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The secret history of MOCA

From the first contemporary art gallery in the world to its revolutionary online TV channel, MOCA has shaken up American art. We count down its essential history

As part of our new digitally-led US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day. To kick off, LA's Museum of Contemporary Art are showcasing their view on US visual culture, with local net artist Petra Cortright's Tags For Likes, which debuted at their monthly MOCAtv screening. Elsewhere, check out our interview with Petra and her awesome video and read a manifesto from the new director Philippe Vergne. But for now, read our look at the history of this incredible museum and platform. 

The Museum of Contemporary Art is an icon of downtown Los Angeles – and of the contemporary art world as we know it. It wasn’t how we always knew it, however. The founding of MOCA in 1979 marked the opening of the first museum in the city devoted to contemporary art, but to call that its only “first” would do an injustice to its significance on a global – and increasingly globalised – art scene. MOCA redefined the way we view contemporary art, then and now: literally, in its influential attention to the public’s position in relation to artworks, and also in the larger sense of how we have come to view the social, theoretical and political contexts of the art museum. For contemporary creation and curation, MOCA set the standard; post-MOCA, galleries in the US and at large are in thrall to that standard. The exhibitions have been radical – the spaces, revolutionary. On the year of the institution’s 35th anniversary, and the day of their art takeover, we delved into the archives to chart just how an art museum with all the attitude of subculture managed to change the mainstream forever.


The concept of the warehouse space-as-art gallery is, in 2014, one almost hackneyed in its prevalence amongst burgeoning art scenes. Hard to believe, then, that in Los Angeles in the early 80s, the “pop-up” gallery was a radical statement of intent. You can thank (or blame) MOCA for the concept of the temporary gallery space – it was during the construction of MOCA Grand Avenue (the sandstone fortress from celebrated Japanese architect Arata Isozaki), in 1983, that the Temporary Contemporary opened. A 1940s warehouse that had seen hardware stores and police cars between its 4 walls, the space – all exposed piping and grey scale – was discovered to be extraordinarily suitable for housing modern art. Subtly renovated by renowned Californian architect Frank Gehry, the Temporary Contemporary (later the Geffen contemporary) captivated critics and patrons alike. More than a venue, the space became symbolic of the new accessibility in art and the way we encounter it.


“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” asks a 1985 piece by feminist group Guerilla Girls, citing the statistic that less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are by women, whilst 85% of nudes are female. In their commitment to reflect the true diversity of contemporary art today, MOCA’s mission has been to close that gap. In 1989’s landmark expo A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation, an unprecedented number of female artists were included – 12 out of 30 – including Dara Birnbaum, Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman. A Barbara Kruger mural painted the south wall of the Temporary Contemporary for two years from 1990, followed later by ‘99’s major retrospective. Fast-forward to 2007, and Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution, and MOCA plays host to a world first: a major exhibition examining the foundations and legacy of feminist art. For MOCA – committed to exploring representation through the underrepresented – there is, simply, no gap.


There’s the American Dream and then there’s everything else – for MOCA, “everything else” has often been the focus of exhibitions that explore the narratives of the streets of its city. Back in ’92, MOCA ushered in a new art era with Helter Skelter, a survey of art of from the Los Angeles area that aimed to explore “the narratives created in the long shadows cast by the harsh Southern California light.” Highlights included Richard Jackson’s “Big Time Ideas”, composed of 1000 clocks ticking in unison. 2011’s Art in the Streets was the USA’s first comprehensive survey of graffiti and street art. Banksy, Future, Os Gemeos et al. represented MOCA as a transgressor: breaking the boundaries between public and private, commercialism and individualism.


Perhaps more than any other gallery, MOCA finds its origins in bringing performance art to the masses. At the re-opening of the Temporary Contemporary after a 3-year closure in 1995, the gallery eschewed a blockbuster launch for a more organic opening “act”: Elizabeth Streb’s Action Occupation, a residency that celebrated the space’s power to vitalise the people and art that occupied its wide-open space. In 1998, Out of Actions aimed to explore the complex connections between performance and works of art in the post-war period: with more than 100 artists from 20 countries, the ground-breaking exhibition made clear that performance art does not and cannot occur in a bubble. The gallery contributed to a shift change in how “action” in art is viewed at all – it is perhaps the survey of the late Mike Kelley, now on at MOCA, that best represents this multidisciplinary attitude with its affectionate study of an artist who worked in almost every medium, and straddled counter-culture and mass culture.


MOCA has always been ahead of the throng when it comes to the full immersion of the public into its world of art – sometimes quite literally, as in the recreation of Helio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida’s communal swimming pool (!) in 2010’s Suprasensorial. It is the gallery’s digital extensions, however, that prove its position as the defining museum of contemporary culture. MOCAtv, the museum’s YouTube channel, launched in 2012 and remains the only art channel to be part of the platform’s original channels. Firsts include premiering Bjork’s Mutual Core video in 2012, and, just last week, premiering digital art darling Petra Cortright’s Tags for Likes video series (debuting on Dazed – check it out below). As Woody Allen might say, 'life doesn't imitate art; art imitates television'.