Amid Signs of Trouble, Can MOCA Find Its Footing?

LOS ANGELES — Klaus Biesenbach strutted through the Geffen Contemporary, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s warehouse exhibition space recently, stylish in his signature midnight blue suit and black ankle boots. Talking about plans to reopen on June 3 and recent building improvements he has made as director, he came across like a guy with his hands on the steering wheel.

Yet just days before, the museum, known as MOCA, had confirmed two key resignations: a senior curator, who departed citing museum leaders’ resistance to diversity initiatives, and the director of human resources, who said he left because of a “hostile” work environment.

And just two months earlier, the institution had announced that Biesenbach, who was hired in 2018 from MoMA PS1 in Queens, would no longer hold the title of director but would be called “artistic director” and share power with an “executive director” for whom a search is currently underway.

To be sure, museums all over the country have been dealing with economic challenges caused by the pandemic and with staff pressure over diversity issues in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. During its yearlong closure because of Covid-19, MOCA’s revenue dropped 26 percent and membership 32 percent. The museum also laid off 97 part-time staff members (about 30 full-time employees who were furloughed have returned).

“We’re coming out of a year of a lot of internal focus, pause, reflection,” Biesenbach said. “I’m humbly doing my best.”

“Every day,” he added, “is a chance to improve.”

Maria Seferian, who became MOCA’s chairwoman in 2018, said the incoming executive director will oversee operations, management and diversity efforts, enabling Biesenbach to concentrate on his strengths: programming exhibitions, working with artists and cultivating donors.

“This is not an example of getting rid of one director and bringing in another,” she said.

When asked if the move was a demotion for Biesenbach, Seferian said, “No, we’re thinking of it as an expansion and asking Klaus to do more of what he’s excellent at, like activating the artistic and philanthropic community.”

But the museum’s former human resources director, Carlos Viramontes, who quit in February after less than two years, said in an interview that an internal “360” review — in which staff members offer anonymous feedback — revealed negative evaluations of Biesenbach’s management performance — as well as that of other members of the senior leadership team.

In particular, Viramontes said, the reviews indicated that Biesenbach was often reluctant to make tough decisions because he didn’t want to be the bad guy and that staff members didn’t feel adequately supported by him.

“I don’t know if it’s so much that he’s unable, but he’s unwilling to be the leader,” Viramontes said. “He did not know how to manage others.”

When Viramontes shared the results of the 360 review process with his own supervisor, Amy Shapiro, MOCA’s deputy director, he said she took it out on him, as she — along with other senior leaders — had also received negative feedback.

“I just read the reviews to them, I didn’t write them, but my boss decided to make it a personal thing,” he said, adding, “I became the scapegoat. These same reviews that they say were problematic are what were used to demote Klaus.”

In an email, Shapiro responded: “I do not agree with Carlos’s allegations and characterizations, and his attempts to hurt MOCA are very upsetting.”

The museum said in a statement that an independent adviser had reviewed the same data and concluded that Viramontes had negatively skewed the conclusions in summarizing the feedback about MOCA’s executives. The museum also said the change to its leadership structure was not in response to the reviews.

“MOCA, together with Klaus, determined that an expanded leadership structure was in the museum’s best interests,” the statement said. “The new structure comes out of a pandemic year that allowed introspection on how the museum may best serve its staff and communities and is designed to strengthen artistic and philanthropic outreach.”

In an interview, Seferian pointed to Biesenbach’s accomplishments to date, including moving the museum to free admission with a $10 million gift from Carolyn Clark Powers, MOCA’s board president, and establishing Wonmi’s Warehouse, a performance program with a $5 million gift from Wonmi Kwon, a trustee, and her husband, Kihong Kwon.

Biesenbach said he was particularly proud of having animated the Geffen Contemporary in the city’s Little Tokyo section, a few blocks from MOCA’s Grand Avenue flagship, by installing two billboard-size works by the conceptual artist Barbara Kruger on the facade; of planning an expanded sculpture park outside the entrance; and of reconfiguring the vast interior of the Geffen to create distinct exhibition spaces.

“When I arrived, this was just a warehouse and a parking lot,” he said, surveying the area. “It’s going to be really beautiful.”

Biesenbach also noted that MOCA over the last year voluntarily recognized a new union (though the museum in a statement initially said “we do not believe that this union is in the best interest of our employees or the museum”) and raised more than $450,000 for operating costs during Covid by selling artist-designed face masks.

The museum is about to announce the addition of six new board members, bringing the total roster of trustees added under Biesenbach to 10 — three of whom are people of color.

Catherine Opie, a member of the board, said that splitting the director’s job made sense, given the prodigious workload, and that the museum had looked to two-prong models like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Serpentine Galleries in London (where Bettina Korek is chief executive and Hans Ulrich Obrist is artistic director).

“It’s too big a job for one person,” Opie said.

Seferian emphasized that the museum had regained a position of financial stability, having completed a campaign to build its endowment to more than $100 million in 2013. It now stands at more than $150 million. The operating budget — reduced to about $16 million from about $22 million during the pandemic — is balanced, Seferian added.

Moreover, some noted that since the museum was shuttered for nearly half of Biesenbach’s tenure, it was difficult to assess his leadership.

“It’s easy to say it’s not working out, but it’s not fair to evaluate any situation during Covid,” said Deborah McLeod, senior director of the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, adding of Biesenbach, “He’s great with collectors, has brought wonderful new people to the board and he’s great with artists. That’s a lot.”

Seferian explained in a February email to the staff that the incoming executive director “will be responsible for the overall management and operations of the Museum, including establishing key strategic, institutional and capital priorities, long range planning, as well as the implementation and advancement of critical initiatives of the Museum, including IDEA and other staff-forward initiatives.”

Although Seferian stands by Biesenbach, he sounded comfortable with the possibility of being a transitional figure, doing what he can for MOCA until the museum is turned over to “a new generation with a strong and different voice,” he said. “We must pass the baton when the time is ready.”

“Aggie would say, ‘Just think about if you can make a difference,’” Biesenbach added, quoting his good friend, Agnes Gund, the prominent philanthropist. “I hope I can make a difference.”

Sahred From Source link Arts

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