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MOCA Los Angeles Names Klaus Biesenbach As New Director

The longtime director of MoMA PS1 heads to the West Coast

Klaus Biesenbach. Courtesy: MOCA, Los Angeles; photograph: Casey Kelbaugh

Klaus Biesenbach. Courtesy: MOCA, Los Angeles; photograph: Casey Kelbaugh

Klaus Biesenbach. Courtesy: MOCA, Los Angeles; photograph: Casey Kelbaugh

German-born curator Klaus Biesenbach, currently director of New York’s MoMA PS1 and chief curator at large at the Museum of Modern Art, has been named the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. ‘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,’ Biesenbach commented.

Co-chairs of the MOCA LA board, Maurice Marciano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz, praised Biesenbach as ‘one of the world’s most knowledgeable, wide-ranging, and innovative museum executives of contemporary art.’ Biesenbach was reportedly unanimously appointed from a shortlist of 40 candidates.

Biesenbach has been with PS1 since 1995. Exhibitions curated by him at MoMA include the populist 2010 Marina Abramović retrospective ‘The Artist Is Present’, as well as the much-criticized ‘Björk’ show in 2015, as well as a Kraftwerk retrospective in 2012. Prior to MoMA, Biesenbach founded Berlin’s Kunst-Werke Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Berlin Biennale in the early 1990s.

Biesenbach departs an institution embroiled in a #MeToo-inspired lawsuit. Last month, curator Nikki Columbus claimed that MoMA PS1 had retracted a job offer as their curator of performance after learning that she had recently given birth.

Meanwhile, Biesenbach is heading to an arts institution which has also had its share of troubles. MOCA LA limped through the financial crisis in 2008, after a USD$30 million bailout from philanthropist Eli Broad, and has since gone through a rapid succession of directors. The directorship of Jeffrey Deitch (2010–13), during which chief curator Paul Schimmel departed, was criticized for its ‘celebrity-driven’ programming. Philippe Vergne was named director in 2014.

The past year has been particularly difficult for MOCA LA. In February, Mark Grotjahn refused the museum’s 2018 gala award, pointing to a lack of diversity among past laureates. And in March, the museum made the headlines again after Vergne fired chief curator Helen Molesworth – it was reported that the two had clashed over MOCA’s artistic direction. Two months later, it was announced that Vergne was out – with the museum and director deciding ‘by mutual agreement’ for the contract not to be renewed in March 2019.

Some commentators have criticized the appointment of Biesenbach on social media. ‘One white European male leaves. Another enters,’ critic Jerry Saltz tweeted. But Catherine Opie, who was on the museum’s search committee, said of Biesenbach: ‘He comes to MOCA with a level of mutual trust with artists that is crucial for everything this museum does today, and that we hope it will be able to do in the future.’ Biesenbach’s start date at the museum has yet to be confirmed.

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