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GO EAST, YOUNG MOCA : L.A.'s Modern Art Museum Seeks Funds and Friends in New York

The players : Museum of Contemporary Art Director Richard Koshalek and Associate Director Sherri Geldin.

The mission : Go east to raise funds, cultivate the media and build collections.

The setting : New York City in autumn, from art openings in the East Village to black-tie openings at the Museum of Modern Art, from the executive suites at IBM and American Express to the bar at the new Palladium disco.

The background : The $20-million MOCA building is still under construction on Bunker Hill downtown (scheduled to open in 1986), but already its founders have endowment commitments of $22 million, 17,000 members, 381 artworks, and a huge, temporary exhibition hall in Little Tokyo called the Temporary Contemporary that is expected to become permanent. Koshalek and other MOCA executives buzz in and out of New York regularly to raise money and make friends.

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Neither Geldin nor Koshalek wears a watch. She doesn’t own one; his is being fixed. Geldin carries catalogues and press kits. Koshalek carries a slim reporter’s notebook that he bought at Harvard Univerity’s Co-op on an excursion to Boston just before Calendar joined the trip.

The reporter looks in at frequent intervals with her own reporter’s notebook--and wears running shoes.

MONDAY

DAY 1:

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3:05 p.m.--Their plane from Boston an hour late, Koshalek, Geldin and MOCA development director Kerry Buckley rush into the lobby of the Park Lane Hotel, across the street from Central Park. They’re due at New York magazine in 55 minutes and Koshalek wants to work in a quick stop at Sotheby’s to look at a painting. After they check-in.

Koshalek ushers us all into a cab. The cabdriver gets lost because we have no address for Sotheby’s, but Koshalek is busy doing a briefing: “We had a good meeting with Polaroid this morning. It looks like there’s a very good chance they’ll be a funder in the future. Well worth the trip to Boston.”

3:45 p.m.--Cabdriver finds Sotheby’s. A Los Angeles collector wants Koshalek to look at a painting being auctioned off the next day. Koshalek examines the painting, front and back, and asks plenty of questions about its history and sales possibilities.

4:20 p.m.--We arrive 20 minutes late for a meeting with Kay Larson, New York magazine’s art critic, and walk through the newsroom to a wood-paneled conference room. Larson takes no notes, a pattern followed by other writers at other such MOCA “briefings.” But this reporter and Koshalek take lots of notes.

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Koshalek: “Kay, we just want to introduce you to MOCA.”

Introduction includes several visuals. Geldin pulls photos of the museum out of a press kit and Koshalek provides the narrative.

Some of the narrative: The Temporary Contemporary museum lease with the City of Los Angeles was originally for five years, and Koshalek says that MOCA expects to sign a lease soon for 30 more years. They have two extensions of 10 years each beyond that. When the lease expires, he concludes, he’ll be 94.

Koshalek and Geldin initiate an extremely effective line of patter wherein Larson and every other journalist they meet with will be enticed to set aside December, 1986, and head for the Coast to cover MOCA’s opening. Any earlier articles are also encouraged. Sunny California. Larson says, well, if something is important enough and big enough, she can probably get out.

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Important? Big? Koshalek steps up the pitch: The first show will include many New York artists. And remember, the Allen Ruppersberg show, the one that just played New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, started at MOCA.

Here, as in other meetings, the MOCA people interview the interviewers wherever possible. Larson, for instance, says her family is in Los Angeles and she went to high school and college there. (Koshalek reaches for his notebook.) Little conversation and few questions seem idle. They talk about museums and art journalists and nobody uses discretion. (Reporter feels invisible.)

The table top by now is covered with photos, New York magazines and MOCA catalogues. The wrapping from a recent catalogue lays crumpled next to a full ashtray. Says Larson: “Thanks for coming around. I don’t often get personal visits.”

5:30 p.m.--Downtown to Ivan Chermayeff’s office, 40 minutes late. Koshalek introduces an irritated Chermayeff as “a designer who understands art.” Goal is to solve several design problems, especially how to distinguish graphically between the Temporary Contemporary and the showplace going up on Bunker Hill.

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Koshalek reminds Chermayeff of how the designer first thought of the name Temporary Contemporary over lunch one day at the Chateau Marmont. Nodding, Chermayeff says, “Logic says you should call (the Bunker Hill site) the permanent. Koshalek says someone suggested Xtemporary Contemporary, or XTC for short. Cute, says Chermayeff, unimpressed.

Other problems: Can you call something that is no longer temporary, temporary? There will be two sites, two restaurants, two bookstores--how do you distinguish them from one another? What do you call donor groups? (Somebody suggests Support Circles.) What about the donor wall and what Koshalek refers to as “a complicated donor recognition package”?

Nothing is resolved but everyone writes everything down.

TUESDAY

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DAY 2:

9 a.m.--We meet with Kurt Andersen, an associate editor at Time magazine, for breakfast at the Park Lane. The Park Room, where many of MOCA’s meetings are held over meals, has a view of Central Park that takes the breath away. Besides providing a running commentary on MOCA’s accomplishments and plans, Koshalek tosses assorted conversation balls into the air, hoping Andersen will catch. They talk about what’s good and bad at assorted shows, which buildings work and don’t, which architects are hot.

Later, Koshalek is asked what he got out of the meeting. “I got to know him. He’s Time’s architecture critic and we have a new building we’d like Time to review. We’ll do architectural programming. For us, it’s presenting Kurt Andersen with MOCA face to face and also I learn from this. We hear names, talk about exhibitions and hear what everyone thinks have been building problems at other museums. What went right or wrong.”

Adds Geldin: “It’s as much our interviewing them as them interviewing us. If we had to present the MOCA case over and over, it would get stale.”

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1 p.m.--Lunch at the Four Seasons with Newsweek art critic Mark Stevens, who has followed Koshalek’s art-world odyssey since Koshalek was director of the Hudson River Museum in nearby Westchester County. Koshalek passionately describes a series of four projects with light artist Maria Nordman, noting, among other things, that she wouldn’t allow documentation and therefore they are almost totally unknown. “We have no photographs. They just happened. This was a fantastic installation, and maybe 10 people saw it.”

A few minutes later, a phone is brought to the table. Koshalek seems embarrassed and looks at it as if it were a live snake. He answers and writes numbers down in his notebook. The museum just got a $30,000 grant from the California Arts Council.

3 p.m.--To Central Park West and the apartment of Sanford Schwartz, a contributor to the New Yorker. Koshalek’s goal: To meet Schwartz, find out what his interests are, who he is, what he thinks about. “I think he will start to play a more prominent role in the art world. It’s also good for us to find out what artists he’s interested in because in the future he might contribute to a catalogue or lecture at the museum.”

4 p.m.--Over to 10th Avenue and the recently renovated, futuristic offices of designer Massimo Vignelli. He’s one of several designers on both coasts who are involved in current and future MOCA activities.

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Vignelli’s penthouse office suite is behind steel doors, and a voice from nowhere offers instructions on how to get in. The impeccably dressed designer takes us into a conference room with no visible doors--the reporter would later walk into a row of shelves while attempting to find the exit upon leaving--and seats us at a black steel table.

Vignelli opens a file folder. Needed are such things as an announcement to hold the date for invitations to what could be 12 different inaugural-week events. A souvenir book. Commemorative booklet. Possibly a program card at the dedication.

Koshalek draws MOCA’s architectural profile on a page of his notebook. Vignelli says, “Add a palm tree so people know it’s California.” MOCA president Lennie Greenberg says: “We’re not using our entire budget on a graphic.”

6 p.m.--The reporter suggests an evening excursion to David Hare’s “A Map of the World,” opening this night at the New York Public Theater downtown. In the 18 minutes before curtain, the group has tuna on pita bread, a little seltzer. Play is engrossing and intelligent. Koshalek can’t wait to see what the critics say.

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WEDNESDAY

DAY 3:

8:30 a.m.--Koshalek brings the New York Times review of “Map of the World” to breakfast. Critic Frank Rich called the play “this extraordinarily clever, if erratic, comedy about the perilous intersection of literary aesthetics, global politics and private lives. . . .”

10 a.m.--Meeting with Herbert J. Katz, director of P.R. at SCM Corp., the chemical-paper-food-typewriter conglomerate. He explains that SCM, which has been supporting museum shows for 12 years now, looks for shows that are affordable, that allow SCM to associate itself with a prestigious institution and that generate considerable attention. SCM is in it “for self-interest, not God, motherhood and culture.” But should SCM go private, which he says is currently a distinct possibility, “a lot of reasons we were funding the arts go out the window. We won’t need annual reports. . . . Arts become 412th in priority.”

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Over the next half hour or so, Katz discourses on why he likes El Greco, on the ineffable quality of art and his favorite painting, El Greco’s St. Martin and the Beggar. Along the way, he refers to such contemporary genres as minimalism as “cerebral. Art touching them . . . that’s what people want . . . people get tired of seeing 12 rocks on the floor or six sticks on a wall.”

Koshalek sits there quiet, polite, head in his hands, body slumped, MOCA photos on his lap. As Katz drones on, Koshalek starts to look at the photos himself. Then he has a thought, brightens, and leans toward Katz. When was the last time you were in Los Angeles, Koshalek asks smiling, his hands full of shiny, new MOCA photographs.

Katz: “I have never been to Los Angeles.”

It’s now past 11, their next appointment is waiting, but the proverbial tide turns. Katz says, “Strange as it seems, we do not get enough proposals. We always like to make a choice . . . among exhibitions.” What would the coming show of artworks by sculptor John Chamberlain cost? $150,000, and MOCA has already received a $45,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Says Katz: “Send me stuff and let me look at it.”

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11:30 a.m.--Koshalek and Geldin practically run the few blocks or so to the Waldorf-Astoria, dodging people on the street and in the lobby en route to the coffee shop. Gone is the Wall Street Journal writer with whom they had an 11:00 a.m. appointment. Geldin heads for a phone, the reporter heads for Bloomingdale’s and Koshalek takes to a booth by himself. “When things happen like that,” he says later, “I have coffee. I stop for a while. Then we’ll get the train back on the track.”

1 p.m.--Lunch with John Russell, art critic for the New York Times, in the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel. Koshalek has known Russell since 1977, when Russell visited the Hudson River Museum and wrote so glowingly of what he saw that the Hudson River Museum started getting considerably more visitors from Manhattan. (Koshalek can still remember the headline of Russell’s review: “A museum in touch with the past, in touch with the present and in touch with the future.”)

Earlier this year, Russell’s wife, Rosamond Bernier, editor-at-large at House and Garden, was quite taken with an architectural drawing done by Koshalek’s daughter Anne, age 11, and submitted it to her editors. House and Garden reproduced Anne’s floor plan and wrote a story about its youngest subscriber. “More people have seen that article than ever saw any article on MOCA,” Koshalek says later.

Sample conversation between Koshalek and Russell:

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Koshalek: “John, you know that painting you wrote about, ‘Departure From Egypt’ by Anselm Kiefer?”.

Russell nods.

Koshalek: “We bought it.”

Russell: “You must be in the chips.”

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3 p.m.--Short walk to IBM, which has put up $600,000 to underwrite MOCA’s inaugural show. With a working title “Individuals: A Selective History of Contemporary Art, 1945-1986,” the show features work drawn from particular periods in the careers of about 50 artists and will be on view for a full year.

Koshalek tells the reporter how both MOCA chairman William Kieschnick, president and chief executive officer emeritus of Atlantic-Richfield Co., and Mayor Tom Bradley paved the way with IBM, writing on MOCA’s behalf to IBM Chairman John Opel. But nothing was sure, and when the grant letter arrived, Koshalek was so nervous he wouldn’t open the envelope. Alma, his assistant, had to open it and tell him if it was a yes or a no. Alma has opened all grant correspondence since then.

Back to today where up in Richard Berglund’s corner office on the 37th floor, everybody has his/her file folder open, and Koshalek is asking questions: How should MOCA publicize its relationship with IBM? What should they put in a press release? Can they give a dollar figure? What about extra money for publicity, press kits and colored banners to help people find MOCA from the freeway?

Berglund reads Koshalek’s proposal and says the numbers look realistic. “You didn’t think we were going to walk away from you, did you?”

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4:30 p.m.--MOCA expects to receive a “monumental earthwork located outside of California as a a major gift from a prominent collector.” It would be the first acquisition of its kind by a museum, Koshalek teases. An announcement is expected later.

Koshalek and Geldin leave to meet with lawyers about the secret earthwork. Reporter goes off in search of the muse.

6:30 p.m.--Group reassembles at Malinda Wyatt Gallery in the East Village. Koshalek is by the front window talking with Wyatt when artist Francesc Torres walks by. Torres sees Koshalek, smiles, doubles back and says he’s on the way to his own opening two doors down at PPOW gallery. Koshalek turns to Geldin: “We have two minutes?” Geldin shrugs. Entourage moves two doors down.

Pretty casual over at the PPOW, where Koshalek takes a glass of champagne and wanders off to meet the owner of the gallery. Koshalek, who commissioned a work in 1980 from Torres for the Hudson River Museum’s planetarium, listens with obvious pleasure as Torres tells him about his show next May at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. Time’s up. Torres slaps Koshalek affectionately on the back, saying “You don’t know how happy I am that I saw you tonight.”

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8 p.m.--Group moves to One Fifth Avenue, an art deco restaurant. Dinner guests include Pilar Viladas, a senior editor at Progressive Architecture, Los Angeles architect Frederick Fisher and Wyatt Gallery artist Stephen Davis, who Koshalek knew from Hudson River days. Koshalek’s goal at dinner: “None. None at all.” As dinner ends, Koshalek picks up a menu, writes the date on top, autographs it with his thick black pen, then sends it around the table for everyone to sign as a souvenir for the reporter. Somebody signs on as Dwight Gooden. (He was busy at the moment hurling baseballs for the Mets, but whoever did it had nice handwriting.)

10 p.m.--Koshalek snaps on black tie in cab uptown to Museum of Modern Art. There he works the crowd, talking with both L.A. and N.Y. dealers, with artist Ellsworth Kelly, with MOMA director Richard Oldenburg. (Koshalek, Geldin and senior curator Julia Brown had met with artists, dealers and curators in New York the week before Calendar joined up with them.) As the crowd thins, Koshalek and company decide to make a short stop at the Palladium disco back in the East Village. Arata Isozaki, the architect who designed MOCA’s Bunker Hill facility, designed the Palladium.

11:30 p.m.--At the Palladium, nobody can figure out when or where a scheduled fashion show has occurred, will occur or is indeed occurring. Dance floor very crowded. Balconies not so crowded. At the edge of one balcony, as a huge device laden with TV monitors moves heavenward, Koshalek turns to the reporter, and says very proudly that Paul Marantz, who created the Palladium lighting, engineered the skylight designs and other artificial lighting for MOCA’s new home.

THURSDAY

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DAY 4:

9 a.m.--Breakfast with artist Red Grooms at the Cupping Room Cafe in SoHo. Koshalek met with Grooms earlier in his trip regarding transportation and installation of Grooms’ coming MOCA show so this meeting is primarily social.

Koshalek first saw Grooms’ work in 1968 at the Venice Biennale in Italy and later received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to commission Grooms to construct the bookstore of the Hudson River Museum. The two men discuss their daughters, their memories of prior joint efforts, the MOCA show in mid-March.

The MOCA exhibition will include screenings of Grooms’ films at Tut’s Fever, a part of the exhibition that Grooms calls “the only portable lavish movie palace in the country.”

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11 a.m.--Odyssey continues further downtown at offices of American Express, where Susan Bloom, vice president, cultural affairs, suggests a contest to name MOCA’s new building. She says she’ll also think about possible names herself. Conversation moves to funding options.

Koshalek suggests American Express underwrite “Zangezi,” a play to be directed by Peter Sellars and performed as part of MOCA’s inaugural program.

Bloom: “We have found the visual arts work better for us.”

Koshalek: “Underwrite the L.A. part of an exhibition tour?”

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Bloom: “We prefer to fund an entire tour.”

Koshalek starts calling out names of artists, some of them decidedly unconventional.

Bloom replies that American Express “is a pretty conservative company. Site people are not our bag. We have a tough time with (‘60s Pop artist) Roy Lichtenstein.”

The meeting is nearing its end when Bloom leans forward and asks her Los Angeles visitors if they have two more minutes. (Answer is obvious here.) Since American Express is a MOCA founder, is there anything her company can do during the inaugural period? Koshalek suggests sponsoring one evening event. Bloom says that sounds good and writes it down. Can memberships be charged on the American Express card? If so, she’ll look into a mailer offering something like “join now and come to a reception.”

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Bloom: “You get members, we get members.”

Koshalek: “And we all go to heaven.”

In the cab afterwards, Buckley, who has been MOCA’s development director since mid-May, explains that this was an exploratory meeting to introduce American Express to MOCA to see what might be of mutual interest. But she reminds the reporter that “when it gets down to the final request (at American Express or anywhere else), it’s essential that a key board member make the presentation to the top executive because in this business peer must ask peer.”

Yet these meetings are also important, Buckley continues, because they establish an ongoing relationship with a corporation. She and her colleagues are introducing MOCA to the philanthropic community much as they have been introducing the new museum to New York’s media community.

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1 p.m.--Back to the Park Room for lunch with Luisa Kreisberg, communications consultant for MOCA’s inaugural events. Kreisberg, the former Museum of Modern Art press director who engineered publicity and media coverage of its grand reopening in 1984, is now in business for herself. When she asks for a run-down on who they’ve seen on this trip, and how it went, Koshalek readily obliges:

“What we accomplished on this trip, Luisa, is we presented the case for MOCA in a very serious way. They were person to person meetings. . . . At the end of each, I asked when (the person) was coming to Los Angeles, and when the meeting was over, I called and dictated a letter of invitation.”

Back to publicist Kreisberg, very eager to maximize what she considers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: MOCA’s opening, she says, “isn’t just cultural history--it’s social history.”

Over desert, Kreisberg reports that coming up is nothing less than a “culture lunch” with principal writers from the New York Times’ arts staff. “We have to get the Mayor (Bradley) and (MOCA chairman)Kieschnick,” says Koshalek. “I’ll buy a new suit. It’s a big day.” Kreisberg promises to rehearse everybody beforehand.

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3 p.m.--Meeting at Time Inc., the last New York stop. On the way over, Koshalek tells the reporter that Zachary Morfogen, Time’s director of corporate cultural affairs, has been to the Temporary Contemporary four times.

But Morfogen has his own agenda. Due at Los Angeles’ Natural History Museum in 1987 is the Time, Inc.-backed “Hollywood: Legend and Reality” exhibition. Morfogen makes it clear that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is sponsoring complementary activities and that he hopes MOCA will do the same. All the major European museums are interested in the Hollywood show, he tells us, handing every person in the room a press kit.

A while later, Morfogen proposes $5,000 from Time Inc. to ensure free MOCA visits for Time’s Los Angeles employees, an idea Buckley had discussed previously with executives at Time’s Home Box Office subsidiary in Los Angeles. (That proposal will soon go before MOCA’s annual giving committee, Buckley said later.)

Assorted pleasantries and promises later, Morfogen is saying goodby to his guests from the Coast. “Whenever I’m in California, everybody knows you,” he tells Koshalek, helping him on with his jacket. “And you know everyone. And they say nice things.”

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Koshalek smiles, heads for the door, a cab and the airport.

EPILOGUE

So what came out of all this wining, dining and doing?

On the design front, Koshalek reports that Chermayeff completed initial redesign of the museum logo in order to accommodate MOCA’s second location in Bunker Hill’s California Plaza. Due in this week’s mail is a design concept from Vignelli for opening-event invitations.

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The New York Times ran a long item in its Art People column about how “the enthusiastic” Koshalek came East to meet with artists, art collectors and museum people. Koshalek also hints of “several pages” in Vogue magazine next year based on contacts initiated by just a phone call while he was in New York.

As a direct result of last month’s Boston trip, Koshalek continues, MOCA received “a substantial grant” from Polaroid toward performing-arts programs scheduled during the inaugural year; a formal announcement is expected later this year. After meeting with MOCA executives on this trip, IBM decided to grant at least another $100,000 for publicity and promotion for the inaugural exhibition.

Yet despite all the successes of this jaunt eastward, Koshalek has already been back to New York again. From his hotel room the evening before another meeting with American Express’ Susan Bloom, Koshalek was direct as he talked by phone with the reporter in Los Angeles: “We keep at them.”


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