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More than 400 turn out at the Geffen Contemporary to support troubled MOCA

November 23, 2008 |  8:53 pm

Protestors rallying in support of MOCA

About 450 people, including a number of prominent Los Angeles artists, crowded into the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary space in Little Tokyo on Sunday afternoon, drawn to a hastily arranged rally of sorts in support of MOCA, spurred by recent reports of dire financial problems that threaten the existence of the downtown museum.

Protestors rallying in support of MOCA

Others found out about the event, organized by artists Cindy Bernard and Diana Thater, through the heavily trafficked Facebook page created for their MOCA Mobilization, which describes itself as "an independent community group formed to support the Museum and its staff." 

Speakers included George Baker, UCLA associate professor of art history, who was previously scheduled to speak on conceptualism in art in California but instead got swept up by the mobilization; Los Angeles Cultural Affairs chief Olga Garay; and artist Richard Jackson. Former MOCA curator Julie Lazar and artist Alexis Smith made impromptu remarks stressing the importance of the museum to the world of contemporary art.

Because of the long line still waiting outside the Geffen at the scheduled start time of 3 p.m., the speakers did not begin their remarks until about half an hour later to make sure everyone could get inside to be part of what we'll call the "MOCA Mobe." A museum spokeswoman said that a little more than $4,000 was collected at the door, mostly in admission fees but also including 21 new memberships.

Though $4,000 is a nice return for an afternoon at the Geffen Contemporary, that amount will not put a dent in the museum's financial problems, which will require millions to assuage.

Protestors rallying in support of MOCA

A handful of MOCA representatives were on hand, including chief curator Paul Schimmel and board member Blake Byrne, but they refused to reveal any of the past week's boardroom secrets and would acknowledge only that they were here to show the flag for the artists and the museum.

Or, perhaps, show the arm band: After the event, MOCA grant writer Elizabeth Jordan could be found outside with a gaggle of friends who were all wearing "SAVE MOCA" armbands made by Jordan, fashioned of torn white cloth and lettered with a black Sharpie marker.

Indeed, in her opening remarks Bernard cautioned the crowd that the museum officials present were on hand as a "source of support, not information" -- and added that though audience members would get a chance to offer brief comments at the end of the speeches, there would be no Q & A. UPDATE: An earlier version of this item incorrectly attributed this quote to Thater.

Bernard's warning did not, however, prevent one audience member from shouting out a pointed question that was on many minds on Sunday and went unanswered: "Where is [museum Director] Jeremy Strick?"

Photographer and video artist Judy Fiskin probably didn't know why Strick wasn't there, but she could speak to why she was: "I'm just here to be with my fellow artists and express our dismay at what's happening," she said. "MOCA really is the core of the contemporary art world in Los Angeles... without MOCA we are going to go back to being provincial, it's MOCA that brought us out of that state."

The speakers' podium was set up in front of a Chris Burden installation called "Exposing the Foundation of the Museum," which looks just like it sounds: Three 9-feet-deep excavation pits that lay bare what's underneath the museum floor, with wooden steps going down inside.

Some attendees could not help but draw the connection between the deep trenches in the floor and the fact that MOCA has dug itself into a major financial hole.

At the podium, artist Richard Jackson put a positive spin on it: "The piece exposes the foundation that 30 years later works fine," he said. "I think we should just get people to fill it all back up with money."

Off the podium, another attendee was less charitable. Upon seeing chief curator Schimmel standing in one of the pits with a few others before the event began, he cried out in mock dismay: "Schimmel has just disappeared underground!"

Photographer, writer and critic Allan Sekula of CalArts indulged in a little gallows humor to make his point: "The best thing that artists who have work in the MOCA collection could do is to collectively commit suicide so the value of their work would go up -- people on the board who just want to cash out by giving up the collection would come out much better," he joked.

But seriously, Sekula added: "Strictly in market terms, a dead artist is more valuable than a living artist -- but in cultural terms, unless you have a community of living artists, institutions are nothing more than mausoleums." He gestured at the very-alive crowd gathered in the gallery. "I think that's what this, here, manifests."

--Diane Haithman

Photos: Diane Haithman/Los Angeles Times

 

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