Eli Broad and the Gagosian consensus

By Felix Salmon
July 13, 2012
Leon Black was the buyer of The Scream is taking a decided back seat to the saga of MOCA.

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I just arrived in LA, where the news that Leon Black was the buyer of The Scream is taking a decided back seat to the saga of MOCA. Just today, four life trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art here wrote a letter to the LA Times distancing themselves from the direction it is taking, and another one — artist John Baldessari — resigned from the board entirely, becoming the fifth board member to do so since February.

The proximate cause of the latest storm was the firing of respected curator Paul Schimmel — and not even by MOCA’s new director Jeffrey Deitch, but rather by the man who brought Deitch in, Eli Broad. Broad tried to explain himself in an LA Times op-ed this week:

It became clear to the board that it needed a director who could create exhibitions that would dramatically increase attendance and membership and make MOCA a populist rather than an insular institution. After an extensive search and interviews with 10 candidates, the board wisely chose Jeffrey Deitch…

In today’s economic environment, museums must be fiscally prudent and creative in presenting cost-effective, visually stimulating exhibitions that attract a broad audience.

Broad was roundly criticized by, well, pretty much everybody in the art world, with the LAT’s Christopher Knight blithely asserting that “a great art museum whose board of trustees has a combined net worth far in excess of $21 billion shouldn’t have financial problems”, and that none of the moves made by Broad and Deitch were necessary.

But the fact is that MOCA has had enormous financial difficulties for many years, that Broad is pretty much the only individual willing to write it large checks, and that therefore he pretty much gets to call the shots. If populist is what he wants, populist is what he’s going to get. And so Schimmel is out, and MOCA’s next big exhibition is going to be a disco show curated by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, following up on a James Dean show curated by film star James Franco. These things are fast, cheap, and popular — the exact opposite of Schimmel’s meticulously-constructed and art-historically incredibly important shows. You can’t throw a show of Robert Rauschenberg combines together in the space of a few months.

And so while Broad is willing to continue to subsidize expensive things that fit in with his vision, such as the main Grand Avenue building opposite the site of his own new museum, the rest of the museum’s program is becoming a parody of the LA mindset, where the only thing that matters is the box-office gross.

Is the saga of MOCA of purely parochial interest in LA, or is it indicative of broader trends? I hope it’s the former, but I fear it’s the latter. Broad is the prime exemplar of the way in which rich Gagosian clients have devastated the delicate ecology of the art world, especially in places like LA where its roots had little depth to begin with. The LA art world is fascinating and storied and important and wonderful in many ways — but for most of its history it was largely out of view as far as the city’s broader popular culture was concerned, the province of a small and dedicated group, rather than of high-profile celebrities and billionaires.

But now that contemporary art has become internationalized and homogenized, it has increasingly little time for geographical idiosyncrasies. Larry Gagosian is the Robert Parker of the art world, imposing his taste on institutions across the planet, via a group of nouveau-riche collectors who tend to buy whatever’s expensive.

Leon Black, it should be said, is not one of those collectors. He doesn’t buy trendy contemporary art: instead, he has amassed a formidable collection of indisputably world-class pieces, including some of the greatest drawings in the world. He owns Brancusi’s Bird in Space, for instance, which is the great and timeless precursor to the shiny rabbit that Eli Broad loves posing next to on the cover of his memoir. And as Kelly Crow noted in her scoop about Black buying The Scream, as a work on paper, it actually fits into Black’s collection very easily. Yes, it’s a trophy piece. But Black didn’t buy it just because it’s often found on the side of canvas tote bags.

Black operates at the very heights of the art world, sitting on the boards of both the Metropolitan Museum and MoMA. My guess is that The Scream will end up at the former, just because MoMA already has a surfeit of iconic 20th-Century works. But wherever it lands, it will enrich rather than change the nature of the museum: both institutions are so big as to dwarf any single donor or artwork.

Move down a notch or two, however, and when you get to the level of MOCA, or of most of the thousands of other modern art museums in the world, a small group of Gagosian-educated plutocrats can set the artistic agenda much more easily. Whether it’s Eli Broad at MOCA or Dakis Joannou at the New Museum, or even whether it’s the way in which big art fairs have become public spectacles in their own right, ratifying the expensive and ignoring any kind of curatorial context, a new popular consensus is taking hold. And consensus is always boring.

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