sudden departure of director Vergne and the recent appointment of new museum director Klaus Biesenbach. All of which has followed internal drama at the museum, including leadership changes and financial difficulties, since the mid-2000s.

Seferian chaired the search committee earlier this year for Biesenbach, whose appointment she calls “a turning point for us from an executive place.”

“We are all thrilled for Klaus’ incoming leadership,” Seferian says of Biesenbach, who takes his post Oct. 22 and comes to L.A. from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where he was chief curator at large and director of the satellite space MoMA PS1. “He really is an extraordinary visionary, programmatically, and he has deep administrative experience too and that’s what, among other things, attracted him to us.”

Powers has been on the board since 2009. She’s an active cultural philanthropist who serves on the boards of the Grammy Museum Foundation, the Kennedy Center National Committee for the Performing Arts and Americans for the Arts.

“This is an exciting and energizing moment to be working with MOCA,” Powers says via email. “Klaus’ inspiration and influence will nurture the vision and passion for MOCA’s future. I look forward to partnering with Maria, my fellow trustees and the staff to herald this remarkable time.”

MOCA has been under scrutiny this year, particularly over issues of diversity. In February, artist board member Mark Grotjahn declined a previously accepted honor to be the 2018 gala honoree because the honorees before him have been straight, white men. The gala was canceled. Around the same time, artist board member Lari Pittman, who is gay and Latino, resigned his seat on the board, partly over lack of diversity at the museum.

On the heels of that, reaction to Biesenbach’s appointment was mixed – some viewed him as a groundbreaking curator and strong leader, others criticized the hiring of a Caucasian man born in West Germany and raised near Cologne. “One white European male leaves. Another enters,” New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz wrote on Twitter.

Seferian said that while diversity is important to the museum “at every level,” the appointment of two women to steer the board is not a reaction to criticisms about diversity but a recognition of her deep and varied experience at MOCA. Of the response to Biesenbach’s appointment, she added: “I deeply understand the reaction, the concern. But at the end of the day we chose the most qualified candidate and I’d encourage everybody to wait and see and judge him and the museum on the program we present.”

Going forward, the gala honorees – which in the recent past have been chosen by the board leadership – will now be selected by Biesenbach, Seferian says. This year’s gala celebrates MOCA’s 40th anniversary. A date and honorees have not yet been announced.

Meanwhile, board meetings, which have frequently been held offsite at hotel meeting rooms on the Westside closer to where many of the trustees live, will now be held at the museum, Seferian says.

Having served briefly as interim director, Seferian is in a unique position to better understand Biesenbach’s role and the needs of the museum, which could help facilitate communication between museum stakeholders. That in turn might result in a more coherent vision for MOCA, which is something the museum has also been taken to task for lacking.

“I’m confident in our ability to work together and also to keep the board unified,” she said. “It’s in a very good place right now. We stand stronger than ever, unified as a board, with clear and close communication with the director.”

Marciano and Tartikoff Karatz, who have served as board co-chairs since January 2014, will remain on the board. Seferian and Powers take their posts immediately.

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