Arts & Entertainment

Former MOCA, Art Center director back in Southern California

Richard Koshalek, the former head of MOCA and the Hirshhorn Museum, has returned to Southern California.
Richard Koshalek, the former head of MOCA and the Hirshhorn Museum, has returned to Southern California.

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After leading L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art through its formative years, and serving as president of Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, Richard Koshalek landed four years ago at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.

Koshalek says he went to the Hirshhorn on one condition: "I said that I would do it if I see it as a continuous experiment."

Koshalek kept his promise, increasing the presence of artists in the museum by commissioning Barbara Kruger to redesign the lower lobby of the museum, which he calls "a dead zone. People only went downstairs to use the restrooms."

Kruger, a renown political artist, covered 12-foot-walls with ceiling-high slogans that were black and white and red all over, turning the basement space into a vibrant exhibit called “Belief + Doubt.”

Koshalek’s most popular exhibit was a haunting video by Doug Aiken projected on the Hirshhorn’s round, exterior walls, called "Song 1." It could be seen from planes landing at Reagan National Airport and attracted thousands of people to a part of the Mall that was usually dead at night.

But another Koshalek scheme — a 15-story inflatable building dubbed “the bubble” — collapsed. It was designed to host an international dialogue among artists. But as the cost tripled to $15 million, board support disappeared. Koshalek maintains the disagreement was about more than just money. He says  he saw the "reactionary forces on the board – a small group, about 6 or 7 — that were going to block the future, even if the inflatable didn’t go ahead." And so he resigned.

Koshalek says Washington is beset by a culture that either delays or frustrates anything that goes beyond the ordinary or conventional. "It’s a much more conservative city underneath the surface than you would ever expect," he says.

As opposed to L.A., which he describes as a "progressive kind of environment for contemporary culture and art." He says that's because of the artists community that exists here. "Washington to a certain degree doesn’t have that kind of artists' community."

Koshalek’s roadblocks in D.C. were similar to what happened in Southern California when he led the Art Center. He again wanted  to facilitate an international dialogue among artists and designers, but was pushed out by students, faculty, and alumni who wanted the school’s dollars to be spent in the classroom.

Now, Koshalek, 72, is back in California with a laundry list of suggestions about how to rebuild MOCA, starting by bringing artists back to the board. Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari and Barbara Kruger all quit MOCA’s board last year over the direction of the museum. Koshalek says he’d like to see the curatorial staff rebuilt, adding international fellows from Latin America and Asia who’d scout new work and come to L.A. four times a year to speak to the public.

"Isolation breeds irrelevance," Koshalek says. "If you’re not connected to the world, and we’re not getting information from around the world about what’s happening in the art world, it’s going to be damaging to the future agenda of the institution."

Oh, and there’s that recurring idea about creating a space for international artistic dialogue. It sounds like Koshalek’s campaigning for his old job at MOCA. "I wouldn’t say no," he says. 

Koshalek — who led MOCA from 1982-99 — insists the institution needs a younger director for the future, but could use a temporary old hand who knows the city and the museum.

Critics say it's highly unlikely MOCA would invite Koshalek back. But Ezrha Jean Black, staff writer for L.A.-based Artillery Magazine, says the museum could create a special advisory role for him.

"Do you turn down help from an old reliable source?" Black wonders. She says Koshalek has the "administrative and operational chops with respect to running that kind of an organization." Black says there will always be a role for Koshalek at any art or cultural institution in L.A. — or, arguably, the world.