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Search team for new MOCA director includes familiar face: Joel Wachs

July 24, 2013|By Mike Boehm
  • Joel Wachs will join the MOCA board co-chairs as leaders of the search committee for a new director.
Joel Wachs will join the MOCA board co-chairs as leaders of the search committee… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

As a leader in the search for a successor to Jeffrey Deitch as director at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Joel Wachs is no newcomer to MOCA.

As L.A. City Council president in the early 1980s, he negotiated the long-term lease under which MOCA pays $1 a year to occupy the cavernous city-owned former warehouse and police car repair building in downtown’s Little Tokyo that is now known as the Geffen Contemporary. After a remodeling by architect Frank Gehry, it opened in 1983 as MOCA’s first exhibition space.

One unusual condition Wachs has said he insisted upon was that L.A.’s mayor and City Council president are to be included as members of MOCA’s board. Wachs served himself, and Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Herb Wesson are now on the board by virtue of their office.

GRAPHIC: MOCA's relationship with Jeffrey Deitch

One question facing MOCA’s search committee and the full board that will eventually vote on any candidate for museum director will be whether to again go down the path it followed with Deitch in 2010 and his predecessor, Jeremy Strick, in 1999.

In each case, MOCA picked someone who was savvy about art, but had scant experience with fundraising or running a big organization.

Strick came from the Art Institute of Chicago with a solid track record as a curator but little administrative experience; he resigned under pressure in December 2008 after a nine-year run in which MOCA won consistent plaudits from art critics, but ran big deficits that left it in crisis mode when the fall 2008 market meltdown hit.

Deitch, who took over as museum director in June 2010, was a controversial choice because he didn’t come from nonprofit museum or academic ranks, but had won respect as a successful New York City art dealer whose sales helped him float an adventurous program of exhibitions at his Deitch Projects gallery.

TIMELINE: MOCA in flux

Some of the exhibitions Deitch brought to MOCA proved divisive, with some fearing the museum was tilting too much toward the pop culture emphasis he’d pioneered at Deitch Projects.

Being a flash point for debate can be healthy at a museum, but money also has become a problem during Deitch’s MOCA tenure.

Public filings reflecting his first two years on the job showed a steep drop in fundraising from what interim director Charles Young had been able to engineer.

Deitch's recently-completed third fiscal year saw the museum’s budget fall to $14.3 million -- the lowest since the late 1990s, and 28% lower taking inflation into account.

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