This MOCA staffer is a real party girl

Special to The Times

Vanessa Gonzalez and Allen Gorospe were seated at a small table outside the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, flipping through swatches of green and brown fabric. They were debating linen choices for the director’s reception for “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” opening this weekend at the Geffen along with “Andrea Zittel: Critical Space,” and the top contenders were a muted stripe, a textured weave in avocado and tan, and a chocolaty ultrasuede with a raised geometric pattern. “It’s nice,” Gorospe said diplomatically, caressing the suede. “I just think I’ve seen it in so many weddings.”

Gonzalez slammed the book shut. “That’s all you needed to say. We’re going with the avocado.”

As MOCA’s development events manager, coordinating an average of 35 events a year, Gonzalez is more rock ‘n’ roll chick than art geek, with her platinum hair, platform shoes, high-gloss lips and vanity plates that say “GR*UPIE.” Over the past five years, she’s produced events that have made MOCA one of the hottest social tickets in town, like this past fall’s “Skin + Bones” fete, which attracted such A-listers as Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. With the growing L.A. art scene, the museum’s membership has also shot up, which, according to MOCA’s director, Jeremy Strick, can be linked in part to “the unique atmosphere Vanessa helps to create.”


Gonzalez’s debut was the 2002 Warhol retrospective, which she turned into a Factory-inspired happening. She brought in a group of DJs who spun underground 45s from the ‘60s, which impressed the show’s curator, Ann Goldstein. “She was so amazed that they were spinning 45s,” Gonzalez recalled over sushi at R23. “It was so authentic for her. I’ll never forget that. I think that really just put it all in perspective for me: You can have the event be an extension of the work and the exhibition.”

That has remained her guiding principle. “I took every single event and I said, OK, I’m gonna educate myself about this artist; I want to know what this artist is about, when they grew up, what was important to them.”

For the 2005 opening for Jean-Michel Basquiat, a fixture on the early ‘80s New York club scene, there was only one entertainer on Gonzalez’s wish list: Grandmaster Flash. Starting a year in advance she worked to track him down, finally getting through to his manager, who had known Basquiat. “She was like, I remember that kid. He used to walk into the nightclub I managed and ask me for drink tickets.... That kid loved Flash.” At his manager’s urging, Flash agreed to do the gig -- for a fraction of his regular fee. “When it’s personal to them,” Gonzalez continued, “that’s when the fees get waived, that’s when it becomes ‘we’ll work with your budget.’ ”

When word got out about the hip-hop icon’s performance, MOCA’s membership office got calls from people as far away as the East Coast wanting to join. Six thousand people attended the event, and 4,000 more were turned away.

“It was a turning point in my career at MOCA,” Gonzalez said. “And I keep thinking about how honored [Basquiat] would have felt to know that Grandmaster Flash played his opening.”

Jennifer Arceneaux, MOCA’s director of development and Gonzalez’s boss, also remembers the night as pivotal. It was, she said, “kind of that moment when we all looked at each other and said, wow, she’s really got a finger on the pulse of our membership.”

A first-generation Mexican American who was raised in Monterey Park, Gonzalez, 31, found her special events calling early, directing her cousins in plays and turning the family abode into a haunted house for Halloween -- “with soundtracks that I created the day before, and all-out lighting effects.” Costumes too, of course. “Absolutely! I would raid my mother’s closet, and of course I had no idea when I was 7 who Karl Lagerfeld was, but I was wearing it!”

After finishing her theater degree at Cal State Fullerton, Gonzalez moved to London with four suitcases -- one containing just shoes -- to immerse herself in the Brit pop scene. She helped launch Ian Schrager’s first international boutique hotel, St. Martin’s Lane, returning home after she’d pushed her visa to the limit. Through the newspaper she found a job in MOCA’s visitor services department, and two years later she began producing donor and fundraising events.

As the “Skin + Bones” curator Brooke Hodge recalled, it was a big coup when Gonzalez got Moet & Chandon to sponsor the opening night fete -- which the Champagne house typically wouldn’t do for such a big event. But, observed Hodge, “If she thinks something’s a good idea she’ll just pursue it as far as she can. And I think usually it pays off.”

At this Saturday’s members’ opening, JD Samson and Johanna Fateman of the iconic feminist group Le Tigre will be behind the decks. The “frenzy” of phone calls and e-mails looking for tickets began the day the invitations went out -- another example of Gonzalez having her finger precisely on the pulse.

Because the “WACK!” show is a broad historical retrospective -- representing 119 artists from 20 countries -- and because Zittel is also included in the celebration, Gonzalez approached this weekend’s event differently than, say, the opening for “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States,” where guests lounged on waterbeds, eating candy pills while techno music and colored lights pulsed in time.

“This was sort of the one time where I couldn’t tap into the work directly,” she explained. “To be true to the artists I don’t think it’s fair.” Instead Gonzalez focused on the time period, 1965-80, choosing a retro color scheme of green, brown, blue and orange instead of the “obvious” pinks and reds. “I wanted to be understated with this event,” she said, “because we’re dealing with things that are very sensitive and personal to the artists and the people that are coming.” She gave a pointed stare. “And I don’t mean sensitive in a feminine way.”

There will definitely be one overstated element, though, and that’s Gonzalez herself. MOCA’s de facto hostess said that she was planning two ensembles, one representing the beginning of the feminist revolution and the other, the end. “It’s sort of my way to bring the playfulness,” she smiled, “and I think that the only way I can do it appropriately is to do it on myself.”

Now legendary among the MOCA staff, her past outfits have included a blue-and-white “Alice” frock worn with 8-inch Vivienne Westwood heels for the “Wonderland” of “Ecstasy,” and a burlap dress and feather headdress inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s “Satellite” combine.

“I’ve gotta come looking the part,” she said. “And everyone now expects it. Even the director of the museum is excited to see what I’m going to wear.”

But requests for a sneak preview were rebuffed. “I’ve got my people working on it,” she said mysteriously. “It’s coming together.” She laughed. “I’ll tell you one thing, it’s not a burned bra.”