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What MOCA needs is a reborn identity

December 21, 2008 |  4:57 pm

Moca_grand_ave

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s  financial and management problems have become depressingly clear over the last several weeks.

But MOCA also faces some stubborn architectural challenges — ones that the museum and its potential saviors, including Eli Broad and the L.A. City Council, would be smart to confront before they finalize any rescue plan.

On paper, MOCA enjoys an embarrassment of riches when it comes to architecture. Its main venue, a 1986 building designed by the noted Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, stands in the heart of the Grand Avenue cultural corridor, a block from Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Music Center. Just down the hill, near an increasingly vital section of Little Tokyo, is the Geffen Contemporary, a warehouse renovated by Frank Gehry in 1983 and widely recognized as one of the architect’s most successful art-world designs. For good measure, MOCA also has a small outpost at Cesar Pelli’s Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

MOCA’s downtown venues contain a range of smartly designed gallery space. But in two related ways the buildings, each of which does its best to hide in plain sight, have been big disappointments: They’ve failed to define the museum’s identity in a clear way for a broad public, and they’ve never acted as magnets for attendance in their own right. Space limitations at the Grand Avenue building, combined with climate-control issues at the Geffen, have also frustrated some of MOCA’s ambitions over the years and kept much of its outstanding permanent collection in storage.

The result is a museum whose prominence in the city, in both literal and symbolic terms, has for years trailed its art-world reputation by a significant margin. In many ways, this is the crux of MOCA’s recent troubles, and explains in part why it leaned so often on expensive blockbusters to draw crowds.

Geffen_contemporary

I can’t be the only one who, considering the museum’s slide into crisis in recent weeks, found myself thinking about the fact that I tend to visit MOCA far less than I do other museums in town. When there is a particular exhibition I want to see — Gordon Matta-Clark on Grand Avenue, Takashi Murakami at the Geffen — the museum is a draw, and once inside I appreciate anew the appeal of its galleries. If I am more vaguely looking to spend a weekend afternoon at a museum, on the other hand, MOCA usually winds up near the bottom of a list topped by the County Museum, the Getty, the Huntington and even the Norton Simon. I suspect there are many other museum-goers in Los Angeles who feel the same way, not to mention thousands and thousands of tourists.

Why is this the case? And what can MOCA, or its would-be rescuers, do about it?

On the question of why MOCA’s venues so rarely seem worth visiting in and of themselves, one obvious answer is their faint presence in the cityscape. Isozaki’s design is in many ways a kind of anti-monument. It has no virtually no facade along the street, only a low red-stone wall. Its entrance, its cafe and its galleries are all below ground,  and the main face it turns to the public is a banal plaza. In part this is because the Isozaki building, born as part of a real-estate deal with adjacent California Plaza, was forced to keep its ground-level space open and connected to a pedestrian walkway running behind the museum.

But it also has something to do with the priorities of Isozaki’s design. His MOCA in many ways misreads the strange context atop Bunker Hill, which despite so much construction and urban-planning attention in recent years remains a quiet pocket of downtown, with giant parcels remaining undeveloped.
In a busier, noisier city — Tokyo, say, or New York — Isozaki’s museum would play against an urban cacophony and seem all the richer inside for the quiet inertness of its exterior. But on Bunker Hill it operates as a cipher. The result is a museum that keeps itself aloof from sidewalk traffic in a part of downtown that has very little sidewalk traffic to begin with.

Some of the same problems plague the Geffen Contemporary, a police warehouse brought back to life by Gehry in 1983 and planned initially to hold MOCA’s collection only during construction of the main museum up the hill (hence its original name, the Temporary Contemporary). The building is nothing short of a triumph inside. Its unpretentious but superbly proportioned galleries match MOCA’s postwar collection with uncommon sensitivity.

But the building, whose exterior Gehry sparingly touched, is virtually invisible in its urban context: Flanked by parking lots and tucked behind more conspicuous pieces of architecture, including the Japanese American National Museum and the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, it can be tough to see even when you are looking for it. On top of that, it has no cafe and very few other visitor amenities.

Those shortcomings pose a bigger problem now than when MOCA was young. In the last decade, a global boom in art-world construction — begun in earnest in 1997, the year Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao, Spain and Richard Meier’s hilltop Getty opened here — has created, for better and worse, a museum-going public that closely associates dramatic architecture and high-end restaurants and gift shops with the act of looking at paintings and sculpture. Compared with the designs of those newer museums, MOCA’s architecture moves quickly from smartly self-effacing to largely forgettable.

There have been tentative moves over the years to end the Geffen’s physical isolation. Almost a decade ago, the museum and the city began exploring plans for an Art Park at the foot of the building. Designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture, the park, an undulating layer of landscape atop a partly buried garage, would have stitched together a number of downtown cultural institutions, including a planned Children’s Museum. It would also have dramatically lifted the Geffen’s profile as an object in the city.

The proposal ultimately clashed with plans for a gymnasium on the site and then fell into limbo. MOCA has returned to it periodically, and Maltzan updated it as recently as last year, but the city has waited to see how much fundraising momentum MOCA could gather behind it.

Now there are signs MOCA and the city may be trying to revive it. At his Modern Art Notes blog, Tyler Green has posted links suggesting that Jan Perry, who represents much of downtown on the City Council, may be working behind the scenes to set up another go at the Art Park.

While building it is a good idea now — it would be encouraging to see real leadership from Perry on this issue — it was an even better idea when it was new, when it would have qualified as a forward-looking rather than reactive gesture.

In fact, a few lessons of the MOCA debacle for policymakers are already clear: We can no longer afford to see our most valuable institutions in a vacuum, floating free of bigger and more complicated questions about how a sophisticated city ought to tend to, promote and safeguard its cultural amenities. We can no longer design them or operate them as if they were islands in the city — as if their connections to the larger city were somehow a minor issue, if not altogether irrelevant. And we can no longer put stock in the outdated idea that the most authentic pieces of Los Angeles architecture are by definition hidden or isolated.

It surely says something about the drawbacks of the Isozaki museum that when LACMA last week proposed a merger with MOCA, it suggested that the Geffen should replace the Bunker Hill location as MOCA’s primary facility. Even without the merger in place, MOCA should consider making the Geffen — in some expanded, reconfigured or climate-controlled form — its No. 1 venue. It has far more potential going forward as the anchor for a revived MOCA.

It certainly will be far easier to coax it toward real engagement with the city than to do so with Isozaki’s building. And a Gold Line Metro stop is due to open across the street from the Geffen in 2009.
In addition, museum and elected officials, as part of any rescue package, need to clarify the prospects for the Art Park and MOCA’s Grand Avenue building. Indeed, one condition for any sort of bailout, whether the money comes from the city or Eli Broad, or both, should be a plan to boost the visibility of both downtown venues and their sense of connection to the city. Otherwise MOCA risks slipping back into the anonymity that has plagued it for years.

--Christopher Hawthorne

Top photo: MOCA's building on Grand Avenue

Bottom photo: MOCA's Geffen Contemporary space

Credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

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