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Klaus Biesenbach. Photo: the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Klaus Biesenbach Named Director of LA MOCA

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which has been embroiled in controversy in recent months due to the firing of its chief curator Helen Molesworth and the departure of its director shortly thereafter, has announced that Klaus Biesenbach will step into the role of director when Philippe Vergne’s contract ends in March 2019.

Biesenbach comes to the institution from New York, where he serves as curator at large at the Museum of Modern Art and as director of its satellite space, MoMA PS1. Chosen from a pool of nearly forty candidates, he received unanimous approval from the board during a vote on Tuesday morning. “He’s a total visionary,” LA MOCA board president Maria Seferian told Carolina A. Miranda of the Los Angeles Times. “He’s an incredible museum executive. He’s innovative. He’s done it all.”

During his tenure as director of MoMA PS1, Biesenbach helped the institution nearly triple its annual budget, which is now $12 million; launched a fundraiser to bolster its endowment, which is currently $14 million; and grew its board from eleven to thirty members. At MoMA, Biesenbach is known for curating blockbuster exhibitions, such as the survey of Marina Abramović’s performance work, “The Artist Is Present,” in 2010, as well as some flops, including the retrospective of the Icelandic musical artist Björk in 2015, which was described by some critics as a “fiasco.”

For board members such as photographer Catherine Opie, who was the first museum representative to call Biesenbach to discuss the directorship, his ability to maintain strong relationships with artists is one of the reasons why he is right for the job. “He is really known for championing emerging artists and MoCA holds dearly to that as the artists’ museum,” Opie said.

While a start date has yet to be determined, Biesenbach is joining the museum at a crucial time. It has faced harsh criticism this year over its decision to dismiss Molesworth without publicly discussing the reason. It also came under fire when painter and board member Mark Grotjahn turned down the chance to be honored at the museum’s gala, citing a lack of diversity among its past honorees. Rather than select another artist to recognize, the institution canceled the event. Lari Pittman, who identifies as gay and as Latino, stepped down from the board during the debacle. He also said the board, the director, and the curatorial team’s inability to agree on a long-term vision for the institution contributed to his decision to leave.

Despite the recent turmoil at the museum, Biesenbach seems confident in his ability to steer it in the right direction. He told the New York Times that he has helped institutions reorient themselves during moments of growth several times before. “The word curator also means taking care,” he said. Biesenbach began his career in Berlin, where he founded the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art in 1990 and the Berlin Biennale in 1996. He came to New York in 1995 to serve as curator at P.S. 1 Center for Contemporary Art (now known as MoMA PS1), and within a short period of time, he rose through the curatorial ranks. 

Commenting on his new role, Biesenbach said: “Like so many of my colleagues around the world, I have long seen MoCA as one of the most vital institutions in our field. It is humbling to be invited to lead a museum that has already achieved so much, and that in so many ways represents the highest aspirations of contemporary art. With my gratitude to the search committee and the entire board of trustees, I look forward to serving MoCA’s constituencies, its increasingly large and diverse public, the artists’ community, and of course all residents of Los Angeles to the very best of my abilities.”

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