Essays

A Goodbye to LA MOCA at the Pacific Design Center

MOCA PDC, which closed this month, deserves parting attention, largely because its evolutions, successes, and sometimes confounding programming often reflected city-wide cultural identity crises.

Installation view of One Day at a Time: Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper, November 17, 2018–February 24, 2019 at MOCA Pacific Design Center (PDC) (image courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Zak Kelle)

LOS ANGELES — One summer night in 2010, actor James Franco jumped from a ledge of the monstrous Cesar Pelli-designed mall in West Hollywood in front of cameras, bewildered bystanders, and the staff of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. Franco was playing an artist in an episode of the soap opera General Hospital, while simultaneously trying his hand at performance art right outside MOCA’s smallest location: MOCA PDC, a mausoleum-like, stand-alone, cast concrete gallery nestled in the shadow of the three massive, shimmering Red, Green, and Blue Buildings that starchitect Pelli envisioned as a design complex, known as the Pacific Design Center (PDC), back in the 1970s. New, soon-to-be-embattled MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch had green-lit Franco’s art-for-TV performance, and perhaps Deitch’s critics, already frustrated by the director’s affinity for celebrity culture, sighed with relief when they learned the soap opera was filming not at either of the better-known downtown locations but at this evasive outpost.

MOCA PDC never acquired a defined identity, but it was endearing and accessible as an art space. An awkward, two-floored gallery on a street with easy-to-find weekday parking, it offered free admission, unlike the downtown spaces. It also hosted some exceptional exhibitions over its 19-year run. Its final show, of Kahlil Joseph’s striking, immersive film Fly Paper, ended February 24, and, midway through last week, a hand-drawn, blue-marker sign taped to the museum’s door read “CLOSED.”

(photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The closure came as a surprise. In January, MOCA and Charles Cohen, the developer who bought the PDC in 1999, announced that the satellite would shutter after nearly two decades in operation. The agreement Cohen and the museum renewed back in 2008 specified that MOCA would continue programming the space through 2023. But the press release issued in January said the “agreement between the two organizations has reached the end of its term.” When I reached out to MOCA’s communications director, Sarah Stifler, she said she could not comment further on the closure, citing legal reasons, and Karen Peterson, a spokesperson for Cohen and the PDC, said “we do not yet have comment” on “what will go into the MOCA building” in the future.

Maybe the agenda of Charles Cohen, who is no longer on MOCA’s board, changed. The PDC also recently ended its DesignLAB program, which brought a handful of galleries to the building’s second floor at a time when the economic downturn left it full of vacancies. (The program “reached its natural conclusion,” said Peterson.) Maybe newly appointed MOCA director Klaus Biesenbach nixed the PDC building, or maybe closure plans predated his arrival. Whatever the reason, MOCA PDC deserves parting attention, largely because its evolutions, successes, and sometimes confounding programming often reflected city-wide cultural identity crises.

MOCA PDC officially opened in 2001 with Takashi Murakami’s Superflat exhibition — banners stretched across the building’s exterior featured Murakami’s now ubiquitous floating cartoon eyes. Inside, work by 19 Japanese artists, designers, and animators colorfully highlighted flatness in Japan’s visual culture. Jeremy Strick, the MOCA director who would resign seven years later amidst financial scandal, had just taken the helm, and agreed to take over the Murray Feldman Gallery at the PDC, named after the complex’s first director and home to various design-related shows over the years (Christie’s held auctions there). MOCA board member, ad-man Cliff Einstein, who then worked out of a PDC office, pushed for the partnership and Cohen offered the space rent free. Strick claimed PDC exhibitions would feature “the most advanced artists in the fields of architecture and design.”

Brooke Hodge, who came to MOCA from the Harvard School of Design in January 2001, became the museum’s first official curator of architecture and design tasked, in part, with programming the PDC. Her first show What’s Shakin’ opened in September 2001 and included studies and renderings for ambitious, in-progress projects city-wide. The PDC installation featured Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall and the soon-to-open Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, designed by Rafael Moneo — both buildings, under construction downtown, weren’t necessarily on Westsiders’ daily radar.

At this point, MOCA remained one of the only downtown art institutions. Most galleries were on the Westside, and now MOCA PDC was too, with Margo Leavin and Regen Projects just around its corner. “Until Disney Hall really got established, people were kind of afraid to come downtown to things,” recalled Hodge, who is now director of art and design at the Palm Springs Art Museum, over the phone. Michael Darling, now chief curator at the MCA Chicago and then a curatorial assistant who organized multiple PDC shows, said by phone, “I even remember it was hard to get trustees who lived on the Westside to come to MOCA for certain events.”

What’s Shakin’ set an ambitious tone for MOCA’s Westside presence: it bridged design worlds while imagining the future of a city in flux. But then the dot com crash and the September 11 attacks tempered optimism and funding. In 2002, MOCA PDC hosted just one exhibition, a show of recent acquisitions. In 2003, the PDC hosted two shows, including a mid-career survey of artist-designer Roy McMakin curated by Darling. McMakin designed industrial shelving, installed capricious furniture (a credenza with peep holes in it), and hung intimate pencil drawings in the lobby-like ground floor gallery. Hodge remembers that show working particularly well. “If you worked with one artist or one designer or a firm and they could really think about the space,” she said, the PDC “lent itself really well to that.”

But already the architecture and design mandate seemed to have slipped — MOCA hadn’t hired any new staff for the PDC besides Hodge, who curated across all locations, and the space became something of a catchall. A show of Ernesto Neto work from the collection followed the McMakin show; then came Jean Pouvre, a smart Eric Wesley installation, and a show of MOCA’s Mark Rothkos. In 2005, art book doyenne Dagny Corcoran opened her Art Catalogues shop on the ground floor, increasing foot traffic.

By the time Cohen and MOCA renewed their contract in 2008, the Los Angeles art world had started its shift. Young galleries and project spaces that would eventually start the downtown boom (The Box, Ghebaly) were opening, the Westside becoming less central to high art. Cohen and Strick made it sound like MOCA PDC was a brand-new good idea: Strick talked about shifting focus toward presenting innovative exhibitions for “the architecture and design community of West Hollywood” and anticipated “playing an even more vital role in the life of PDC.” Charles Cohen said, “I have always envisioned Pacific Design Center as a nexus for culture and creativity, and a magnet for creative professionals.” Hodge began planning shows for the PDC that explored technology and craft, and curated one, a triumph of a site-specific installation by young architecture firm Ball Nogues — 3,000 carefully dyed lengths of twine hung from scrims, creating a delicately high-tech ecosystem. But Strick, who had used part of MOCA’s endowment for daily operation, left months later and Hodge’s position was eliminated (no contemporary art museum in Los Angeles has hired a design and architecture curator since). The board hired Deitch, a New York dealer with no institutional fundraising experience.

Installation view of Cameron: Songs of a Witch Woman at the MOCA Pacific Design Center (photo by Brian Forrest)

The Deitch era was a surprisingly good one for the PDC, not because its identity necessarily crystallized but because it hosted modest, visually pleasing shows and served as a reprieve from all the drama surrounding the downtown programming. The claustrophobic partitioned rooms of Ryan Trecartin’s over-stimulating Any Ever (2010), each filled with videos and brand-new run-of-the-mill furniture, poked at the PDC’s oversized, elite galleries. Miranda July put climbable, wearable sculptures on the grounds. Archival shows mined West Hollywood’s queer history, like Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland. And Cameron: Songs of a Witch Woman, initiated under Deitch, chronicled the work of an excluded from the canon but key to many iconic histories: it was her drawing, of an alien penetrating a serpent-tongued woman from behind, that prompted the LAPD Vice Squad to raid Ferus Gallery in 1957.

Installation view of One Day at a Time: Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper, November 17, 2018–February 24, 2019 at MOCA Pacific Design Center (image courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Zak Kelle)

By the time Philippe Vergne took over as MOCA’s director, the Broad Museum was underway across the street from MOCA on Grand Avenue and the gallery scene was expanding exponentially into neighborhoods all across the city. It no longer mattered so much where the PDC was, and through 2017, the museum continued to use it as something of a spill-over space (a Catherine Opie installation too minor for MOCA downtown; a showcase of Marlon Riggs). Then, in 2018, the programming seemed to turn toward a smart, though safe, cohesion. Fashion exhibitions, too small and borderline commercial to work in the downtown space, played well; Décor: Barbara Bloom, Andrea Fraser, Louise Lawler toyed with presentation modes in a concise, visually lush way. Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper commanded the space with just one screen and sound. Then the PDC era abruptly ended, just as WeWork offices moved into the Red Building next door.

MOCA PDC’s closure doesn’t represent a loss of something that tangibly existed as much as the loss of an almost-realized fantasy even more attractive now, when the by-appointment Broad Museum and Marciano Foundation bring more flash than content to Los Angeles’s institutional landscape: a museum space with no lines, ticket offices, or barriers to entry, with modest, serious programming informed by its neighborhood.

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