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The shocking firing of MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth




MOCA Chief Curator, Helen Molesworth at the MOCA Gala 2017 honoring Jeff Koons at on April 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
MOCA Chief Curator, Helen Molesworth at the MOCA Gala 2017 honoring Jeff Koons at on April 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
John Sciulli/Getty Images for MOCA

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The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) fired its chief curator, Helen Molesworth, this week. 

MOCA sent out a statement saying that the the museum and Molesworth "decided to part ways due to creative differences." Subsequent reports suggested a less amicable parting.

Arts reporter Jori Finkel of the New York Times explains: 

"What we do know is that creative differences were happening, that much is legitimate. On top of that, Catherine Opie, a very prominent artist in town, who is a board member at MOCA, went on record with the L.A. Times saying this was not a peaceful parting of the ways. Helen Molesworth was fired by Philippe Vergne."

Susan Dackerman, curator Helen Molesworth and photographer Catherine Opie attend the opening of Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at MOCA Grand Avenue on March 11, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Susan Dackerman, curator Helen Molesworth and photographer Catherine Opie attend the opening of Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at MOCA Grand Avenue on March 11, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Rachel Murray/Getty Images for MOCA

Molesworth had been at MOCA for three years and was charged with establishing and honing the museum's creative direction after a period of turmoil. 

"She became the face of the museum, in many ways. She was the creative powerhouse. She was the visionary. She was the one responsible for almost all of all the exciting programming that we've seen over the last two or three years."

But ideological tensions developed between Molesworth and MOCA Director Philippe Vergne, who came on board in January 2014, only a month before Molesworth was hired for her position.

According to Finkel, Molesworth advocated for a more diverse roster of featured artists, while Vergne, and MOCA's Board of Trustees, preferred the old-fashioned approach of sticking with conventional art stars.

"There really does seem to be a kind of culture clash — blue chip versus not blue chip. How much is a museum going to be influenced by the market? How much are they going to be influenced by the trustees who own paintings by the artists that they want shown at the museum?

That is the case with Mark Grotjahn, another white male art star. The trustees are heavily invested in him. They own his artwork."

Writer Mara Brock Akil, curator Helen Molesworth and artist Karon Davis attend the opening of Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at MOCA Grand Avenue on March 11, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Writer Mara Brock Akil, curator Helen Molesworth and artist Karon Davis attend the opening of Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at MOCA Grand Avenue on March 11, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Rachel Murray/Getty Images for MOCA

Molesworth's controversial firing undermines the recent narrative that MOCA is back on track after a rough patch.

A decade ago, MOCA "hit rock bottom," depleting a good chunk of its funding, according to Finkel. It has since recovered with a $130 million endowment and begun to rebuild staff.

But losing a chief curator is a big deal, Finkel notes.  The Los Angeles art community was shocked by the news of Molesworth's firing and MOCA's direction is, once again, unclear.

"I think the future of MOCA is up for grabs, once again. We've been there before, and now we're here again, looking at [questions like] 'Where is MOCA heading?' and 'What does it value?' 

MOCA has been considered the serious art museum in town. And that's why the artists here care about it so much. I think, for the last ten years, that's been in question."

For more, see Finkel's story in the New York Times.