Keep Barnsdall Under LA City Operation

08/24/2010 03:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Opinion by Marlena Donohue


I recently did an interview piece with Jeffrey Deitch, MOCA's new Director, and I found him open and judicious. Los Angeles was up in arms at his arrival and at his maiden venue, the Dennis Hopper homage, citing the perfect storm of three art planets too closely aligned - Jeffery, Dennis and Julian Schnabel - all enfants terribles in their way, who by virtue of their cachet would lead us all to trust that, with the help of the House of Broad, all was well on Grand Avenue.

Now I know that America loves a renegade, and loves to hate a renegade. We prefer the resurrected bratty variety, who eventually straighten up and find their way; the ones that live rough, party hard, and spend big. Then they grow in their later years to become "significant contributors to culture," as symbolized by settling into refined (i.e. sober) calmness in an elite suburb with one or a string of young, hot wives/partners. 

It was the two-for renegade factor that either summarily bedazzled or reflexively annoyed folks in Deitch's Hopper-Schabel pairing. In all fairness, I was poised to be cynical, but my conversation with Deitch indicated that the exhibition came from a very long term relationship with both men, and a deep awareness of their production, rather than some quickly cooked up vehicle to draw in the glitterati in the hopes that the bling would bring back the bang.

What I detected in talking with MOCA's Director was an endeavor born from a genuine respect for Schnabel's filmic vision (and whatever one thinks of his art, he has become a stupendous filmmaker), and for Hopper as a true cultural watershed. That point is hard to argue. Ask any former flower child turned banker, any 35 year-old Gen X'er, or even teens so green and digitized they only know a "Leonardo" when followed by "di Caprio" ... all will acknowledge the impact and panache of "Easy Rider."

I offer the foregoing  as a preamble to deflect any idea that the concerns I am about to strongly express emanate from some hypocritical snark regarding Deitch's involvement with deep powerful pockets and his previous  incarnation as a blue chip dealer. All art professionals that I know and respect want to succeed, to be remunerated for a unique/inspired type of labor that is courageous and socially indispensable. It is therefore disingenuous to marginalize anybody on that count alone.

However if power, ownership or property become the sole or over-arching goals driving creative enterprise we all ought to worry.

Which brings me to my point. MOCA is a huge and valuable presence in this city. But there is a move afoot (whose locus of origin I cannot claim to know at this writing) to have MOCA take over the exhibition planning at Barnsdall Park's Municipal Gallery.

This would be a major mistake. To have one hegemonic curatorial voice in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, especially when that voice is funded so strongly by one benefactor, is dangerous and delimiting. Since I worked as Josine Ianco-Starrels' assistant in the late 1980s, the Municipal Art Gallery has been a city gallery where local artists, curators and regional programming can reflect the pulse of a locale.

This cautionary does not by any means absolve the MUNI of more exacting standards and does not mitigate room for growth there. The plucky and eccentric Aileen Barnsdall deeded that hill to the city; it is also where one of the few intact Frank Lloyd Wright structures sits. To turn it into a satellite for MOCA programming would mean to have one voice and vision dominate in a city known for its renegade range of art dialects.