The Museum of Contemporary Art appears to be headed toward a potentially unpleasant speed bump on the road to recovery from several years of well-documented troubles: Its upcoming exhibition program is a mystery.
A big, challenging retrospective of mixed-media works by the late, hugely influential Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley closes Monday at MOCA's warehouse space in Little Tokyo. Then the building will be temporarily shuttered for some unspecified roof repairs.
A reopening date has not yet been set. But when it is, eager museum visitors can look forward to seeing — well, what they'll be seeing is hard to say. At the Geffen Contemporary, MOCA's future exhibition schedule is blank.
Meanwhile, over at the main MOCA building on Grand Avenue, a brash and witty show of Hollywood and mass-media-related videos, posters and altered photographs by Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli continues for a few more weeks. After "Cinema Vezzoli" closes Aug. 11, it will be followed by — well, who knows? Except for a place-holding, four-month presentation of Andy Warhol's large 1978-79 installation of silk-screened "Shadows," on loan from New York's Dia Art Foundation, nothing is on the schedule at MOCA Grand Avenue, either.
In fact, only MOCA's small satellite space at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood has anything specifically planned beyond its current show, "Steve McQueen: Drumroll," a video installation by the celebrated British artist and filmmaker whose brilliant "12 Years a Slave" won the best picture Oscar this year.
After "Drumroll" comes down in late September, MOCA/PDC will present "Cameron: Song for the Witch Woman," a show of paintings, drawings and ephemera by the nearly mythic Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel (1922-1995), a follower of British libertine and occult master Aleister Crowley.
The late L.A. artist's work is little-known now, so the exhibition should be revealing. But even that will be short-lived. After that show ends in January, the schedule for the PDC space is unfilled until the following September.
According to a museum spokesman, MOCA hopes to make some relevant announcements by the end of summer. But plainly, there's a problem. The empty exhibition schedule, which is going to be very difficult to fill, threatens to interrupt the museum's momentum.
After several rocky years, things have been looking up for MOCA in the last many months.
A new director, former Dia head Philippe Vergne, is in place. In late May, he named Helen Molesworth to the critically important job of chief curator — a closely watched appointment, given the furor over the forced resignation of her widely admired predecessor, Paul Schimmel, two years ago, and an appointment generally well-received.
Molesworth, whose impressive credentials most recently include the top curatorial job at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, begins work this month. It is expected that at least one and perhaps two additional curators will also be named, joining Alma Ruiz and Bennett Simpson on the MOCA roster.
The financial picture is also looking considerably better.
Trustees have announced pledges of more than $100 million to the museum's battered endowment, which had been inappropriately spent down in the years leading up to the 2008 national economic collapse, quickly transforming the institution from venerable to vulnerable. With those pledges in hand, board co-chairs Maurice Marciano, a partner in the Guess apparel empire, and philanthropist Lilly Tartikoff Karatz promptly upped the fund-raising goal to $200 million.
That endowment number is five times larger than any in MOCA's history. It is also closer to what an art museum of its stature requires.
Internationally recognized artists John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie returned to the board of trustees in May. Their resignations as artist trustees in the wake of Schimmel's 2012 ouster were stunning votes of no confidence for the direction then being taken by what was born as "the artists' museum." (Edward Ruscha, the fourth artist to quit in 2012, has also voiced renewed enthusiasm, but he has since joined the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) They have now been joined by painter Mark Grotjahn.
With all that optimistic news, the looming exhibition vacuum presents a significant dilemma.
It doesn't come from lack of trying. The gap is merely a legacy of the last few tumultuous years at the museum. Vergne inherited an empty schedule, and he is scurrying to find ways to fill it.
One of the big mistakes made by Jeffrey Deitch, Vergne's neophyte predecessor in the director's post, was adopting a business plan that dismantled the museum's established curatorial structure in favor of outsourcing the job to freelancers, who have little investment in the institution's future. Shows were put together fast, if not often well, and sometimes by curators with a business interest in the material.
The best exhibitions take time to conceive, develop, organize and mount. Because of the expense involved, most require the participation of museum colleagues elsewhere to share costs.
Simply plotting an exhibition's tour to other cities is time consuming, and once that tour is set it can be difficult to add another venue. Loans often cannot be extended, especially if a show has already been on the road for a couple years. Vergne faces difficulties picking up current traveling shows because museum exhibition schedules are typically mapped out a few years in advance.
Take "Pacific Standard Time," the sprawling array of exhibitions funded by grants from the Getty Trust that have been telling a history of art related to Southern California. In spring, the Getty announced $5 million in initial planning grants to 40 institutions, including MOCA, for the next "PST" installment, which will explore artistic connections between Los Angeles and Latin America. The first shows in "Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA" won't open until September 2017 — more than three years from now.
In a few weeks, we will find out what MOCA has been able to put together to begin to bridge the exhibition gap — a gap that will close definitively only when the newly rebuilding curatorial staff gets in gear. Meanwhile, the McQueen show at MOCA/PDC might offer at least a partial answer.
"Drum Roll," its centerpiece, is a large, three-screen video installation that is a 2004 partial and promised gift from MOCA life trustee Blake Byrne to the museum's celebrated permanent collection. MOCA has had "Drum Roll" for a decade, but because of its size, the impressive work has been shown only once before — nine years ago.
That's not uncommon. The museum's collection of paintings, sculptures, videos, drawings, photographs and installations from the last 75 years numbers roughly 6,000 works, but MOCA has never had adequate gallery space to present more than a small sliver of it. The museum could display big chunks of it now, even suspending admission fees as a gesture toward rebuilding and expanding MOCA's audience.
Perhaps the looming exhibition gap should be looked at another way. Rather than a problem, the temporary vacancy might turn out to be a matchless opportunity.