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MOCA's permanent collection goes on view, temporarily

November 16, 2009 | 12:46 pm
Wangechi mutu she's egungun again 2005 The Museum of Contemporary Art has had a rather erratic history when it comes to displaying its permanent collection.

One reason is structural: The museum's largest space -- the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo -- was never climate-controlled for temperature and humidity. Especially with older works, from the 1940s through the '70s, conservation concerns cannot be ignored, so the marvelous Geffen's uses are limited.

Another reason is programmatic: Curators like to organize temporary exhibitions. Museums also incur debts with other museums to trade exhibitions. And MOCA has a genuine interest in bringing important shows to Los Angeles. Altogether, those program concerns can mean that permanent-collection galleries get uninstalled to accommodate traveling and temporary shows.

A third reason is philosophical: From the start, MOCA has wanted to shake up the standard narrative of contemporary art. One way to do that is to keep shuffling the permanent collection, organizing and reorganizing its display as a periodic series of temporary installations with different viewpoints.

More reasons can probably be found. But one result has been the forfeiture of the deep and unique bond that can grow between a visitor and a museum when the finest work in a permanent collection is on permanent display. Like the difference between dating and marriage, the bond develops over the long term. And the possibility for that bond is what distinguishes a museum from any other cultural institution.

The 500 works in "Collection: MOCA's First Thirty Years," the sprawling exhibition that opened to the public Sunday, brings the point home. I'll have a review of the show in Tuesday's paper, but one thing "Collection" made me wonder is what will happen in May, when this latest (and largest) iteration of the permanent collection as a temporary exhibition comes to an end. Perhaps by then it will have been on view long enough for people to realize what we've been missing.

In the meantime, MOCA has launched an excellent website for the show. Exploring about 100 works, it has good photographs and abundant information. Much of it is drawn from "This Is Not to Be Looked At: Highlights From the Permanent Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles," a sumptuous book published last year. (The book concludes with a chronology of more than 100 permanent-collection shows at MOCA, starting with the 1985 presentation of the Panza Collection -- seven Rothkos, 11 Rauschenbergs, 16 Oldenburgs etc. -- acquired the year before.)

You can find the "MOCA's First Thirty Years" website here, and find "This Is Not to Be Looked At" here.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Artist Wangechi Mutu's "She's Egungun Again," 2005, collage. Credit: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles