LA MOCA Wanted Mark Grotjahn to Headline Its Gala, but He Turned Them Down Due to a Lack of Diversity Among Honorees

To date, the honor has gone only to white men.

Mark Grotjahn. Photo courtesy of Andreas Branch, ©Patrick McMullan.

The save-the-dates are in the mail for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’s 2018 gala—but Mark Grotjahn, who was prominently named as the evening’s honoree, no longer wants to come to the party.

The artist withdrew his name three weeks ago due to a lack of diversity among recent honored artists, the Los Angeles Times reported. The event—MOCA’s biggest fundraiser of the year—has now become a platform for a broader discussion about inclusivity, or lack thereof, at the museum.

“Since the day you extended your invitation to me, our country and the world have changed in ways that were difficult to anticipate,” the artist wrote to MOCA board co-chair Maurice Marciano in an email obtained by the LAT. “There is a new urgency to change the power dynamic and we have an opportunity to do so.”

The museum has held an annual gala since 2001, and began recognizing artist honorees in 2015: first John Baldessari, followed by Ed Ruscha in 2016, and Jeff Koons last year (all of whom, Grotjahn must have noticed, are straight white men).

MOCA’s director, Philippe Vergne, told the LAT that although he felt Grotjahn deserved the honor, he understood his decision and hoped it would inspire a deeper conversation. “My response to him was: ‘We decided to honor you before and it’s our duty and pleasure, now, to honor your ideas,’” he said.

He noted that the decision to celebrate the artist—who will have a solo show at the museum in 2020—was ultimately made by the board co-chairs, Marciano and board co-chair Lilly Tartikoff Karatz. The museum declined to comment further on the matter to artnet News.

Grotjahn’s withdrawal from the award came a week before artist Lari Pittman, who has also voiced concern about the honorees’ lack of diversity, tendered his resignation from the museum’s board.

In a statement posted to Twitter by LAT critic Christopher Knight, Pittman, who is gay and Latino, said: “Perhaps my fault, I have a very low threshold for such lopsided and opportunistic social contracts, and at 66 years old, I am attempting to mitigate a lifetime of this type of collateral damage to my internal world.” Pittman did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment from artnet News.

The sensitive issue of who to honor at the gala extends beyond Grotjahn. artnet News has learned that Catherine Opie, a photographer known for her work with lesbian S&M communities, was initially on tap to be recognized at the museum’s 2017 fundraiser. The timing would have made sense, as her Inauguration Portfolio, a new MOCA acquisition, was on view at the museum last spring in “Selections from the Permanent Collection: Catherine Opie and Sterling Ruby.” The set of 33 photographs documents the vast crowd who attended the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, DC.

MOCA’s board ultimately chose Koons instead. At the time, the LAT reported that he was selected in part for his philanthropic contributions to the institution, which clocked in at $5 million over the previous five years. The museum also praised Koons as “among the most innovative and forward thinking sculptors of our time.” Reached by artnet News, a representative for the museum declined to comment on the reason for the switch.

Koons is the only one of MOCA’s artist honorees who is not a past or present board member. During the controversial directorship of Jeffrey Deitch in 2012, all of MOCA’s artist board members—Opie, Baldessari, Ruscha, and Barbara Kruger—resigned. All but Ruscha returned to the fold after Vergne took over as director, along with new additions: Grotjahn, Pittman, and Mark Bradford.

The museum has said it is reconsidering its approach to the gala and new announcements are expected in the coming weeks.

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