“All Institutions Have Bumpy Periods”: Helen Molesworth on Taking Over as MOCA L.A.’s Chief Curator


Helen Molesworth was appointed last week to be the new chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, stepping into a spot that has been vacant since Paul Schimmel left the job in June 2012. She starts Sept. 1.

Molesworth, 48, joins a museum that has recently emerged from a troubled six-year patch marked by dwindling finances, board defections and heaps of critical press. MOCA has shored up its endowment to over $100 million and appointed Philippe Vergne, formerly of New York’s Dia Art Foundation, as director following the controversial tenure of New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who left in July 2013. The artists who had left its board—John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie and Ed Ruscha—all served on the director search committee. Baldessari, Kruger and Opie have rejoined the board.

Molesworth has been chief curator at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art for four years. There, she organized well-received shows such as “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s” and projects and monographic shows on artists including Amy Sillman, Zoe Leonard, Louise Lawler, William Pope.L and Kerry James Marshall. Previous to the ICA, she served as curator and head of the modern and contemporary art department at the Harvard Art Museums, from 2007 to ’10, before which she was chief curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio.

Molesworth spoke to A.i.A. by phone Tuesday about moving to an institution that’s had some bumps in the road, what makes for a successful exhibition and how MOCA competes with California’s beaches for its audience.

BRIAN BOUCHER What made the job at MOCA Los Angeles most appealing to you?

HELEN MOLESWORTH There are three strands that make the MOCA DNA so compelling. There’s the collection, which is one of the best collections of post-1945 art in the country. Second, the fact that MOCA was formed with artists at the center of its identity is a huge selling point. Third, it has a stellar exhibition history. When you join an institution, you join its history as much as you work to create its future. Those three parts of MOCA’s identity for me made the job a slam-dunk.

BOUCHER Speaking of the institution’s history, though, it has had a rocky few years. Did you have reservations?

MOLESWORTH Yes and no. The new board leadership is incredibly dynamic. The board and the city’s artists have really rallied. Philippe Vergne’s appointment has augured a new commitment. So it wasn’t that hard a decision to make. All institutions have bumpy periods, as do human beings. I feel fairly sanguine. MOCA had a tough patch, but it had it during one of the worst economic crises the country has ever seen.

BOUCHER You have big shoes to fill, following Paul Schimmel. Can you talk a little bit about what makes you and him different?

MOLESWORTH Paul has been enormously important to me as I came up in the field. I always saw him as an exemplary model for not only how to make exhibitions but for how to craft a dynamic program. The differences between us are more generational than ideological. I was trained in the heady, theoretical days of the ’80s. I am also shaped by the AIDS crisis, where Paul is shaped by other big societal events.

BOUCHER How do you judge whether an exhibition has been a success? Is it critical response, is it visitorship numbers?

MOLESWORTH There are different ways you know. Certainly critical response is one way. When people end up teaching out of your catalogue in college courses, that for me is a marker of great success. A show is successful when I walk through the galleries and, whether they’re full or kind of empty, people are really taking their time. It’s also a big gold star if artists tell you they like the show, because artists don’t like things that are mediocre.

BOUCHER In recent years, many observers have expressed their doubts about curators taking center stage. Is this something you’ll try to avoid at MOCA?

MOLESWORTH I’m a little anxious about the moment when the curator is at the center of the story. Curators are authors, and they are entitled to the benefits that come with authorship. We sign our work. But we are authors in the service of a story that is much bigger than ourselves. The sense of a curator’s role as a custodian and conduit is really important to hold on to when there are a lot of people who want us to be the stars.

BOUCHER How does MOCA compete with the beach and other attractions like the movie industry in L.A.?

MOLESWORTH I go to the beach and go to movies and still go to museums! They don’t seem like mutually exclusive leisure activities. All museums compete for peoples’ increasingly precious leisure time. It behooves us to work really hard to offer people a stimulating intellectual, aesthetic and emotional experience that is both challenging and pleasurable. I don’t think that’s unique to L.A. despite that city’s many attractive diversions.

BOUCHER It will be a big shift for you from chilly Boston to balmy L.A. How do you see the contrasts between the two cities?

MOLESWORTH Boston is one of America’s oldest cities, and one that has a colonial past. L.A. is one of America’s newest cities, formed deeply by World War II and the postwar expansion of the American economy. They couldn’t be more different from one another.

BOUCHER And what about the role of the arts in the two cities?

MOLESWORTH L.A. has one of the most vibrant artist communities in the country right now. The art schools in L.A. have been instrumental in creating a network that supports art and design and creative endeavors. The role of the art schools in creating L.A. as a 21st-century art destination mustn’t be underestimated.

BOUCHER Can you tell us a little about your first project at MOCA?

MOLESWORTH The first show I’ll do at MOCA will be the Kerry James Marshall retrospective. He’s one of our most important living artists, and he has deep L.A. roots. He lived in Watts as a young boy, went to Otis as a young man and studied with the inimitable Charles White. He’s very much formed by the experimental black film scene in L.A. in the early to mid-’70s. I’m so excited to be able to work on an artist as important and a body of work that is as physically ravishingly beautiful as it is intelligent about the history of art and of pictures, and then socially so trenchant in coming to terms with America’s long and vexed history when it comes to matters of race.