Now that the Museum of Contemporary Art has named Klaus Biesenbach the sixth director in its 39-year history, expect three immediate responses: Celebrity hipsters will be thrilled, the art world will do a collective eye-roll and everyone else will just have to cross their fingers and hope for the best.
What MOCA needed right now in the director’s office was a seasoned museum administrator, something it hasn’t had since Jimmy Carter was president. The fundamental lapse has been caused by the board of trustees’ faulty selection criteria, which are at the heart of the institution’s long-standing travails.
Instead, the director’s job lately has been held by a series of ambitious curators, whose administrative record has been secondary at best. Naming Biesenbach to the top post repeats that error yet one more time. You get the feeling that MOCA’s board, heavily populated by art collectors, is secretly eager for a personal curator of its own.
Biesenbach, 52, is a looks-good-on-paper choice for MOCA’s top administrative job. He is the director of New York’s PS1, the Museum of Modern Art’s quasi-independent outpost in Queens.
But his administrative profile is thin. A glance at MoMA’s famously complex administrative structure explains. Primary leadership is held in the office of MoMA Director Glenn D. Lowry, who leads a staff that numbers more than 700. The staff includes deputy directors and department heads — including Biesenbach, whose second, more pertinent MoMA title, is chief curator at large.
Indeed, Biesenbach joined the MoMA curatorial staff in 2006, in the aftermath of the institution’s colossal misstep with a failed expansion of its Midtown Manhattan building. The 2004 design flopped — to the staggering tune of $858 million — and hands were wringing over whether the flagship museum for 20th century art could function adequately in the new millennium.
Biesenbach was meant to be part of the solution. He was co-founder of Berlin’s Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, a noncollecting alternative space, plus the decade-old Berlin Biennale, while closer to home he was a protégé of Alanna Heiss, the celebrated founder of scrappy PS1.
The MoMA reputation rescue hasn’t quite worked out. The curator did organize several well-regarded shows, including surveys of Pipilotti Rist, the marvelous Swiss video and installation artist (2008); Marina Abramovic, the controversial Yugoslavia-born, U.S-based performance artist (2010); and Francis Alÿs, the Belgian-born, Mexico-based interdisciplinary artist (2011).
Then came Björk.
Few major exhibitions have been as universally and ferociously eviscerated as the 2015 survey of the Icelandic singer’s visual output, held not at PS1 but at MoMA’s main building. I didn’t see the show, but the blowback rattled rafters coast to coast.
Local reviews were withering, studded with such shuddering descriptors as “embarrassing,” “discombobulated mess,” “ludicrously infantilizing and tedious” and “disaster.” One publication even demanded the curator’s firing. The ire was directed not at the musician, who was (and is) widely admired, but at what appeared to be a curatorial and institutional collapse into a wallow of commerce and celebrity.
Biesenbach also organized MoMA shows for Kraftwerk, the pioneering German electronic band, and queer-culture rockers Antony and the Johnsons. Art museum validation for such things in Los Angeles, the pop culture capital of the known universe, is mostly greeted with “meh.” Pop culture floods every other zone; must it fill up this one too?
Pop culture crossovers have had their fair share of problems at MOCA. Mostly, because the museum’s international reputation is built on a more sober, less celebrity-focused history: adventurous collecting, plus sweeping art historical theme exhibitions — international feminist art, Conceptual art, Case Study Houses, etc. — that few other art museums have been willing to tackle.
Expect too some justified grumbling that another potentially plum art museum directorship has gone to another white male. The issue does matter — especially in Los Angeles, a minority-majority city where, I would wager, more women work as artists than men. And where MOCA has struggled with issues of race and gender, all while attempting to draw audiences that don’t venture to its facilities.
Given MOCA trustees’ habit of wash-rinse-and-repeat in hiring directors, Biesenbach has his work cut out for him. To help, here are four museum priorities, short term and long, for the to-do list; surely there are more:
Make MOCA free. Admission income between 2014 and 2016 averaged about $800,000 annually, according to tax filings — peanuts against a $19-million operating budget and in relation to a board of trustees as wealthy as this one. With no admission charges, the big, buzzy attendance successes at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Westwood and the Broad museum downtown should be a model. Is a couple with two teenagers who all get in free at the Broad really expected to then cross Grand Avenue and drop $46 on MOCA admission? Not gonna happen, so just open the doors.
Build a staff. A great director builds a sturdy support system for the passionate vision of great curators, and MOCA needs that now. The museum has been curatorially shorthanded for years. Recent directors have taken on many curatorial duties for themselves, a mistake that also drains attention from mounting lapses in administrative function. Being an art museum director is more than a full-time job.
Remake the board of trustees. This is a tough one, requiring steely know-how. Biesenbach almost tripled the size of the PS1 board, evidence that he knows a bit about the issue. The director, backed by a couple of ferociously committed trustees with very deep pockets, should politely trim the deadwood and vigorously plant new seeds. Make MOCA’s board covetable.
Get L.A.-centric. When Biesenbach told the New York Times that he was excited about his new appointment because “L.A. is becoming the new Berlin,” I winced. Not just a back-handed compliment, the stumble reflected an obsolete Eurocentrism. One of MOCA’s past strengths was that, rather than just look inward at L.A., the museum looked out at the world from a distinctive, multifarious Southern California vantage. That includes the best art made here, itself an emblem of an idiosyncratic cosmopolitan perspective with a unique history, which is hard to describe but can be found nowhere else in the world.