The other MOCA shoe drops: Johanna Burton rises to be the museum’s sole director

Johanna Burton
MOCA elevated just-named executive director Johanna Burton to the role of sole director of the museum as of Nov. 1. She will be MOCA’s first female director.
(Erin Leland)

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s appointment Tuesday of Johanna Burton as its first female director should have been a celebratory moment for Los Angeles and one of the city’s most important cultural institutions.

Instead it came as something of an embarrassed addendum to news Friday that former director and recently named artistic director Klaus Biesenbach — the man with whom Burton was to share leadership responsibilities — had accepted a job elsewhere and was departing for Berlin.

After four days of ignoring Times requests for comment, MOCA emailed a three-paragraph statement Tuesday that confirmed Biesenbach was out and said Burton, initially hired as executive director, would be assuming the role of sole director of MOCA on Nov. 1.


Burton comes to the museum from the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University, where she was executive director. MOCA’s two-pronged leadership plan was part of a top-level restructuring announced in February that called for Biesenbach to focus on artistic vision and an executive director to oversee daily management and operations.

The much anticipated news of Burton’s hire as executive director landed on Sept. 2 (and also was handled awkwardly, Times critic Christopher Knight wrote at the time). Biesenbach expressed great enthusiasm: “I am excited to have such a strong partner in Johanna and eagerly look forward to collaborating with her,” he said in the announcement.

MOCA’s press release quoted Burton saying she was “excited to work closely with Klaus on visioning the next era of MOCA.”

A week later, on Sept. 9, Biesenbach welcomed invited guests — including Burton — to the opening of “Pipilotti Rist: Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor,” a survey of videos, installations and sculptures by the Swiss multimedia artist at the museum’s Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo.

The next morning, Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie and future Museum of the 20th Century announced the hiring of Biesenbach.

“We congratulate Klaus on the honor of being appointed as the director of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin,” MOCA said in its statement Tuesday. “We wish him the best and thank him for his contributions to MOCA.”


Biesenbach, the statement said, will be “transitioning his duties to Johanna and has offered to be available in an advisory capacity reporting to Johanna should MOCA elect. MOCA does not plan to hire another artistic director.”

MOCA has had six directors since its founding 42 years ago — all white men. That Burton’s historic appointment came in such a topsy-turvy manner seemed unplanned and unfortunate.

In an email interview, board chair Maria Seferian tried to put a positive spin on recent events. “This is a great opportunity for Johanna to define her vision and her team,” Seferian said. “She has our confidence and support.”

Burton will run all MOCA operations and “has the full faith and confidence of the museum,” the statement said.

In the earlier announcement about Burton’s hire as executive director, Seferian had called the dual-leader structure a “new model of distributed leadership” that was “responsive to this moment in our history.”

But via email this week, Seferian said, “We created this structure to meet the moment we were in nine months ago. With Klaus’ departure, the moment has changed. Johanna is the full package and has our full support.”