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Commentary: Why this bizarre email represents larger problems at MOCA

Two transparent red cubes, an art installation by Larry Bell, sit outside the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown L.A.
“Bill and Coo at MOCA’s Nest,” an outdoor installation by Los Angeles-based artist Larry Bell specifically commissioned for the Sculpture Plaza at MOCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Today at noon, the Museum of Contemporary Art might announce its choice of a new executive director.

Then again, it might not.

Something might come up that could interfere with release of the news, which is highly confidential but not exactly nailed down, and is therefore not really news quite yet. So maybe yes, maybe no — and by the way, speculation about who MOCA’s new executive director might or might not be is totally unwelcome by the museum.

Totally.

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I know all this thanks to a bizarre communication from MOCA. At the end of the day Wednesday, a museum email arrived in my inbox with the almost-but-not-quite-news — along with a certifiably crazy list of demands for how the story must be covered by the Los Angeles Times.

In sum, the message ranks right up there with the weirdest institutional transmissions I’ve received in 40 years as a journalist. Paranoia was the operating motif.

MOCA offered an embargoed press release. A news embargo is an agreement between a source and a reporter that a story won’t be published before a certain date and time. The process can be useful, since it allows for reflection, fact-checking and fuller context of an important unfolding event that might otherwise be unclear.

Embargoes aren’t ideal, though, because they can stray into territory of news manipulation. MOCA’s embargo proposal didn’t stray, however. Instead, it stampeded. It pretty much insisted that The Times publish a virtual press release whose content would be controlled by the museum.

That’s an insistence no journalist in her, his or their right mind would agree to. Not surprisingly, the demand was greeted around the office with slack jaws and eyerolls.

“You agree not to reach out to any current or former MOCA staff and board members until we confirm in writing that the embargo is lifted,” the kind offer of early access to the information declared — pretty much demolishing any benefit of normal journalistic paths to reporting fuller context. Just in case we didn’t get it, the words “agree not to” were underlined.

Those same words were again underlined in another demand: “You agree not to publish a speculative story about who the candidate may be ahead of the embargo being lifted in writing by us.”

Um, what?

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If the Los Angeles Times learns on its own who’s been offered the new executive director job, we should sit on it until MOCA Central Command says, “OK, go”? The email explained that the museum has “a detailed internal process and communications plan” for releasing the news, and The Times is expected to follow it.

Thanks for the suggestion, Vladimir, but I don’t think so.

“In the event that the candidate is not announced as planned, you agree not to run any story,” the missive went on, laying out an astonishing scenario for damage control in case of gross institutional ineptitude. (Who announces — just hours from a momentous hiring — without being certain whether all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed in the decision?) “You,” the email helpfully clarified, “refers to your editor, each of you [Times arts reporters] and anyone else who may be involved in LAT potential reporting.”

In a final display of astounding arrogance, MOCA demanded that every “you” itemized in its clarification confirm in writing their acquiescence to the outlandish embargo terms.

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“Please feel free to be in touch if you have any questions,” the museum generously said in closing. I couldn’t bring myself to ask the only one I had: Have you completely lost your minds?

By “you” I refer to MOCA’s board, staff, outside consultants and anyone else who may be involved in ensuring that collegial comity and institutional transparency will never be values cherished by this cultural institution. The paranoia level around its newest hire is at Code Red. The once-proud museum has limped through a dozen years of serious staffing adversities in both the administrative and curatorial ranks, and this appointment is make-or-break news. They’ve got to get this right.

The embargo plan came in response to an inquiry I made to MOCA last week. Reliable information had come my way that a final candidate, said to be a woman, had been identified. But I was unable to learn anything more. So, I asked what the timetable for the official announcement would be.

The search had been underway for six months, a not unreasonable length of time, and pandemic restrictions for the museum-going public were steadily lifting. MOCA has a very long list of senior-level jobs to fill — a director of curatorial affairs, a senior and an assistant curator, a fundraising and infrastructure director and a chief communications officer among them — and presumably hiring was held in abeyance so that a new executive director could build a team.

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We’ll let you know the timing, came the brief reply. Notably, there was no denial that a choice had indeed been made.

Then on Wednesday came the nutty embargo offer. MOCA public relations consultant Sara Fitzmaurice explained the offer was being made to “a couple of other outlets.”

Translation: The New York Times also would be fed the exciting story, and perhaps a few other East Coast magazines and websites. Provincial assumptions remain entrenched that, to really matter, important L.A. arts stories must be published in New York.

The announcement clock is ticking and, in a few hours, we’ll all know who MOCA’s new executive director will be — or maybe not. I look forward to learning who it is, apparently by reading it somewhere else on the World Wide Interwebs.

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Meanwhile, whoever landed the top MOCA job has just gotten some insight into the depth of institutional paranoia partly responsible for hobbling the place. Best of luck.


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