LOS ANGELES - From the very beginning, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has always put artists at its centre. Sam Francis and Robert Irwin were among its founders in 1979, along with a passionate group of collectors and curators who wanted to create a place where contemporary art and artists would thrive. The museum’s first space – the Temporary Contemporary, Frank Gehry’s unpretentious and utterly artist-friendly conversion of a 1940s warehouse – opened in 1983. A pop-up museum before the term even existed, the Temporary Contemporary (now the Geffen Contemporary) instantly became a vibrant hub for cutting-edge presentations of art in all genres, often at the same time.
(LEFT) STERLING RUBY’S BC (5288), 2014 ($150,000–200,000). (RIGHT) BARBARA KRUGER’S UNTITLED (PROVENANCE), 2015 ($120,000,180,000).
By late 1986, when its celebrated Arata Isozaki-designed building opened on Grand Avenue downtown, MOCA had already earned a reputation for experimentation, risk and freedom. Its exhibitions gave audiences direct encounters with the often challenging, always surprising work of Mike Kelley, Liz Larner, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon and Lari Pittman. And some artists who took centre stage in the galleries, including Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger and John Baldessari (who had his first major retrospective there), became members of the museum’s board.
JOHN BALDESSARI’S DOUBLE PLAY: WALKING THE DOG, FROM 2012 ($350,000–450,000), © 2015 JOHN BALDESSARI.
Artists were not just involved with the museum. They were the museum, and that, according to director Philippe Vergne, has not changed. “We started with artists,” says Vergne. “And we never lost that. I think it runs through everything we do.”
That message is crucial now more than ever. After weathering a recessionary shortfall and the 2013 departure of director Jeffrey Deitch, the board is eager to move forward. “MOCA is not a museum of the past,” says Vice Chairman Maurice Marciano. “MOCA is a museum of the future.” Vergne, who started his job in January 2014, has been regarded as a stabilising force. Most of the artists who decamped from the board have since returned, and the focus now is on building the endowment.
MARK GROTJAHN’S UNTITLED (INTO AND BEHIND THE GREEN EYES OF THE TIGER MONKEY FACE 43.18), FROM 2011 ($2,000,000–3,000,000), © 2015 MARK GROTJAHN.
To that end, 35 artists have donated works that will be sold at Sotheby’s New York this May. All of the proceeds from the sale will benefit the endowment and be dedicated to exhibitions, education and acquisitions. “The voice of the artists will be in this endowment,” says Vergne, who explains that all the artists have had projects with MOCA in the past: Mark Bradford, Sam Durant, Mark Grotjahn, Jeff Koons, Kruger and Lawrence Weiner among them. “It’s extremely moving to see how many artists have agreed to participate and make a major contribution,” says Vergne. “We have so many works in the collection that were given by artists, and when an artist gives a work it’s a vote of confidence. For me that’s really where MOCA starts.”
Artists for MOCA will be on view at Sotheby’s New York from 8–13 May. Auction 12–13 May. Enquiries +1 212 606 7254.