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Last summer, when artist Catherine Opie called Klaus Biesenbach and asked him if he’d consider “helping” the troubled Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, he didn’t fully grasp what she meant. Opie is a board member at the museum, which had just lost its director in the latest of several controversial shake-ups, and she has long been friendly with Biesenbach, who was then in his 15th year of a plum gig at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “Of course,” he told her—he’d gladly assist the board in finding a new director. But what Opie was really asking was if he was interested in the job himself.
“I think I was a bit in denial,” Biesenbach recalls. “Then at some point Cathy was like, ‘Klaus, wake up!’”
Today Biesenbach is sitting in the director’s office at MOCA’s headquarters on Grand Avenue in downtown LA, appearing mostly at ease. But few people would have blamed him for hesitating to make the move. Although MOCA, which was founded by a group of artists in 1979, once reigned as the West Coast’s preeminent contemporary art institution, it has spent much of the last decade floundering while a number of other LA museums and foundations have blossomed around it. The problems have been largely of MOCA’s own making. In 2008 the museum almost burned through its endowment and was on the verge of closing until a $30 million bailout from megacollector Eli Broad provided a lifeline and a new director, Jeffrey Deitch, came on board. But Deitch, a New York art dealer who had no previous museum experience, lasted only three years, all of them plagued by staff turmoil and dubious curatorial decisions. In 2014, when Philippe Vergne, of New York’s Dia Art Foundation, took over, many foresaw a return to stability—but Vergne resigned last May amid tensions following the abrupt firing of Helen Molesworth, the museum’s chief curator.
Biesenbach was yet another non-obvious choice to take charge of the Southern California mainstay. The austere 52-year-old German doesn’t drive and has no plans to get his license. He dresses every day in the same uniform: a dark suit or blazer (of which he owns about 100, most of the same brand, though he prefers not to identify it) and a dark tie. His career and his sensibility were formed in gritty urban environments—first in Berlin, where at age 23, shortly after the fall of the Wall, he founded the pioneering Kunst-Werke exhibition space and studio in an abandoned margarine factory (Susan Sontag and Hedi Slimane have been among the artists-in-residence), and later in New York, at PS1 and MoMA. But the sun-bleached sprawl of Los Angeles has long attracted big-thinking outsiders, many of whom are wowed by the city’s complexities once they start paying attention to them. “I thought I knew LA before, but I had come here only for work,” says Biesenbach. “Now I see how incredibly textured the cultural fabric is, and how much history is a part of this. I’ve really fallen in love with it.”
Since his arrival in town last November, Biesenbach has been in nonstop discovery mode, turning up everywhere from David Hockney’s house (he brought over a new trustee for a visit with the artist) and an obscure performance festival in Glendale to a Rodarte fashion show at the Huntington Library. Artist Jared Madere took Biesenbach for a ride in his RV—a moving sculpture that doubles as a studio—to Topanga Canyon and Eagle Rock. “I couldn’t believe that you can get an Uber right to Mount Wilson,” says Biesenbach, an avid hiker. “From downtown it’s just 25 minutes.”
One offhand comment he made to the New York Times—that LA was like “the new Berlin” thanks to its ever-growing concentration of working artists—annoyed many local insiders, who caught a whiff of patronizing Eurocentrism in the observation. Biesenbach quickly acknowledged the gaffe. “It was actually great, because everybody wanted to explain to me what the city is about,” he says. “So I had carte blanche to ask the most basic questions.” At his request, local artists have been sending him lists of the most interesting spots that he’d never find on his own. “Now I have over 50 places, and I’m going to all of them.”
Of course, what will really matter at MOCA is not Biesenbach’s intimacy with LA’s hiking trails or underground art spaces, but the bonds he cultivates with the city’s wealthy donors—and their checkbooks. This emphasis represents something of a shift for Biesenbach. Back on the East Coast, where New York magazine once dubbed him Herr Zeitgeist, his public profile was defined by his often visionary, and sometimes divisive, curatorial efforts. At MoMA he founded the museum’s media and performance department and organized splashy shows including the 2010 Marina Abramović blockbuster, The Artist Is Present. (For art critics there were several hits, including Pipilotti Rist’s 2012 takeover of the second-floor atrium, and one gigantic flop: the 2015 Björk retrospective.) Less known outside the art world are his bona fides as an administrator and fund-raiser. At PS1, after becoming director in 2010, he proved himself a deft executive and increased the number of board members from 11 to 30. He also developed a tight and fruitful connection with Agnes Gund, the renowned New York art patron whom he considers a mentor.
“Something I learned from Aggie is that if you really want to grow, you do it slowly,” Biesenbach says. “You need sustainable growth, not fireworks. Fireworks are very visible, but they’re just fireworks. And I told this to the board here before I started.” So far at MOCA he has recruited five new board members—and none of them is Lady Gaga, as some were half-expecting, given Biesenbach’s reputation as an enthusiastic befriender of arty celebs. (Think Tilda Swinton, Patti Smith, James Franco.) The new additions included Hong Kong–based collector Adrian Cheng, tech entrepreneur Sean Parker, and philanthropist Marina Kellen French. MOCA board chairman Maria Seferian credits Biesenbach’s triple-threat background—as curator, director, and founder—along with his natural bent for community engagement, with convincing the board to vote unanimously to recruit him. “Klaus just lives and breathes art,” Sefarian says, “and he thinks very hard about the role of a public institution.”
Biesenbach will also need to hire a replacement for Molesworth and rebuild MOCA’s curatorial staff. But at a time when the very existence of traditional, donor-driven museums is falling under increasing scrutiny—what does it mean for an institution to collect and display artworks, and who gets to decide how they’re interpreted?—many in LA are particularly eager to see how Biesenbach will define MOCA’s place in the city’s rapidly shifting ecosystem. The museum’s monolithic and somewhat dated Grand Avenue headquarters sits right across the street from the buzzy, four-year-old Broad, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro at a cost of $140 million; admission to the Broad is free, and every morning groups of eager young Instagrammers line up at the door. Down Wilshire Boulevard is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), currently enjoying a well-funded revival under the direction of another ambitious ex–New Yorker, Michael Govan. And further west lies the Hammer Museum, now in the midst of its own $180 million expansion. Despite all these institutions, and several others, competing for the same set of benefactors and audience members, Biesenbach displays nothing but optimism about MOCA’s prospects, maintaining that the city’s remarkable cultural vitality at the moment makes his job easier since it’s “a tide that’s lifting all the boats.”
Still early in his tenure, Biesenbach is cautious about revealing all the details of his strategy for rehabilitating MOCA’s profile, but he has been offering plenty of hints about it. He’s planning a radical revamp of the museum’s annual fund-raising gala, which was canceled last year amid another round of controversy. (The event was set to honor painter Mark Grotjahn but the artist backed out, citing the museum’s record of feting only white male artists, himself included.) “When I got here I said, instead of having a gala, why don’t we have a benefit?” Biesenbach says. “A benefit is not just a celebration, it has a mission.” This year’s event, on May 18, will be inclusive in the extreme, honoring not one MOCA artist but virtually all of them: At a single table will sit about 350 of the living artists whose works are in the museum’s collection, along with 350 paying civilians. Every guest who buys a ticket is required to comp one artist as well.
Community engagement and ecological activism are other often-overlooked parts of Biesenbach’s track record, and both will become major priorities at MOCA. When Hurricane Sandy blasted New York City in 2012, Biesenbach spearheaded relief efforts in the Rockaways, and PS1 built a geodesic dome to serve as a community center. The wildly popular Rain Room installation at MoMA the following year, though dismissed by some critics as a shallow crowd-pleaser, was actually part of PS1’s “EXPO 1: New York” series, which explored links between technology and ecological collapse. Biesenbach says MOCA’s location in downtown LA—the current locus of the city’s creative energy as well as its most daunting urban problems—should be central to everything he does. “We were here 40 years ago, and now the city has condensed around us, and so many artists live nearby—so it’s important to keep growing here,” he says. At the museum’s Geffen Contemporary satellite location, a former police car depot, Biesenbach is planning a new green space and clearing out a huge area to make way for multidisciplinary art programs targeted to the local community. The warehouse, as he calls it, is one of several initiatives that show Biesenbach’s natural instincts for combining the institutional and the avant-garde. “It will have educational programs, a book space where kids can read, where people can be creative,” he says. “It will be very open and, I hope, free.”
Nobody can accuse Biesenbach of faking his own personal commitment to downtown. He spent last Thanksgiving working in a Skid Row soup kitchen and lives in the thick of it all, in a rental above the cacophonous Grand Central Market. “It’s a 500-square-foot apartment, and it’s completely empty, and it’s wonderful,” says Biesenbach, whose all-white Manhattan place was famous for its absence of not only art, but also of sofas and chairs. “I think I don’t need a kitchen here because I can just go downstairs to the market.” Biesenbach is one of those people who somehow manages to be both extremely social and puzzlingly elusive; his spartan MOCA office, furnished with chairs that seem plucked from the Office Depot discount section, offers no more clues about him than his apartment does. His biggest personal touch was removing the built-in louvre blinds from one window so that he can look out into the museum’s courtyard, and beyond. While we’re talking, Biesenbach locates some copies of the original architectural drawings of the building, designed by Arata Isozaki as a study in geometrical forms, and shows me how the simple act of opening the center-hinged square window transforms the whole feeling of the space. “Once I opened this window, I understood the building,” he says.
At Biesenbach’s request, the artist Barbara Kruger recently revived her striking, billboard-size 1990 artwork Untitled (Questions) on one wall of the Geffen. Kruger, a MOCA board member and longtime SoCal resident, says the director’s outsider status should not be held against him. “Los Angeles is full of people who’ve come here from elsewhere and who understand this city and believe in its possibilities,” she says, adding that MOCA, with its world-class permanent collection and influential curatorial history, has been especially esteemed by New Yorkers and Europeans over the years. “Klaus is someone who really respects this institution, and its past.”
Biesenbach knows that making the transition from MoMA guy to MOCA guy is a gradual process that will require long periods of patience, and frequent moments of humility. For all the valid buzz about the city’s growing status as a worldwide art capital, it’s still LA, where culture exists on its own terms. At the end of our meeting, he pulls out his phone and orders an Uber to take him to a trustee dinner in Santa Monica. When the driver arrives and calls to inform Biesenbach that he’s downstairs waiting, there’s some confusion about the pickup spot. The driver is parked at the Omni Hotel, next door. “I’m not at the Omni, I’m at MOCA,” he tells the driver, who’s apparently baffled. “It’s a museum.”