L.A. MOCA: The Origin Story, via Calvin Tomkins

Tomkins. (Patrick McMullan)

With the recent developments at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art set off by the departure of long-time curator Paul Schimmel, the direction of the museum has never seemed more uncertain. We thought it might be a good time to look back at how MOCA got its start. Calvin Tomkins, writing for The New Yorker in March 1981, in a piece entitled “The Art World: The Camel in the Tent,” gives us a pretty good idea as he explores the museum’s roots as an institution that relied, from the start, on the input of artists.

Here are some tidbits from the piece, which in its entirety is well worth revisiting (and requires a subscription):

  • The museum, which is already being referred to as MOCA, promises to be unusual in several respects, not the least of which is that it may be the first museum whose development has been influenced at every stage—some say dominated—by artists.
  • The initial push for a new museum came from Marsha Weisman, whose brother is Norton Simon. Some friends detect a strain of sibling rivalry in Mrs. Weisman’s devotion to post-war American art; her brother’s preference for Impressionism and earlier periods is well known.
  • The Weismans invited several artists to a meeting at their house in Beverly Hills to discuss the museum project while the Mayor’s Committee was being set up. [William A.] Norris, who was also there, remembers that Robert Irwin, a fifty-two-year-old artist who has lived in Los Angeles all his life, stood at the back of the room and asked all the right questions.
  • Museum boards in this country are usually made up of businessmen, lawyers, financiers, and other heavy-duty citizens. To a good many museum trustees, asking an artist to serve on the board might seem like inviting the camel into the tent. MOCA’s board may have one or two members who feel that way, but, if so, they are keeping it to themselves.
L.A. MOCA: The Origin Story, via Calvin Tomkins