Mark Lamster | Essays

MoCA Loco

A couple of weeks ago I was in Los Angeles, and dropped in on MoCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was a Saturday, and there was a free entry promotion, so I figured the place would be packed — on a pretty weekend afternoon in New York, MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney all have lines out the door — but it felt like I was the only one around. "Nobody goes downtown on the weekends here," a friend told me the next day. 

I should have been happy, because what's better than an empty museum that you have to yourself? Arata Isozaki's MoCA art cave, however, didn't strike me as a particularly amenable place to look at painting. The lighting is dim (in sunny L.A., of all places) and the cramped gallery layout doesn't leave room enough for the collection to breathe. The Rothko room is a big disappointment: sticking an oversize Charles Ray sculpture in there seems like a juvenile sight gag.

I don't keep close tabs on the art world michegas of Los Angeles, but I did notice the prominent donor's panel in front of the museum's entry. Eli Broad sits at the top with a gift in excess of $30 million. There's an anonymous benefactor at $5 million, a few smaller donors, and then about a hundred donors who've given $1,500. That kind of shocked me: that you could get your name placed so prominently on the donor wall for a measly fifteen hundred bucks, and then that the museum could get so few to actually fork over such a minimal gift. I suppose if someone else gives $30 million, you figure it's his toy and why bother?

MoCA's Geffen Contemporary outpost is a lot more successful, architecturally and curatorially. The trippy Suprasensorial exhibition of contemporary op art now on view is definitely worth a visit. 

The next day, I hit the Grove, an outdoor mall dressed up like the commercial center of a European city. It was, in marked contrast to downtown, packed. Angelenos seem to want the kind of pedestrian-friendly urbanism, with diverse retail and entertainment options, they can't find in the arts district around MoCA. As that area is developed (with a new Broad museum by DS+R, a massive new development by Frank Gehry across from his spectacular LA Philharmonic), it would be good to learn a little something from the Vegas-y mall across town. 


Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [15]

To refer to downtown LA as barren is just misinformed: lots of people may not head downtown on weekends, but there are more people actually living in downtown Los Angeles now than any time in the last two decades. They may have not been strolling on Grand Avenue (particularly if the weather was good), or for that matter, been inside of MoCA - but for that you would have to dip into the "art world michegas" to understand it, since all a visitor would have to do, to see an entirely different scene, at least on a Saturday, would be to walk next door to the Colburn School of Music where you would find hundreds and hundreds of kids of all ages attending their classes, with their Tiger Moms and Dads of all races, creeds and income levels aiming their kids at high culture, just not that of contemporary visual art. Or, if you want to see contemporary art at it's liveliest in Los Angeles, you would have to show up in the Culver City gallery district on a Friday night, where no amount of hassle (no legal parking, no food, no safe street lighting or crossings, etc., etc) keeps people from jamming into the most pedestrian un-friendly environment possible in order to see and be seen at the openings. How do you explain that? And on the subject of The Grove: when there are dozens of malls in SoCal, why would a sophisticated visitor from NYC go there? Because The Grove is an urban phenomenon that attracted more visitors than Disneyland the first year or two that it opened? The point of this piece seems to be a plea for complexity in the cultural zone, but I guess what I want to suggest is that the cultural zone of Los Angeles is already pretty complex, just not in a way easily comparable to an East Coast urbanist point-of-view. And to imply as so many have before, that Angelenos prefer shopping to museum going is banal, since I am pretty sure that despite the crowds inside the Met or MoMA, the number of people shopping in the open-air mall that is Soho (on a good-weather weekend, for example), would be greater than those inside the museums. Or one might even admit that the New York museums that are the great tourist attractions have essentially brought the attractions of shopping malls inside their institutional environments. That is where the Los Angeles museums lag, I suppose, but that's yet another subject.

there were simply not a lot of people in downtown la when i was there. i was not misinformed. i stopped in colburn, and there were people there, absolutely, but we're talking about a large area, much of it barren and waiting for transformation, and much of it dominated by large civic/business buildings.

the suggestion was not that angelenos prefer shopping to museum-going, but that they prefer a multi-varied street life to one that is not. the extent to which ny museums and neighborhoods are over-commercialized is not relevant.

as for the popularity of culver, i don't really need to explain it anymore than i need to explain the popularity of chelsea.
mark lamster

Well, I guess I don't understand your logic: if you think that a "multi-varied street" scene (or even a mimickry of one, ala The Grove) is what is needed to draw people to MoCA, then it follows that no one should tolerate Culver City either. And if you propose that this traditional definition of what makes for great city street experiences is a pre-requisite for cultural liveliness, then pretty much nothing in Los Angeles should work. Which is a conventional argument held against Los Angeles as an urban place, but those of us who live here tend to experience the texture of the place a bit differently. I'm not saying it's all good: for instance, I personally find the parking-and-tram-ride somewhat of an impediment to going to the Getty, yet gazillions of folks have no problem with it at all. I guarantee had you gone there, you would have had lots of company in the galleries. So.....?

i spent a great deal of time at the getty, about which more later.

but i think your logic is flawed. just because there are popular destinations that don't have "traditional street life", doesn't mean, ipso facto, that any place can be successful under those conditions, or that those conditions are optimal, or that other places should not develop some other kind of urban structure.

for the record, it was a native angeleno who told me "nobody goes downtown on the weekends here."
mark lamster

Ok, ok, I guess I just would rather not have The Grove (or "Vegas") shoved down my throat as the model for Los Angeles to pursue by a New Yorker who does not have to deal with such simulations! I'd rather have real messes than marketed utopia, particularly if the utopia cited involves a soundtrack with Frank Sinatra crooning "New York, New York" sync'ed to dancing fountains! It's just a little patronizing, but you obviously do not get why it seems that way. C'mon back and we'll take you on a different tour.

that's reason enough to return.

but i wouldn't wish vegas (and i've already gotten into trouble with las vegans on this site) on your downtown, just in my (i guess trite) way was suggesting that it might be nice to have some street life spring up along the walk between the two mocas, as that space is developed and revitalized. actually, you kind of have it there on the blocks by little tokyo, which had some life to them, without a bunch of crate and barrell and anthropologies etc.

in any event, i hope my getty comments will not be so controversial.

mark lamster

Does Mark really think people in Los Angeles are so dim as to not make the connection or appreciate the dissonance between the "urbanism" of a Rick Caruso development and the urbanism of Grand Avenue? Does he know that it is a New York-based developer who is trying to build the retail/residential super project right next to MOCA that Frank Gehry is designing, the same Frank Gehry who was a very successful mall designer before he became a famous architect? When built this project will bring the crowds to Grand that Mark missed. We get it, for the umpteenth time we get it. But that does not mean we agree with these types of simple urban logics.

Angelinos know well the type of arguments that Mark is making and some try to implement these ideas even as others roundly reject them. Los Angeles urbanism is thankfully a work in progress, it's outcome in flux. Hopefully we will not learn in Downtown from the Grove, Las Vegas, or even New York.

I kind of like the quiet of Grand Avenue, don't miss the crowds on top of that one hill on a Saturday or Sunday (quite different from a Monday through Friday), and long for the day to come again when what drives the audience numbers at MOCA Grand Avenue is again the acuteness of the exhibits, not a simulacrum of urbanism thought up by a smart designer or developer living 2000 miles to the east (north, south, or west).

There is plenty of real urbanism in Downtown Los Angeles, the type that New Yorkers familiar with their own 70's, which were pretty quiet in places, are now quite nostalgic for. Perhaps we will keep it this way on Bunker Hill so that tourists like Mark keep coming to enjoy solitude and maybe even the art. We still have that choice.
John Kaliski

where is the suggestion that anyone in la is dim?

most cities are "works in progress," so what? we're hardly perfect here in ny.

i was being rather flip in my comparison of downtown with the grove. i'm aware of gehry's history; but the success or failure of his development is maybe not so automatic as you suggest. (certainly, his plans for atlantic yards has been controversial.) i was not suggesting a mall-ification of downtown.

i'm done commenting on this further here. the facts of my observation remain; i saw what i saw.
mark lamster

<<"Nobody goes downtown on the weekends here," a friend told me the next day. >>

It would be a safe guess that your native friend has avoided downtown and relies on its old (and earned) reputation. That is easily confirmed when someone goes to a car-friendly parking hostile Grand Ave.

And as your observation that Angelenos want to walk is true, as it is with most people. That can be seen daily (and on weekends) in the Historic Core, 7th near Grand, Little Tokyo, and L.A. Live.

I can picture the Geffen quiet on a weekend, compared to cities that don't have nice days in winter. But I cannot picture the surrounding area, Little Tokyo, stripped of people.

You may have seen what you saw in Downtown, but you didn't not see it all.

And don't be so defensive about people defending L.A. It's a trait I have seen from those people who like living in SF, NY, Boston, and Chicago.


I read a clear misunderstanding of LA culture in your post. LA is just a different animal, just as NYC, Chicago, Boston are complex and varied. It cannot be compared side by side with NYC or others simply because it has evolved differently. The west side of LA is entirely a different experience than downtown, or Hollywood or even west hollywood. LA is too big and varied to limit it's people to those gathering at the Grove each and every weekend. I am a downtowner and dread the Grove. I don't need a car in LA because I have approached life here in a profoundly different way than Santa Monica residents, etc. and I am not alone in this approach. I walk everywhere including downtown on the weekends. In fact, I was there at MoCA that very same day you were. LA has changed and
demands a longer closer look at it's many enclaves, not a single paragraph summation of long tired stereotypes of lack of culture and past shallow reputation, some of which does still exist outside of downtown.

Uh, you weren't in the "Arts District". You went to the MoCA. And to rely on a misinformed friend to paint Downtown as barren is downright lazy. Had you asked a local or done a little bit of research you would have discovered a large and incredibly vibrant "Arts District" just a few blocks away. Maybe you should have swung by the place labeled on your map as "gallery row" and you would have seen a very walkable neighborhood with bars, restaurants, cafes, galleries, lofts, markets, the best video store in L.A. without any of that manufactured pap you seemed to love at the Grove.

And another thing.

"it would be good to learn a little something from the Vegas-y mall across town. "

Seriously? They did, and it's called L.A. Live and it SUCKS.
That you would prefer a tired Wolfgang Puck restaurant or a California Pizza Kitchen over a Ludobites experience or Joseph Centeno's Lazy Ox Canteen or any other of some of L.A.'s best new Restaurant's and bars/gastropubs that inhabit the art's district says a lot.

I'm glad there are places like the Grove, LA Live, and any of the gazillion mulitplexes for tourists to go to. I find visiting museums and galleries a much more enriching experience when there are fewer people there who probably don't know how to appreciate them anyway.

Well no wonder your logic is off kilter. Those "revitalized" blocks between MOCA Grand Ave and MOCA Geffen is a Civic Center; City Hall, LAPD HQ; County Buildings, Federal and State court houses that will not be getting any retail anytime soon. However, if you a quick google on "grand ave, los angeles," you would have seen something about Grand Ave Project, a civic park.

By the way, that "new development by Frank Gehry across from his spectacular LA Philharmonic" is not LA Philharmonic. It is Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed 2003, that is the home of L.A. Phil. (Gehry designed the hall, not the philharmonic).

Even though Mark has stopped commenting, The New York Times has not. Apparently the Old Grey Lady has a pair of walking shoes. See - http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/02/20/travel/36hours-losangeles-ss.html?emc=eta1 - described thusly, "The long-blighted center has become an accessible, pedestrian-friendly destination in recent years." Oh well, everyone is entitled to their opinion but in this case the paper of record has a different one than a design observer, and I prefer the former.
John Kaliski

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