Postscripts: L.A. MOCA Trustees Speak Out


An ongoing crisis at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art has seen, this summer, the resignation of long-serving chief curator Paul Schimmel and the departure from the board of all four artist-trustees (John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie and Ed Ruscha), following the resignation of three other board members (Kathi Cypres, Jane Nathanson and Steven F. Roth).

The recent exodus marks a new phase in a series of challenges since 2008, when the institution’s flagging bank balance required a $30 million bailout by billionaire patron Eli Broad. New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch was appointed director in 2010 but has faced a wave of bad publicity that has criticized his approach as overly populist, focused on chasing audience at the cost of intellectual rigor.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published this weekend, Deitch defended the seriousness of his shows and the museum’s new financial austerity, and touted the museum’s record attendance figures.

On Wednesday, the museum announced that it would hire a chief curator to replace Schimmel, reversing its earlier announcement, according to a report on Bloomberg.

A.i.A. spoke by phone in July with three non-artist life trustees, all signatories of an open letter criticizing the “celebrity-driven program that MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch promotes.” Brief interviews with them will appear online in the coming days.

In the second, we spoke to Pasadena-based Betye Burton, who was involved in raising the museum’s first contributions.

BRIAN BOUCHER Tell us about your involvement with the board.

BETYE BURTON I’ve been there since the very beginning. We raised the original $10 million that started the museum. I was on the original board, charged with researching a location for the museum. I was asked because I was on the board of the Pasadena Museum. I must be bad luck. They asked me to warn about the pitfalls. I kept saying “Don’t spend the endowment.” Obviously no one listened, along the line.

BOUCHER What is your take on the abundant media coverage of the museum’s situation?

BURTON So much has been said about the exhibitions. My complaint is not so much about that as the dismantling of the structure of the museum—the fact that Jeffrey is acting as a curator, not a director. A director is supposed to be out there raising money, advising the curators.

BOUCHER What are the next steps to ensure the museum’s survival?

BURTON I wish I knew. I wish I knew. I’m not very optimistic. There’s a very strong group that’s backing Jeffrey but I don’t think they think deeply enough about what it takes to run a museum other than putting on these shows and these galas, that, to me, have become much too gala. I’m not a party person, especially. It’s become the in, social thing, and I think it should be educational rather than getting young, hip people in.

BOUCHER What do you say to the artists’ resignation from the board? What does that mean for the museum?

BURTON I hope they’ll stay around and fight, even though they resigned from the board. It’s a statement, resigning, but I hope they’ll do more than that. It would be very nice if the artists formed a committee and got active about getting changes made. Just leaving the board doesn’t solve the problem.

Photo: Wayne Shimabakuro