Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1 in Queens and the chief curator at large at the Museum of Modern Art, has been a mainstay of the New York art scene since he started at PS1 back in 1995. Now, he is setting his sights firmly on the West Coast. Today, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, named the German-born curator as its new director.
MoMA’s director Glenn D. Lowry told the that Biesenbach “was an obvious candidate for MOCA.” In fact, the New York museum is losing two major contemporary curators at the same time. Shortly before Biesenbach’s appointment was announced, the reported that his colleague, MoMA painting and sculpture curator Laura Hoptman, had been tapped to direct the Drawing Center in SoHo.
During his time at MoMA, Biesenbach curated, among many exhibitions, the blockbuster 2010 Marina Abramovic retrospective “The Artist Is Present” and the roundly panned “Björk,” an ill-conceived tribute to the Icelandic songstress. An advocate for fusing genres, he also organized MoMA’s more celebrated Kraftwerk retrospective in 2012.
A champion of emerging artists, Biesenbach founded PS1’s “Greater New York” exhibition series, which featured young talents working in the area, many of whom went on to have prominent careers.
He also became an local advocate in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, galvanizing public support for the hard-hit beach community of Rockaway, New York, where he has a home. His “Rockaway!” public arts festival is still ongoing, this year featuring the shimmering orbs of Yayoi Kusama’s .
Biesenbach, who trained to be a doctor before founding the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and the Berlin Biennale, is likely to fit in well in Los Angeles. He already has a deep bench of celebrity friends and collaborators, including Lady Gaga, James Franco, and Madonna.
As he transitions to the West Coast, Biesenbach inherits an institution in flux. Founded by collectors in 1979, MOCA has endured a turbulent past decade. The museum nearly closed during the financial crisis, but received a $30 million bailout from LA philanthropist Eli Broad in 2008. The director at the time, Jeremy Strick, resigned as part of the deal. He was succeeded by New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, whose tumultuous tenure was marked by the departure of longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel and criticism of a “celebrity-driven program.”
Philippe Vergne, the former director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, took over the post in early 2014. Artist trustees John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, and Catherine Opie returned to the fold after having resigned in protest of Schimmel’s departure, and the museum’s endowment grew from a low of just $5 million to more than $130 million. (MoMA PS1’s endowment is considerably smaller, at $14 million.)
But this March, the museum found itself in the cross-hairs again after news broke that Vergne had fired chief curator Helen Molesworth, one of his key hires, amid reports that they clashed over the museum’s artistic direction. Rumors soon began swirling about Vergne’s future at the institution and the differing priorities of the museum’s curatorial staff, director, and board.
Artist Lari Pittman, who stepped down from the board in February, told the at the time: “It’s a vision problem in what the board wants, what the director wants and what the curatorial team wants. Their visions are very different. I’m leaving because I don’t see any current resolution given all the players.”
In May, it was announced that Vergne, too, would be leaving, the director and the institution having decided “by mutual agreement” not to renew his contract in March 2019. Biesenbach’s start date has not been announced.
Meanwhile, MoMA will lose another key staff member as Laura Hoptman leaves the museum to fill the vacancy left by Brett Littman, who in April became the head of the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. She told the that she was looking forward to transitioning “from giant to miniature” in joining the small-scale museum, one of a number of alternative art spaces founded in New York City in the late 1970s and early ’80s.