The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles has named Klaus Biesenbach, who is currently director of MoMA PS1 in New York and chief curator at large of the Museum of Modern Art, as its new director, the Los Angeles Times reports. The much-anticipated announcement follows news in May that Philippe Vergne would step down as MOCA’s director in March of next year.
“Like so many of my colleagues around the world, I have long seen MOCA as one of the most vital institutions in our field,” Biesenbach said in a statement. “It is humbling to be invited to lead a museum that has already achieved so much, and that in so many ways represents the highest aspirations of contemporary art.”
Biesenbach joined PS1 as a curator in 1995 and has worked with MoMA since the larger institution took it into its fold in 2000. He became a curator in MoMA’s film and media department, which later split into two separate entities. In 2009, he broadened the media half to be called the Department of Media and Performance Art.
His tenure at MoMA and its satellite PS1 has been divisive, with some of his exhibitions and initiatives, like a recent Yoko Ono retrospective and the temporary transformation of PS1 into a shelter for victims of Hurricane Sandy, having been widely celebrated, while others, like a sharply criticized Björk show, met with less positive reception. Among the many exhibitions he helped organize for the two institutions are a Marina Abramović retrospective at MoMA in 2010, and one of the first major surveys of Ryan Trecartin’s work, at PS1 in 2011. He also worked on three editions of PS1’s Greater New York quinquennial—in 2000, 2005, and 2010—and launched the museum’s “Rockaway!” initiative, a series of shows that places large-scale commissions by contemporary artists around Rockaway Beach in Queens.
Prior to joining MoMA, Biesenbach was the founding director of the Kunst-Werke (KW) Institute of Contemporary Art in Berlin. Located in a disused margarine factory, the museum has since become one of the German capital’s most important arts institutions. In an account of how he first opened the KW published by ARTnews in 2016, Biesenbach wrote, “It was a pivotal, unique moment, the point after a moving and peaceful revolution. It created a moment of great radical change and chaos but also great freedom and opportunities.”
At the KW, Biesenbach served as one of the first organizers of the Berlin Biennale, which is currently in its tenth edition. (Earlier this year, ARTnews published another essay by Biesenbach about how the Biennale has grown over the years.) The first edition, which opened in 1998, was organized by Biesenbach in collaboration with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Nancy Spector. Other major curatorial credits include the 2002 Shanghai Biennale and “Club Berlin,” a 72-hour event staged during the Venice Biennale that featured experimental cocktails by Abramović and other artworks.
According to the Times report, Biesenbach was unanimously chosen out of a pool of nearly 40 candidates by MOCA’s board. His appointment follows an extended period of turmoil at MOCA. In March, chief curator Helen Molesworth was fired by Vergne, who became director of MOCA in 2014 following a term as director of New York’s Dia Art Foundation. Molesworth’s controversial firing left many speculating about behind-the-scenes maneuvering that might have led to her departure. Rumors swirled about Vergne potential exit from the institution before the news was announced in May. In today’s L.A. Times report regarding Biesenbach, the artist Catherine Opie, a board member at MOCA, said, “Philippe is obviously going to be very available in terms of this transition.”
In a statement from the museum, Maurice Marciano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz, the co-chairs of MOCA’s board, said, “On behalf of ourselves and the entire Board, we want to thank the search and selection committee, especially the artists, for bringing this process to such an outstanding conclusion. The Board is excited to welcome Klaus Biesenbach, one of the world’s most knowledgeable, wide-ranging, and innovative museum executives of contemporary art. We also extend our warmest appreciation to Philippe Vergne for his service to MOCA.”