MOCA’s mural mess


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The Museum of Contemporary Art just got a very expensive lesson, both in money and prestige, on the difference between being an art museum and a commercial gallery. Simply put: At a museum, planning counts.

Last week MOCA raised eyebrows, immediately lighting up the blogosphere, when the the Italian street artist Blu painted an immense mural on the north wall of the Geffen Contemporary warehouse in Little Tokyo and, within hours, the museum had the mural -- which it had also commissioned -- whitewashed. As the facts emerged, so did the fatal error: MOCA had no clear idea what the artist would paint before he painted it.


Once MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who was in Miami for an annual art fair, returned home and saw Blu’s handiwork, he said no. Deitch later explained that he made the decision to remove the mural very quickly, unprompted by complaints -- presumably from outside or inside in the museum.

Deitch’s explanation for the decision is entirely reasonable. He told The Times that the mural -- nearly three stories high and almost the length of a football field -- was ‘insensitive’ to the local community. Depicting row upon row of coffins draped in dollar bills, it was adjacent to a war memorial.

‘This is 100% about my effort to be a good, responsible, respectful neighbor in this historic community,’ said Deitch, a former New York gallery owner with virtually no museum experience. In June he started work as the first art dealer to become director of a major American museum.

‘Look at my gallery website — I have supported protest art more than just about any other mainstream gallery in the country,’ he added, clearly stung by comparisons to the Smithsonian Institution’s recent blunder in censoring an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. ‘But as a steward of a public institution, I have to balance a different set of priorities — standing up for artists and also considering the sensitivities of the community.’

True. But the appropriate time for the decision was before the mural went up, not after. After, the museum suffers a self-inflicted wound. How? The difference between a commission from a public institution and one made for a private business is vast. A commercial gallery has wide latitude to be quick and dirty. An art museum is culture’s thoughtful professional custodian. Now, a potentially offending museum mural has been replaced by a metaphoric public billboard that says, ‘Amateur Hour at MOCA.’

Blu’s mural was commissioned in advance of ‘Art in the Streets,’ a big survey of graffiti and street art being organized by the director and set to open in April. Ironically, the current situation recalls one from 21 years ago -- at MOCA, on the south rather than the north wall of the same Little Tokyo warehouse and in relation to a planned exhibition.


Only the outcome then was very different.

Barbara Kruger was commissioned by MOCA to paint a mural for 1989’s ‘A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation,’ a sprawling show that also included works by Barbara Bloom, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince. But before the publicly prominent mural went up, curator Ann Goldstein presented the plan at a neighborhood meeting.

All hell broke loose.

Central to Kruger’s design was the Pledge of Allegiance, written in white letters on a crimson field and evoking an American flag -- seemingly an innocuous, even patriotic element of a more complex wall-painting. But that wall happens to face the embarkation point from which Japanese Americans were shamefully carted off to internment camps during World War II, their allegiance as citizens shockingly questioned by their own government. Thus began 18 months of community meetings, sometimes contentious, in which the artist, MOCA and the local neighborhood grappled with art, issues of cultural sensitivity and mutual responsibilities.

‘A Forest of Signs’ came and went, ranking among a long string of exceptional exhibitions that made MOCA the nation’s flagship museum for contemporary art. A full year after the show closed, Kruger’s reconfigured mural finally went up for a two-year run. It was considerably altered from the earlier design. But it was also still politically trenchant and conceptually sophisticated. Although temporary, the painting remains among the finest commissions the museum has undertaken.

Another irony: Today Kruger sits on the board of trustees at MOCA, one of four artist-members. Somehow, I expect the museum’s next board meeting will be an unusually interesting gathering.

-- Christopher Knight



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