MOCA and LACMA: That's Entertainment!

A friend of mine said that she thinks the main reasons for LACMA's swarm of weekend museum-goers these days, can be attributed to easy parking and lots of nice outdoor hang-out space. Me? I think it's because of the spectacular attractions.
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Levitated Mass, Michael Heizer artist, Courtesy LACMA,
Photo: Tracey Harnish

Yesterday I went to LACMA and I'm still surprised every time I see how crowded the pavilion is. It wasn't long ago, that the only time you'd see the entrance to LACMA filled with people was when a busload of school kids had just been unloaded. A friend of mine said that she thinks the main reasons for LACMA's swarm of weekend museum-goers these days, can be attributed to easy parking and lots of nice outdoor hang-out space. Me? I think it's because of the spectacular attractions. As I walked up, a full on wedding party was taking pictures in front of Chris Burden's Urban Light, as they pulled away in their rented Rolls Royce a little while later, you knew they never made it into the museum. Next I went into BCAM to more crowds surrounding Chris Burden's Metropolis II, where ground level and balcony viewing areas were packed and cameras and phones clicked away.

My next stop was to The Rock, as everyone calls it, although formally Michael Heizer's bit of land art is called Levitated Mass. No one I know has had good things to say about the piece artistically but those same people were mesmerized by the transit of the rock from Riverside to the museum. I guess it's still true that everyone loves a parade. I noticed that people were coming from all sides of the museum to see the rock. People touched the rock, took pictures in front of it, angled themselves to look like they were holding it (a la John Baldesarri) and wandered underneath. I overheard someone say that it didn't look like it was levitating -- true that. But I did feel a bit of fear as I passed directly underneath the 340-ton piece of granite, ugly earthquake proof supports and all. There is something monumental about seeing that big ol' boulder set in the cityscape, with palm trees in the background and traffic flying down 6th street, and knowing that it will be there for the next 3,500 years.

This is spectacle at it's best. Everyone wants to interact and these days taking a picture with the artwork is a moment of stardom. In a culture that is invaded by photographs and every kind of documentation, both wanted and unwanted, where everyone is not only instant paparazzi but also an instant film maker, the days of simply looking at a painting in a museum are in steep decline, at least for the general public. In The Entertainment Capital of the World, don't think its citizens are going to be happy without a blast of real interaction, amusement and something to write home about. Everyone wants a story to tell once they leave the museum.

As I headed over to LAMCA's Building of the Americas, I noticed once again, the perfection of the Variety building (as in the magazine that has been an industry mainstay since it's publication in 1933) right behind LACMA's main building. Why so perfect? Because this is the land of Hollywood, where The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be building its movie museum on the LACMA West campus, -- merging the worlds of Hollywood and art. It was at this point I overheard a young woman ask the guy she was with, "Are you from LA?" His answer was, "No, but I've been here nine years, so that makes me practically a native." Not quite, babe.(1) Growing up in LA, Hollywood (a.k.a. The Business) was and still is pervasive. People who have lived here a long time, will insist this is not true, but believe me, they are wrong.

The culture of the "Biz" is omnipresent; growing up in LA, myself a native, I saw friends' parents work for studios, dads who were accountant or dentist to the stars, friends married boyfriends who worked in film and TV, and as kids we didn't go to Universal studios, we visited real film sets. I read the script for Altered States (when my dad worked on the movie as a film editor), three of the kids on the Brady Bunch went to my high school, and my dad went skiing with RJ (Robert Wagner) and Tom Mankiewicz (best known for his work on the James Bond films). I'm telling you, this was pretty normal and if you grew up this way you wanted more of it, if you didn't grow up this way, you wished that you had.

My final stop at the museum was to see ... Is James Bond, an exhibit of the opening credits for all 22 James Bond movies and according to the LACMA press release, "a ground-breaking exercise of cinema as daring as the title character." It was clear, here is yet another exhibition perfectly poised for a general public fascinated with film and spectacle.

This leads me to ask the question, what is the difference between an art exhibition about James Bond and a show based on the history of disco? When last week Jeffrey Deitch announced the planned Fire in the Disco, a look at the history of disco, there was a virtual gasp as critics, artists and collectors quickly attacked this as yet another Deitch reach for superficial exhibitionism, along with some shoddy curatorial moves. This announcement on the heels of the firing of long time (22 years) MOCA curator Paul Schimmel, was for many the final straw in an already weird and unacceptable recent museum trajectory.

MOCA didn't hit the financial wall but crashed into it with the failure of Jeremy Strict's oversight of the museum in 2008. The museum, under the new leadership of Deitch, while increasing membership by about 200%, has continued to have fund raising troubles and with that, financial troubles. For many, the firing of Schimmel, cast Deitch as an irresponsible, short sighted Hollywood star-fucker, who doesn't have the best interests of the museum as his priority. Now some of LA's biggest art stars have resigned from MOCA's board, sighting a new museum direction that does not align with their vision for the museum. Some say sudden strife has been coming ever since Deitch was hired and this was just typical corporate power brokering, others see a much more ominous hostile take over on the way. But I wonder if this isn't just the beginning of a sea change?

Why has MOCA had such a hard time financially over the last decade? Some will point to the financial meltdown of 2008 and others say it's due to the financial mismanagement of previous director Strict and the board of that time period. But I keep wondering if we are watching the natural evolution of the museum into something new and different. Otherwise, why do these problems at MOCA persist?

Early upon Deitch's arrival to MOCA, the Jack Goldstein show was canceled to be replaced by a Dennis Hopper show. Believe me when I say the general public has no clue who Jack Goldstein is and more honestly, couldn't care less. But Dennis Hopper was an LA icon and at that time seriously ill, so the idea of having a retrospective of his work, must have seemed like a good plan. The show was uninspired and baffling to most visitors and panned by critics, but the two times I was there, the room with his photographs was packed. The public was engaged, walking around with their charts describing each photo in the salon style gallery. Next came Art in the Streets, MOCA's show on graffiti and street art, which broke all attendance records. Again, a critical pan, it was thrilling to see MOCA packed with families in a wide ethnic and class mix. Overlapping during that time at one of the other MOCA outposts, was the William Leavitt retrospective, sadly under attended though critically acclaimed and a personal favorite of mine. Other contempt-inducing shows include Transmission LA: AV Club, according to the MOCA press release, "The 17-day festival will illustrate how audio and visual art forms complement and influence each other, through various exhibitions, concerts, DJ nights, performances, and installations," and Rebel, a kind of James Franco curated group show based on the deconstruction of the movie Rebel Without a Cause. I don't know how either of these exhibitions were attended, but both seem like a natural fit for the culture of LA with their focus on film and a slant towards interaction.

Currently there is a Land Art exhibit at MOCA, that I am sure will not get the general public into the museum. How can it be good for the museum and its community to have an art exhibit that sits empty for three months? Somehow there has to be a better marriage of education and dare I say it -- entertainment. Yes, the public wants a form of entertainment, something that relates to the real life they are living, not an intellectual concept. The question of, what is the museum's purpose in serving its community, must be asked.

Los Angeles is notorious for not funding it's own cultural institutions. Why was it that just one billionaire, Eli Broad, was willing to step up and bail out the museum in it's dire financial situation in 2008? Why is it that Deitch was unable to raise enough funding last year to meet the matching donation funds? Why did Barbara Kruger have to sell a piece of artwork when the funding fell short for the Land Art exhibit, to ensure the show would still go on? Why do the MOCA board members have an estimated worth of 21 billion and yet MOCA still struggles? Broad is often called a venture philanthropist and I often wonder if perhaps the other board members are as well. Perhaps they do not see this as a worthy investment when attendance doesn't meet their definition of success.

A friend recently sent photos of her 1-year-old's birthday party. Before I could get out, she's adorable, I responded with, "Did you give her an iPhone for her birthday?" Sure enough, there it was, a 1-year-old with an iPhone in her hand. My friend laughed and said "no," but she loves it and every time she hears even the click of a photo, she runs over to take the phone. Babe, this is the new world and if you want people coming to your museum, you have to give them exhibitions that have some kind of relevance to their world. Curate the hell out of that disco show, make it a good one, make it relevant to history and art and tell your audience (because that's what it really is, isn't it?) what the context is and why it's significant. I don't want to see the elimination of shows like the William Leavitt exhibition at MOCA, but I do want to see the worlds of James Bond intersect with his.

As I left LACMA and waited near the entrance for the light to change, I stood near a family all on their bikes. One of the kids said, "Do you think we can ride our bikes under the rock?" I thought, "Sure you can!" Now that's "art-ertainment"!

(1) Babe -- there was a time when my film editor father used to joke about the men at work calling each other "babe." Hey babe, are we doing lunch today? Yeah, that isn't a Hollywood myth.

Underneath the Rock

The Art of Spectacle at LACMA and MOCA

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