MOCA Fires Chief Curator Helen Molesworth for ‘Undermining the Museum,’ According to Report

The reasons behind the firing comes via artist and MOCA trustee Catherine Opie.

Helen Molesworth: Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art
Photo: Courtesy of MOCA

Helen Molesworth, one of the most prominent curators working in the United States, has been fired from her job as chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Times.

On Monday, the museum’s director Philippe Vergne sent an email to MOCA trustees announcing that Molesworth would be “stepping down” from her post, suggesting that she may have resigned. But artist and MOCA board member Catherine Opie told the LAT unequivocally that the curator had been fired.

The reason for her termination, Vergne reportedly told Opie, was “undermining the museum.” Sources told the LAT that tension had arisen between the two over the museum’s artistic direction.

In a statement provided to the newspaper on Tuesday afternoon, the museum said: “The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and Helen Molesworth have decided to part ways due to creative differences. MOCA is grateful to Helen Molesworth for her work over the past 3 and a half years as Chief Curator at the Museum.” Molesworth will continue to work with the museum on the exhibition “One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art,” MOCA said. Her examination of the work of painter and film critic Manny Farber is due to open in October.

While museum directors are often occupied by administrative and fundraising duties, Vergne has organized a number of exhibitions during his tenure at MOCA, which began in 2014. His shows include a major retrospective of the Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre last year and a survey of the American multimedia artist Doug Aitken in 2016.

Molesworth, meanwhile, was behind a well-reviewed reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection in 2016 as well as solo exhibitions of the American painter Kerry James Marshall and the Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino.

Vergne and Molesworth’s arrival at MOCA in 2014 was heralded as a new beginning for the institution, which had been plagued by budgetary woes and media scandals under previous leadership. But the museum found itself under the glare of bad press again last month, when news emerged that the artist Mark Grotjahn had rejected the museum’s offer to honor him at its annual gala. He pointed out that the museum’s three previous honorees were, like him, white men.

The LAT reports that the gala was shelved on Friday and that the $1.4 million in pledges would be sent back to the donors. A representative of MOCA did not immediately respond to artnet News’s request for comment on the gala, Molesworth’s departure, or the LAT report. Molesworth did not return phone calls or messages seeking comment.

Molesworth has been vocal about the need for museums to reconsider entrenched biases and present more work by women and artists of color. Interviewed for artnet News’s recent article about museums’ changing approaches to controversy and criticism, she said:

The one silver lining of this election appears to be a lot of people examining their privilege for the first time…. How do you make sure that what you are doing is thoughtful and is not partaking in some old, deep, white supremacist colonialist tradition of art as missionary? Some people will abdicate altogether and duck and cover. But people have been doing that for hundreds of years. And some people will be brave and take a hard look at their institutions.

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