PRINT Summer 2010

Ann Goldstein

WHEN I FIRST JOINED LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art as a volunteer in 1983, I wanted to be part of a museum of a sort that didn’t exist when I was an art student in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Having only come to a consciousness of the contemporary art scene when I entered college in 1975, I had just missed the Pasadena Art Museum, which had been closed, for financial reasons, in 1974. (It reopened in 1975 as the Norton Simon Museum of Art, the Pasadena Museum’s holdings having been combined with Simon’s collection.) With the passing of that legendary institution, the absence of a museum devoted to contemporary art in Los Angeles was profoundly felt by artists and arts patrons alike, and that need was filled by the founding of MOCA in 1979.

LA MOCA was, from its inception, an artist-centered model: Vija Celmins, Sam Francis, Robert Irwin, Alexis Smith, and DeWain Valentine, all of whom served on the fledgling institution’s Artists’ Advisory Council, were part of its founding and conception. Early projects by Michael Asher, Lucinda Childs, Dan Flavin, Michael Heizer, Maria Nordman, Allen Ruppersberg, and Robert Therrien, among many others, brought life to the unprecedented Temporary Contemporary (now the Geffen Contemporary)—what was initially to be an interim program in an infinitely flexible fifty-five-thousand-square-foot ware-house converted into exhibition space by Frank Gehry. moca identified with artists and envisioned itself through their eyes.

MOCA also demonstrated that a museum can change the identity and perception of a city. Transforming the landscape for contemporary art in Los Angeles, it also reconfigured the way the LA art world envisioned itself: In the early 1980s, artists, who had routinely moved to New York after graduating from art school, started to stay. And in turn, as the population of artists grew, so did the size and number of art schools, commercial galleries, and museums. MOCA helped establish Los Angeles’s legitimacy as an important art center, which serves to remind us of the dynamic and central role a museum can play in the cultural and economic life of a city.

It is now almost impossible to look at MOCA without thinking about the museum’s financial collapse in 2008 and near disappearance. Numerous people both within and outside the museum, and in and outside Los Angeles, fought for its survival. The artist community, remembering all too well what Los Angeles was like before MOCA, and knowing what would be lost without it, rallied the larger public. Through the initiative of Cindy Bernard and Diana Thater, MOCA Mobilization, for example, organized a powerful demonstration of support.

Despite the profound dismay I felt at MOCA’s unraveling, when I interviewed for the directorship at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum last spring and was asked about my institutional models, I replied that LA MOCA was still my ideal, as I will never stop believing in its insistent audacity and artist-centered approach as the very things that ultimately sustain the integrity, mission, and conscience of an art institution. Oddly, I came from a museum that had almost disappeared to the Stedelijk, a museum that has lost its visibility. This is, of course, due to an ongoing renovation and expansion that began in 2004. Despite continued dedication to collecting, producing exhibitions, conducting research, maintaining the collection, pursuing educational and outreach programs, loaning works, publishing a range of texts, and operating a temporary exhibition space from 2004 to 2008, the museum—as well as Amsterdam—has nevertheless suffered from the extended absence of its home base. Today, only our project space, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, is open. What is particularly striking, at times frustrating, but ultimately encouraging, is the very vocal anger of the Amsterdam community: No one in the city, it seems, can bear to live without the Stedelijk Museum. Its absence is felt by those whose memories of the institution go back to their childhoods, further exacerbated by the prominence of the closed building site, just next to the Van Gogh Museum and down the road from the Rijksmuseum (itself only partially open due to its own ongoing renovation).

As I enter my sixth month as director of this closed museum, I am, of course, at once observing, grappling, and leading. There are the many cultural contrasts and new configurations I have encountered in moving from a career as a curator in a privately funded museum in the United States to one as a director of a predominantly publicly funded museum in Europe—beyond the obvious differences in going from an institution that was founded in 1979 (and most of whose history I personally witnessed), with a permanent collection of nearly six thousand works, to one that will celebrate its 115th birthday this fall and will spend most of this year moving its collection of some ninety thousand works to a new storage facility. In Europe, museums are viewed as an entitlement and are funded in great part by taxes; yet as that funding starts to shrink, private donations are needed. In the US, art institutions constantly have to justify themselves and argue for their value to ensure continued funding—at times, even their survival. As I am still new to the European system, it is too soon for me to make a blanket judgment, but neither situation is ideal, and both are, clearly, changing.

Perhaps my greatest “moment of truth” came in confronting the fact that the Stedelijk does not own itself, and in coming to terms with what it means when the city—and therefore the public—owns the building and the collection, tenaciously so. In a way, the two systems aren’t so different. The artworks in a privately funded museum like MOCA are likewise held in a public trust. But the reconfigured sense of ownership and the expectations, complexities, and contradictions of responsibility entailed by city sponsorship were hard for me to grasp at first, especially during a delay-plagued building process in which the city, not the museum, is both commissioner and client.

I cannot overstate how difficult it has been to take the helm of a closed museum, just as it has been difficult for the staff and stakeholders who have been living without it much longer than I have. It may not seem terribly visionary, but I have no greater desire than to get this museum fully reopened; it has been closed for far too long. That said, the issue at hand is not simply rescuing the institution from its invisibility and reinstating its dignity and rightful position in the community of international museums. The Stedelijk must be more than open. It must be alive, active, anticipated, and artist-centered.

In this period of absence, the Stedelijk has frequently been called on to do something, to take matters into its own hands and make something happen. From the moment I arrived, I have wanted to do just that and have taken the opportunity to mount later this year, in the historic main building, a temporary program I have called the Temporary Stedelijk at the Stedelijk Museum (again, with a nod to MOCA and the Temporary Contemporary). A onetime, short-term use of the museum building prior to the completion of construction and preparations for the grand reopening, the program is inspired by the unique conditions of the renovated museum’s interior spaces (architecturally complete but awaiting installation of temperature and humidity controls). The Temporary Stedelijk can be more than simply an interim program—more than a stopgap until the museum’s galleries are again available to present the renowned collection of modern and contemporary art and design: It can be a distinctive and memorable moment in the museum’s history, an auspicious start to a new era.

When MOCA failed, as one who helped shape the museum, I felt it was my failure, too; and it was a crisis for the city of Los Angeles. I learned in the most concrete terms that we cannot ever take our institutions for granted and how unstintingly we have to work to ensure their continued existence, even when they are healthy, open, and fully running. If our museums have problems, even if they seem insurmountable, we need to fix them. Casting blame doesn’t save an institution, but collectively taking responsibility might. It is unthinkable to us (and rightly so) that any great museum would close its doors permanently. Whether it is privately funded or publicly supported, a museum cannot exist without a shared sense of ownership.