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Grousing about Klaus: Is Biesenbach Right for MOCA?

Much as I try, I can’t muster great enthusiasm for the appointment of Klaus Biesenbach to the directorship of MOCA, Los Angeles, mostly because the shows he organized in Manhattan, with the exception of this one (for me, a nostalgia trip), were not among my MoMA favorites.

Left to right: Klaus Biesenbach, his MoMA co-curator Christophe Cherix and Yoko Ono at her 2015 MoMA press preview
Screenshot from my CultureGrrl Video

I’ve seen too few shows at MoMA’s Queens outpost (an inconvenient drive for me from New Jersey) for me to knowledgeably evaluate his work at PS 1. And although I’ve heard his presentations of upcoming exhibitions at MoMA press breakfasts, I haven’t approached Klaus for substantive conversations. The fault may be mine: His characteristically grim demeanor strikes me as off-putting. (Have you ever seen a photo of Klaus smiling?)

Klaus Biesenbach, speaking about upcoming exhibitions at a MoMA press briefing, April 2015
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Nevertheless, the MoMA PS1 director and MoMA chief curator-at-large does get points for civic engagement and for engaging with celebrities who can create buzz (if that’s what you’re after). It remains to be seen whether he will be perceived as welcoming by a diverse constituency.

While ambivalent, I didn’t have any strong objections to his appointment (as I did with MOCA’s last two picks), until I read Robin Pogrebin‘s report in the NY Times. Biesenbach so wrong-footed that interview that I was sure Angelenos (always quick to pummel New Yorkers who suggest that LA has secondary cultural status) would be howling.

His biggest gaffe was this: “I really think LA is turning into the new Berlin.” LA Times art critic Christopher Knight predictably winced at that one, calling it “not just a back-handed compliment,” but one that “reflected an obsolete Eurocentrism.” Biesenbach, as MOCA’s press release reminds us, “began his career in Berlin as founder of Kunst-Werke (KW) Institute for Contemporary Art (1990) and the Berlin Biennale (1996), the exhibition that confirmed Berlin’s international reputation as a leading city where artists live and work.”

Biesenbach doubled down on a bad bet by asserting to Pogrebin that “so many artists are moving there [Los Angeles]. It’s a completely different city right now.” (Gulp!) Maybe it’s different to him, but just a week before, LA Times art writer Carolina Miranda had effectively disposed of that line of argument in this Twitter rant—an interminable illustrated list of distinguished artists and intellectuals who have energized LA over decades.

Don’t get me wrong: I admit to being an NYC chauvinist; I was born that way. But slighting another city’s heritage is always a politically dumb move. A museum director should know better.

And here’s Klaus’ kicker quote (pun intended), at the end of Robin’s piece: “I think LA is at a moment where there is a change, where all of a sudden [emphasis added] it looks like America is reorienting a lot of attention to the West Coast.” Oof!

After Biesenbach got Björked (with at least one dyspeptic critic calling for his head after that inane exhibition), I was uncharacteristically consoling: “I suspect that Klaus will live to organize another MoMA show….All of which is to say to the beleaguered Biesenbach: This too shall pass. There’s life after ‘debacles.’”

At least I got that one right.

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