Museums

7 Exhibits From L.A.’s Academy Museum That Show How It Rethinks Hollywood History, From Boundary-Breaking Oscar Fashion to Problematic Makeup


After numerous delays, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures finally opened its doors this week, as members of the public were invited into the new seven-story, Renzo Piano-designed shrine to movie magic for the first time. 

The project has always been a high-profile one, and not just because of Hollywood’s outsized cultural influence or the names involved in bringing the thing to life (Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Bob Iger, to name a few).

The stakes were high: the industry, still reckoning with the problems laid bare by campaigns like “#MeToo” and “#OscarsSoWhite,” now has another identity crisis on its hands as the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way films are financed and experienced. Reverence for the institution is fading, evidenced by the lowest-ever ratings achieved by the most recent Academy Awards.

As Janelle Zara recently wrote, the entire way the museum tells cinema history has been reimagined to meet these questions and create a broader, more contemporary, and perhaps more engaging view of its subject matter. That’s not to say, though, that you won’t also find pieces of memorabilia from your favorite movies on display.

Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Okoye’s Black Panther outfit, and an animatronic E.T.—among many other greatest hits—are all on view as the public gets its first glimpse at the experience, alongside debut exhibitions devoted to filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki and Pedro Almodóvar.

To illustrate the scope of the museum’s vision, we asked collections curator Nathalie Morris to highlight a few of her favorite objects from the collection. Below are seven novel movie artifacts selected by Morris that give a sense of what to expect from the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, along with the curator’s commentary on each.

 

1) Phantasmagoria Magic Lantern

© Academy Museum Foundation.

© Academy Museum Foundation.

“Produced by English inventor Phillip Carpenter around 1821, this quirky-looking lantern was designed for rear, as opposed to front projection. It could create spooky apparitions and make specters appear and disappear at will, a defining feature of the phantasmagoria show, a precursor to the modern horror genre. This piece is part of the museum’s Richard Balzer Collection, on show as part of ‘The Path to Cinema.’ It’s a significant part of the centuries-long story of how optical devices have been used to tell stories, enthrall viewers and bring still images to life.”

 

2) Max Factor Pan-Cake Make-Ups

Max Factor Pan-Cake make-ups on display in the Acadamy Museum. Photo: Joshua White. ©Academy Museum Foundation.

Max Factor Pan-Cake make-ups on display in the Acadamy Museum. Photo: Joshua White. ©Academy Museum Foundation.

“Max Factor was an instrumental figure in the development of make-up for cinema, creating new products to match advances in film technology. He invented Pan-Cake make-up in response to the evolution of Technicolor in the 1930s, to ensure actors appeared with natural complexions on screen. While we salute his technical genius, we also want to highlight how these products reflect Hollywood’s problematic relationship to race, casting, and performance. Shades on display include ‘Light Egyptian,’ ‘Dark Egyptian,’ ‘Indian’ and ‘Chinese’—which were largely intended for use on white actors. Most problematic, of course, is the shade ‘Minstrel,’ an explicit reference to the long-standing practice of blackface.

The display of these pieces (curated by my colleagues Ana Santiago and Dara Jaffe as part of our ‘Identity’ gallery) is accompanied by a slideshow that contextualizes them within the history of racist casting and make-up practices. This explores the tradition of minstrelsy, racial stereotyping, and the long-standing practice of casting white actors to play people of color—an accepted norm that for a long time shut non-white actors out of roles and opportunities. For instance, Lena Horne was one of the few leading Black actresses in classical-era Hollywood. She lost out on the role of Julie in Showboat (1951) to Ava Gardner, who played a Black woman passing as white, wearing make-up to darken her skin. It’s only by confronting histories such as these that we can fully understand the past and strive for a more equitable future.”

 

3) Technicolor Camera From 1937

A Technicolor camera on display at the new Academy Museum in Los Angeles, CA Tuesday, September 21, 2021. Photo: David Crane/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images.

A Technicolor camera on display at the new Academy Museum in Los Angeles, CA Tuesday, September 21, 2021. Photo: David Crane/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images.

“Technicolor was a color camera system that shot some of the most visually stunning movies of all time, including The Wizard of Oz. Introduced in 1932, three-strip Technicolor represented a huge advance in motion picture technology, enabling an expressive and richly saturated palette for filmmakers to work with. The camera itself is also an elegant and beautiful piece of equipment and no collection of film technology would be complete without one.”

 

4) Olympia Typewriter Used by Joseph Stefano

The typewriter used by <i>Psycho</i> screenwriter Joseph Stefano. Photo: Joshua White. ©Academy Museum Foundation.

The typewriter used by Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano. Photo: Joshua White. ©Academy Museum Foundation.

“This typewriter was used by then-novice screenwriter Joseph Stefano to write the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Adapted from the 1959 novel by Robert Bloch, the film challenged the censors, terrified audiences and revitalized Hitchcock’s career, making him relevant to a new generation. As well playing a part in one of the most influential films of all time, the typewriter also serves to represent a key tool of the screenwriter (or the studio typing pool) before the introduction of personal computers and screenwriting software from the 1980s onwards.”

 

5) Dress Worn by Rita Moreno to the Academy Awards in 1962 and 2018

Actress Rita Moreno with her Academy Award in 1962. Courtesy of Getty Images.

Actress Rita Moreno with her Academy Award in 1962. Courtesy of Getty Images.

“The Academy Museum has a growing collection of significant Academy Awards red carpet fashions. This dress was worn by Rita Moreno, the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award, when she won Best Supporting Actress for the role of Anita in West Side Story (1961). Moreno accepted her statuette in this black and gold dress designed by Filipino fashion legend Pitoy Moreno. She wore the same dress again, altered to become strapless and accessorized with gloves and jewelry, when she was a presenter in 2018.”

 

6) Costume Worn by Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

A costume worn by Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in <i>Lady Sings the Blues</i> (1972). Photo: Joshua White. © Academy Museum Foundation.

A costume worn by Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). Photo: Joshua White. © Academy Museum Foundation.

“Diana Ross wore this skirt suit in her Oscar-nominated performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Originally Norma Koch was to design all the costumes for the film, but shortly before filming commenced Ross had Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan brought on to design her costumes (they had previously created many of her looks for concerts and television appearances). Given the short time window, Mackie and Aghayan were unable to make all of her costumes from scratch. This piece was inspired by Holiday’s style in the late ’40s/early ’50s, particularly in the film New Orleans (1947). It was selected from stock at Paramount studios and customized with the distinctive ‘B’ on the lapel, a great example of how practicality, problem-solving, and creativity come together in film costuming.”

 

7) Kazu Hiro Prosthetics for Charlize Theron in Bombshell (2019)

Charlize Theron in <i>Bombshell</i> (2019). Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.

Charlize Theron in Bombshell (2019). Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.

“Special effects make-up artist Kazu Hiro transformed Charlize Theron into Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly for 2019’s Bombshell. If you look carefully at these pieces (with the help of the accompanying interview with Hiro) you can understand the way in which he altered Theron’s chin, jawline, eyelids, eye color, and even nostrils to support her tour de force performance. Theron was nominated for an Oscar for her role, and Hiro, along with Vivian Baker and hair designer Anne Morgan, took home the award for Makeup and Hairstyling.”

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Bug Infestations at Museums Surged During Lockdown. Here’s How They Are Fighting Back to Defend Their Art From Pesky Critters


What’s a museum conservator’s greatest enemy? If your mind went straight to men in ski masks, disorderly visitors, or even climate-related threats, you’d be wrong. A much more banal threat haunts these experts’ nightmares: bugs.

And the problem has only gotten worse lately. Many pests are most active in the springtime. Thus, conservators were alarmed when museums were forced to lock down at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

“The combination of spring breeding season and dark, undisturbed galleries with no visitors as a result of lockdowns created favorable conditions for pests to thrive,” Madeline Corona, assistant conservator, decorative arts and sculpture conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, told Midnight Publishing Group News recently. “It’s no surprise that museums all over the world saw an uptick in pest activity during this time.”

At the Getty, shortly after lockdown began in the spring 2020, routine pest monitoring revealed an uptick in the number of webbing clothes moths in some of the decorative arts galleries. Having located the unwelcome guests hiding around one of the South Pavilion decorative arts galleries’ most popular works—the pink 18th-century French day bed—the museum embarked on a year-long project to deep clean the galleries.

This level of intense concern about infestation is hardly unique to L.A. As Corona puts it, “Pests are a constant, inherent challenge in collections care worldwide.”

 

Bugs Everywhere

According to a spokesperson for the British Museum, the biggest threat it sees is from webbing clothes moth Tineolla bisselliella, which “can pose a risk to collections with a high organic content.” These common moths will munch through clothes, tapestries, even carpets.

Other pests that pose significant threats to museum collections, especially in the U.K, include bugs like silverfish, which eat books, paper, and cotton, and carpet beetle larvae, which munch on silk, wool, fur, and feathers. 

Silverfish in three pieces on the torn cover of an old book.

Silverfish in three pieces on the torn cover of an old book.

Even at museums that don’t have original textiles on display or organic objects in the collection, like London’s quirky cabinet of curiosities, Sir John Soane’s Museum, clothes moths still pose a threat. “They are a threat to reproduction textiles such as wool curtains and carpets and are more active here than other pests such as carpet beetle and silver fish,” the museum’s conservator Jane Wilkinson explained. 

Fortunately, many of the U.K.’s institutions had carefully thought-out procedures in place to avoid infestation during lockdown. Neither the British Museum, Sir John Soane’s Musuem, nor the Victoria & Albert Museum, which looks after an impressive 14,000-piece collection of garments from the last five centuries, reported any increase in pest activity during lockdown—in fact, the V&A reported a decrease in pest infestations.

But experts at all three museums attributed this to rigorous cleaning processes, as well as official IPM (Integrated Pest Management) policies and procedures which allowed them to keep the necessary expertise on the ground at all times, monitoring insect traps, inspecting collections, and doing environmental checks.

 

Gameifying Pest Control

Not all institutions have been able to keep eagle eyes on site at all times during the pandemic. With limited numbers of expert museum staff on the ground, it became more important than ever to ensure that frontline workers—from cleaners to security staff—were educated about how to spot pests that may look harmless but that could have devastating effects on collections.

To this end, Helena Jaeschke, a conservator at the Southwest Museums Development consultancy in the U.K., even developed a card game called Save the Museum. The deck has 26 cards, each featuring life-sized silhouettes of common pests with more information about the damage they inflict on the reverse of the card. 

Save the Museum card deck. Image via Conservation Resources.

Save the Museum card deck. Image via Conservation Resources.

“You can flick through the cards to learn details about pests and possible treatments whilst having a coffee break, or else challenge each other with a game,” Jaeschke said in a statement. “It’s a great way for everyone to become more confident in identifying and dealing with pests and protecting our heritage.”

The cards are available to buy online. Decks have been delivered to some 138 museums in the southwest that signed onto the region’s Pest Partners initiative, along with kits designed to help museums identify, trap, and track pest activity.

 

Counting Moths at the Met

Teamwork and proactive examination is also very much a part of the battle plan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “We have a comprehensive integrated pest management program,” said Lisa Pilosi, conservator in charge of objects conservation at the Met. “Even through there are specific people dedicated to that program, it’s kind of a museum-wide responsibility to think about this.”

Though the museum has one IPM program administrant and research scientists focused on preventive conservation issues including identifying pests and working on mitigation, “we sort of fan out from there, where every curatorial and conservation department has at least one person who’s assigned to the moth monitoring process.”

This includes maintaining moth traps throughout the building, “especially in areas we think might be problematic. These assigned staff members check them on a regular basis and we keep a museum-wide record of where we’re finding moths. So it’s a matter of where is it ticking up.”

Adult Clothes Moth (Tineola bisselliella). ©Historyonics.

Adult Clothes Moth (Tineola bisselliella). ©Historyonics.

In addition, Pilosi says, “Our guards are super observant and they are always looking at the collection and what’s going on.”

A few days after the shutdown in March 2020, a group including the leaders of the collections emergency team met and came up with a list of about 30 staff who have collections responsibility, who were either in walking distance of the museum or who were close enough to come in with their car. They identified everywhere there was art or an important archive, whether on display, in storage, or in libraries. “We made a roster so that every two or three days a team of three from this larger group would walk through some of those spaces… so we had eyes on everything.”

 

Experimenting With Micro-Wasps

Some U.K. institutions are pushing the practice even further with the use of scientific experimentation. The National Trust, which is a heritage charity that looks after more than 500 historic properties—including castles, ancient monuments, gardens, parks and nature reserves around the U.K.—is trialing an inventive way to crack down on its uptick in pests. 

“There’s no doubt lockdown suited our resident bugs,” assistant national conservator Hilary Jarvis said. The problem was compounded by mild winter conditions followed by a particularly warm spring, and the result was that 173 of National Trust properties reported record numbers of insects, representing an 11 percent total increase in pests from the 2019 report. 

Blickling Hall in Norfolk, a historic property believed to have been where Anne Boleyn was born, was particularly affected by clothes moths, which caused damage to some of its collections, including a tapestry of Peter the Great that was gifted to the property owner by Catherine the Great in the 1760s.

A card dispenser, containing c. 2,400 parasitoid wasps, in an oak drawer. ©Historyonics.

A card dispenser, containing c. 2,400 parasitoid wasps, in an oak drawer. ©Historyonics.

Following scientific research, it decided to experiment with a natural pest-control method by releasing microscopic wasps that are clothes moths’ “natural enemy.” 

Called Trichogramma evanescens, these tiny parasitic wasps are just 0.5 mm in length and nearly invisible to the human eye. They are supplied in small card dispensers containing up to 2,400 wasps that can be discreetly hung or placed around the property. Without being harmful to humans or other animals, the wasp parasites seek out moth eggs and lay their own eggs inside them to hatch new wasps. After laying eggs, they die naturally and disappear “inconspicuously into house dust.” 

The trial also includes the deployment of specially prepared female moth pheromones, which could disrupt adult mating by confusing the male moths.

The National Trust began the trial in February 2021, and Jarvis reported limited early results at the most recent Pest Odyssey conference earlier this month, joining organizations like the U.K. Pest Odyssey Network for support and advice from specialists in heritage pest control. Early data after six months suggest a greater drop in moths when the wasps were used in combination with the pheromone disruption, compared with just using pheromone disruption on its own. But Jarvis said these numbers should be looked at with caution: the warmer weather and lockdown surge in pests in 2020 boosted comparable figures, which could give a false impression of the extent of the drop. 

The trial continues, and given the stakes, museums around the world are watching.

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In an Expansion, the Rubell Museum Will Bring Its Tastemaking Private Art Collection to Washington, D.C., Next Year


Miami’s Rubell Museum, one of the most prestigious and influential private contemporary art institutions in the U.S., is expanding with a long-awaited second location in Washington, D.C.

Founded by Don and Mera Rubell, the institution is a showcase for their extensive art collection. For emerging artists, the Rubell’s patronage (and a coveted residency at the museum) can be star-making—Sterling Ruby, Oscar Murillo, Lucy Dodd, and, most recently, Amoako Boafo are among the many artists who have benefitted from their stamp of approval.

The couple began collecting art the year they married, back in 1964. In 1993, they began welcoming the public to the Rubell Family Collection in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood. In 2019, the private museum movedwith great fanfare—to the city’s Allapattah neighborhood, rebranding itself the Rubell Museum.

The new D.C. branch will display contemporary paintings, sculptures, photography, and installation art in the former Randall Junior High School. The property has a long history in Washington. Originally built in 1906, the school operated until 1978, when the city converted it into a men’s shelter and artist studios.

The Corcoran College of Art + Design bought the building from the city in 2006 and planned to develop it into a campus and luxury condominiums, but the project foundered after the financial crisis. The Rubells, who own the Capitol Skyline Hotel down the street, bought the building from the Corcoran for $6.5 million back in 2010, according to Art in America.

Plagued by delays and partnership changes (last year, the real estate developer Lowe took over the project), the redevelopment now appears to be back on track. It is expected to open by the end of 2022.

Mera Rubell at the construction site for the second location of Miami's Rubell Museum, formerly the Randall School in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Blinder Belle Architects and Planners.

Mera Rubell and and Hany Hasson, the lead architect for the project from Beyer Blinder Belle, at the site for the second location of Miami’s Rubell Museum, formerly the Randall School in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Blinder Belle Architects and Planners.

The Rubells will take over the central building and east wing, adding a glass entry pavilion designed by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners featuring a bookstore, café, and an outdoor dining terrace. The west wing will serve as office space for a variety of companies in creative fields such as nonprofits, cultural institutions, and technology incubators.

A spokesperson for the Rubells declined to offer additional details about their plans for the museum. The couple’s collection includes extensive holdings of work by Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, Catherine Opie, Kerry James Marshall, and other famous names.

Lowe, the project’s developer, is also building Gallery 64, a new 12-story residential building, on the 2.7 acre grounds. It will house 492 units of studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments, 98 of which will be dedicated to affordable housing. The Historic Preservation Review Board and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission have approved the concept design for the historic property’s redevelopment.

The museum’s 100,000-square-foot Miami campus, designed by Selldorf Architects, features 40 galleries, a library, and a restaurant housed in a retrofitted food processing complex.

See more renderings of the D.C. project below.

The Randall School in Washington, D.C., will become home to the second location of Miami's Rubell Museum and a new Gallery 64 apartment building. Rendering courtesy of Blinder Belle Architects and PlannersThe Randall School in Washington, D.C., will become home to the second location of Miami's Rubell Museum and a new Gallery 64 apartment building. Rendering courtesy of Blinder Belle Architects and Planners

The Randall School in Washington, D.C., will become home to the second location of Miami’s Rubell Museum and a new Gallery 64 apartment building. Rendering courtesy of Blinder Belle Architects and Planners.

The Randall School in Washington, D.C., will become home to the second location of Miami's Rubell Museum and a new Gallery 64 apartment building. Rendering courtesy of Blinder Belle Architects and Planners

The Randall School in Washington, D.C., will become home to the second location of Miami’s Rubell Museum and a new Gallery 64 apartment building. Rendering courtesy of Blinder Belle Architects and Planners.

The Randall School in Washington, D.C., will become home to the second location of Miami's Rubell Museum and a new Gallery 64 apartment building. Rendering courtesy of Blinder Belle Architects and Planners.

The Randall School in Washington, D.C., will become home to the second location of Miami’s Rubell Museum and a new Gallery 64 apartment building. Rendering courtesy of Blinder Belle Architects and Planners.

The Randall School in Washington, D.C., will become home to the second location of Miami's Rubell Museum and a new Gallery 64 apartment building. Rendering courtesy of Blinder Belle Architects and Planners.

The Randall School in Washington, D.C., will become home to the second location of Miami’s Rubell Museum and a new Gallery 64 apartment building. Rendering courtesy of Blinder Belle Architects and Planners.

The Rubell Museum DC will be located at 65 Eye Street, SW, Washington, D.C.

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Hong Kong’s M+ Museum Has Removed Ai Weiwei’s Famous Tiananmen Square Photo From Its Website While It Awaits Government Review


The news that Hong Kong’s M+ Museum would not display Ai Weiwei’s photograph of Tiananmen Square in its inaugural exhibition made international headlines earlier this year. Now, the institution has taken another step, removing the image from its newly launched website while it is under review by the authorities, Midnight Publishing Group News has learned.

Pro-Beijing politicians had accused Ai’s Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen (1997)—which depicts the Chinese dissident artist raising a middle finger at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—of “spreading hatred against China” under the country’s national security law, which went into effect in Hong Kong last June.

Another work by Ai, Map of China (2003), has also been censored online. That sculpture, a 3D map of the country made of wood salvaged from demolished Qing Dynasty temples, aims to celebrate China’s cultural and ethnic diversity. The sculpture and photograph are part of the M+ Sigg Collection, a major Chinese art trove donated to the museum by Swiss entrepreneur Uli Sigg.

Both images could be seen on the beta version of the M+ collection website, but were no longer available when the final site went live on August 10.

“M+ is reviewing the treatment of certain images of works having regard to the advice obtained from relevant authorities including the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration,” a spokesperson for the museum told Midnight Publishing Group News. “The images concerned are not uploaded pending completion of the review.”

A screenshot of M+'s website, with images of some Ai Weiwei works missing.

A screenshot of M+’s website, with images of some Ai Weiwei works missing.

Many images of works by Ai are accessible on the website, including Still Life, an installation comprising thousands of axes from the Stone Age that was exhibited when the M+ Sigg Collection was first unveiled in Hong Kong in 2016, as well as other pieces from the “Study of Perspective” series, including Bundeshaus Bern (1999) and White House (1995).

Ai questioned the inconsistent treatment of the series. “Why is M+ not showing Tian’anmen but keeping White House?” the artist told Midnight Publishing Group News. (Ai recently wrote an op ed for Midnight Publishing Group News about M+’s decision not to show the work in its opening show.)

Hong Kong’s Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration is responsible for “enforcing the film classification system under the Film Censorship Ordinance,” “controlling the publication of obscene and indecent articles,” and the registration of local newspapers. The government proposed in August to amend the Film Censorship Ordinance, giving the chief secretary, the city’s number two executive, power to revoke any approval given to a film should its exhibition “be contrary to the interests of national security.”

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective: Tian'anmen (1997). M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation, © Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen (1997). M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation, © Ai Weiwei.

In addition to the two works by Ai, a number of other objects in the M+ collection are not shown on the website, including some of those by Kacey Wong, who is known for his political art and recently left Hong Kong for Taiwan in “self-imposed exile.” However, some works that might be considered politically sensitive, such as Liu Heung-Shing’s photographic series “China After Mao” and images depicting the summer of 1989 in Beijing following the Tiananmen crackdown, are accessible.

The soon-to-open museum stated that digitization of its 8,000-object-strong collection “is an ongoing effort” and that the collection “will be updated periodically as new works, information and intellectual property rights become available.”

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L.A. MOCA Names Johanna Burton Executive Director, Creating a New Position That Splits Duties With Klaus Biesenbach


Johanna Burton, a high-profile curator who has held leadership positions at a number of major institutions, has been named the new executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles.  

Burton will share leadership duties with Klaus Biesenbach, who, in February was unceremoniously removed from his post as director and instead made artistic director, tasked with handling the museum’s programming, collections, and exhibitions. At the same time, the museum’s board of trustees commenced a search for someone to fill the newly-created position of executive director, responsible for the “overall management and operations of the museum,” according to an internal letter reviewed by Midnight Publishing Group News

Burton will assume her new role November 1, 2021. Both she and Biesenbach will report to the board.

“It’s thrilling to join MOCA’s team at this historic moment,” Burton said in a statement. “MOCA’s artist-centered mission dovetails with my own commitment to creating platforms that foster artistic innovation and emphasize deep connections to audiences.” 

“I’m excited to work closely with Klaus on visioning the next era of MOCA,” she went on, “listening closely to our staff and communities, while bringing the museum’s structures into ever-more vibrant alignment with the museum’s values.”

Long seen as a rising star in the museum-executive ranks, Burton comes to MOCA from the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, where she has served as executive director since 2019. Prior to that, her CV included such gigs as the Keith Haring Director and curator of education and public engagement at the New Museum in New York; director of the graduate program at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies; and associate director of the Whitney Independent Study Program. Her curatorial credits include major exhibitions of Sherrie Levine, Haim Steinbach, Simone Leigh, and several shows exploring gender and identity. 

MOCA LA’s announcement praised Burton for her engagement with education and inclusivity, as well as a “long-term commitment to the kind of institution-building that is essential today.” 

“Her hallmark is implementing more horizontal institutional structures to support professional development and advancement of staff, as well as community engagement, always prioritizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and access,” the brief read.

While it’s not clear what Burton meant by the phrase “historic moment” in today’s statement, it’s tempting to read it as a coded reference to the many—often sudden—executive-level shake-ups that have roiled the museum over the last 13 years. 

When Biesenbach was brought on in 2018, he became the fourth director to lead the museum since 2009. His two most recent predecessors, Philippe Vergne (who led MOCA from 2014 to 2018) and Jeffrey Deitch (2010 to 2013), both departed amid swarms of controversy after firing their chief curators—Helen Molesworth and Paul Schimmel, respectively.

In 2008, the museum teetered on the brink of financial collapse—and even came close to merging with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—before being rescued by a $30 million bailout from philanthropist Eli Broad. The director at the time, Jeremy Strick, was largely blamed for the institution’s precarious position and agreed to resign as part of the deal.  

Biesenbach’s short tenure atop the org chart was similarly marred by strife, albeit for reasons largely outside of his control. With the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 and the ensuing lockdowns, MOCA furloughed or reduced the salary of 69 full-time employees and laid off 97 part-timers.

“I am excited to have such a strong partner in Johanna and eagerly look forward to collaborating with her,” Biesenbach. “I have great respect for the integrity, perspective, and expertise Johanna will bring to our collective work serving MOCA’s team, constituencies, and artists, its increasingly large and diverse public, and all residents of Los Angeles.”

In addition to Burton’s hire, MOCA’s year has also been notable for a couple of key departures. Mia Locks, who had served as senior curator and head of hew initiatives, resigned in March, citing the institution’s failure to embrace diversity and inclusion efforts, while human resources director Carlos Viramontes left in February, terming the museum a “hostile” environment.

But even today’s news arrived with a pinch of controversy: Prior to the official announcement of Burton’s hiring, MOCA LA sent out an embargoed press release laden with bizarre demands about how the story should be reported by media outlets. Rather than writing about the hiring, Christopher Knight, art critic for the LA Times, lambasted the museum for trying to control the narrative.  

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