After a tumultuous two years at the helm, MOCA Los Angeles artistic director Klaus Biesenbach is set to return to Berlin, where he will direct Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie and the hotly anticipated Museum of the 20th Century.
In February, MOCA restructured its leadership, and Biesenbach was named artistic director. The announcement of his departure by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages Berlin’s state-run museums, comes just a week after MOCA named Johanna Burton as its new executive director. When MOCA announced Burton’s hire, its press department attempted to tightly control how the story was reported, creating controversy among critics like the Los Angeles Times’s Christopher Knight, who penned an op-ed about the announcement.
Biesenbach became executive director of MOCA in 2019 during a period of turmoil. Since then, the museum has continued to face difficulties of various kinds.
When the pandemic began in the U.S., in March 2020, 97 part-time employees were laid off; 69 more full-timers were furloughed, and Biesenbach and other members of leadership took pay cuts. Earlier this year, senior curator Mia Locks, who also joined MOCA in 2019, resigned, claiming that the museum was “not yet ready to fully embrace” to her diversity initiatives. The museum’s human resources director also quit, citing a “hostile [work] environment.”
When he was appointed director of MOCA, Biesenbach was director of MoMA PS1 in New York. His appointment was viewed by the museum community as a star hire, given his reputation for doing shows with big names like Björk and Marina Abramović. His shows drew both massive crowds and the wrath of critics.
Biesenbach is set to assume his new post at the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Museum of the 20th Century on January 1, 2022. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation’s announcement did not say whether he would retain a position at MOCA.
In a statement on Tuesday, MOCA said, “In light of the changed circumstances resulting from Klaus’ new appointment, Klaus will not serve as Artistic Director of MOCA.” Instead, he would act as an adviser to Burton, who would take on Biesenbach’s duties. MOCA said it did not plan to hire another artistic director.
The Neue Nationalgalerie is considered one of Berlin’s top museums. It reopened after a six-year-long renovation project that cost $165 million this past August. Joachim Jäger, who is currently the museum’s director, oversaw that re-up.
The long-awaited Museum of the 20th Century is currently under construction and is expected to become a major institution within the Berlin scene. It is set to house Berlin’s grand collection of modern and contemporary art, which includes significant gifts from collectors like Erich Marx and Egidio Marzona. An opening date from the museum remains uncertain—reports from 2019 pegged it at sometime around 2026—though the rising costs of erecting the Herzog & de Meuron–designed building (currently estimated at $450 million) have aroused the suspicion of many Berliners.
Biesenbach’s new job will see him return to the city that initially made him famous. In 1991, he cofounded Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art and later became its first director. The museum, housed in a disused factory, went on to organize the first Berlin Biennale, in 1998.
Monika Grütters, Germany’s cultural minister, said in a statement, “Thanks to his many years of experience in [working] with globally important art museums, Klaus Biesenbach brings impressive international expertise to his new role. He knows Germany and the world and is correspondingly well networked. He is a firstclass choice to set the course for the future of the newly reopened Neue Nationalgalerie and the new Museum der Moderne as its new director. With his openness to the new and unexpected, Klaus Biesenbach will be a great asset to the Berlin museum landscape.”
Biesenbach’s hire wasn’t the only major museum announcement to come out of Berlin today, however. Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath were named directors of the Hamburger Bahnhof, a museum of modern and contemporary art in the German capital. They are currently associate directors at the Gropius Bau museum in Berlin, and are now at work on the next edition of the Biennale de Lyon, due to open in 2022.
Update, 9/14/21, 5:15 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a statement from MOCA.