With no major exhibitions since a Mike Kelley show in March, the new leadership team at the Museum of Contemporary Art announced a 2015-16 schedule on Thursday punctuated by a Matthew Barney show at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary next fall and an Elaine Sturtevant show this spring at MOCA Grand Avenue.
"It was very important to me that the first year be dedicated to artists, to almost give the museum back to artists," director Philippe Vergne said in an interview. "Then we'll start layering group shows, historical exhibitions. But for now, let's develop scholarship around these artists; let's do projects that maybe other institutions wouldn't do."
The Barney exhibition is the artist's first major museum show in L.A. It brings together enormous sculptures, photographs and drawings inspired by a new film, about seven years in the making, that the artist co-produced with the Laurenz Foundation in Switzerland. Because the sculptures are so heavy, the work will travel by ship from the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. The exhibition is a collaboration between the Australian museum and the Haus der Kunst in Germany, curated by Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, with MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth organizing the show in L.A.
The Sturtevant show comes from New York's Museum of Modern Art. Molesworth calls Sturtevant "in many ways, the first appropriation artist." MOCA is the only American museum that owns Sturtevant work — two pieces, one of which is on loan to MoMA for the retrospective, the first comprehensive survey of the artist's work. MOCA senior curator Alma Ruiz is organizing the show in L.A.
Plans call for Molesworth, a feminist art historian, to dive into MOCA's permanent collection. She plans an exhibition for next fall, around the time that the Broad museum opens across the street, sparking a dialogue of sorts between the two contemporary art museums.
"There's all this good will and energy around MOCA right now, and I'd like to sort of repay that with an amazing exhibition that says, 'This is why this was an institution worth saving,'" said Molesworth, who started her job in September. "It's my sort of opening gesture in a way."
When Vergne took his post in March, following the turbulent departure of former director Jeffrey Deitch, little programming had been scheduled for 2014 and beyond. But Molesworth saw that as an opportunity.
MOCA, she said, "is like a start-up with one of the best exhibition histories in the country."
To bring in more emerging and perhaps overlooked midcareer artists, the schedule also includes an art film, "m.A.A.d," by L.A.-based Kahlil Joseph in the spring, as well as a fall 2016 retrospective of work by New York artist R.H. Quaytman. Joseph's film traverses largely African American neighborhoods in L.A. and has a soundtrack by hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar. Quaytman's exhibition includes about 100 old and new paintings that blend elements of geometric abstraction, photography and literary history.
Also on the schedule: Installations by Chicago-based William Pope.L that will take over the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo. They include a new performance created by the artist and a 50-foot-by-20-foot American flag, commissioned for the show, that will be blown continuously during museum hours as it frays in wind generated by industrial fans.
German designer Bernhard Willhelm, who recently relocated to L.A. from Paris, created a site-specific sculptural installation featuring video, photography and ephemera that will show at MOCA's Pacific Design Center. The museum described the work as a response to the uniformity of current fashion trends and a look forward at fashion in the 22nd century.
Museum shows typically take years to develop, but Vergne said he and Molesworth wanted to expedite programming without compromising their visions or making impulsive decisions. Toward that end, they brought in some artists with whom the museum staff already had relationships. Vergne has known Sturtevant for 20 years, he said, and brought her into the 2006 Whitney Biennial, which he co-curated. Vergne has known Barney since 1997, and MOCA senior curator Bennett Simpson showed Pope.L in his 2012 "Blues for Smoke" exhibition.
"We fast-tracked, but we didn't make decisions in a huff," Vergne said. "I wanted the exhibition programming to be balanced; it's important that we have Sturtevant and R.H. Quaytman to make sure women artists are visible in the program and that it be inclusive of artists of color. On this level, I think we have more work to do, but it's getting there."
A retrospective of African American artist Kerry James Marshall is in the works for 2017. Molesworth curated the exhibition for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago before she took the MOCA job. (It comes to MOCA from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) A Zoe Leonard survey is in the works for 2017.
Additional programming, the museum said, is in the works for MOCA Pacific Design Center and the Geffen.
Molesworth said the Sturtevant show speaks to MOCA's "core, art-interested audience" whereas Pope.L will reach "a much wider audience interested in art's ability to frame and shape larger social conversations."
With Barney, she said, "we touch the Hollywood tentacle, spectacle culture, the wild ambition of contemporary art when it comes to new production methods and no boundaries between mediums. And with the permanent collection, we really stake our claim for what a museum is."