What Auction Data Tells Us About the Controversial Firing of MOCA Curator Helen Molesworth

An examination of 15 years' worth of solo shows reveals a significant shift when Molesworth took the reins.

Artist Kerry James Marshall and curator Helen Molesworth at the opening of Marshall's exhibition at MOCA on March 11, 2017 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for MOCA)

A museum curator has many jobs, beyond simply curating shows. High up on the list is what you might call donor management: making sure that museum trustees, existing donors, and potential donors all feel flattered. And it was weaknesses on that front, in particular, which reportedly set the stage for Helen Molesworth’s dramatic recent defenestration from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

And so an intriguing question arises. You can’t measure schmoozing skills in auction data—or, can you?

Trustees and big-name art collectors, after all, tend to collect (and, therefore, want to see exhibited) the kind of expensive art, mostly by white men, that Molesworth explicitly tried to move away from. More generally, they like to see the value of their market-friendly collections ratified with prestigious museum shows. Once you’ve spent millions of dollars on a certain artist’s work, you generally want museums to reinforce what your art advisor and your dealer have been telling you, which is that the artist in question is a great genius worthy of being preserved for posterity.

And so if you want to judge how millionaire-friendly a curator is, look at their shows, and see how many of them feature art-market darlings.

Here’s a chart of the artists with solo shows at MOCA whose works, in aggregate, fetched $10 million or more at auction in the five years before their opening day. The exhibition history comes from an analysis of 112 shows presented by MOCA between September 2002 and today, based on the exhibition history on the museum’s website. The auction data was provided by artnet’s Price Database, and all the hard work was done by Caroline Goldstein, Julia Halperin, and Shannon Pleas.

Artists who received solo shows at MOCA over the past 15 years with an auction gross of more than $10 million. Molesworth joined the museum in September 2014. Warhol’s auction gross is so large that he is not included. Graphic by Shannon Pleas.

The chart goes back as far as February 2003, which saw a Lucian Freud show curated by former chief curator Paul Schimmel; Freud, as of that date, had an auction gross of $24.6 million in the previous five years.

Freud was followed by the likes of Ed Ruscha, in 2004 ($34 million); Jean-Michel Basquiat, in 2005 ($91 million); Robert Rauschenberg, in 2006 ($17 million); and Mark Rothko, a few months later ($138 million).

2007 was the year of Takashi Murakami ($15 million), while 2008 saw shows of Marlene Dumas ($32 million), Martin Kippenberger ($23 million), and Louise Bourgeois ($30 million).

In 2010, there was an Arshile Gorky show ($21 million), while 2011 saw Cy Twombly ($95 million), as well as an Andy Warhol show (off the charts at $1.65 billion, and obviously in most major LA collections). Then in 2012 there were shows for Mike Kelley ($13 million) and Cai Guo-Qiang ($47 million); they were followed in 2013 by Urs Fischer ($19 million). The following year, the month that Helen Molesworth arrived, also saw another Warhol show (up to $1.94 billion, at this point).

All in all, that’s 16 shows featuring top-tier art-market names, over the space of 12 years: 1.3 such exhibits per year, on average.

But what happened after Molesworth began? If the big-name solo shows had continued to come at the previous pace, we’d expect to have seen four of them, over the course of her three years. Instead, counting as generously as possible, there were only two, neither of which really counts as a solo show instigated by Molesworth, and both of which involved artists much newer to the high-end auction market than the other names on the chart.

Not long after she began, in March 2015, the museum opened a retrospective of Elaine Sturtevant ($11 million) organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (The exhibit was fully baked before Molesworth and the museum’s then-new director Philippe Vergne made the decision to move it to LA after its run ended on the East Coast. Molesworth had to move fast at that point, because MOCA’s exhibition schedule was left almost blank after the departure of former director Jeffrey Deitch.)

The only reason Sturtevant makes the cut, however, is that four months previously, in November 2014, her auction record of $710,000 had been smashed with the sale of a $3.4 million painting at Christie’s. And that sale took place after the Sturtevant show had opened at MoMA in New York; if you use the MoMA opening date rather than the MOCA opening date, Sturtevant’s five-year auction gross drops to just $5.2 million.

The other possible entry on the list came when Molesworth unveiled a large-scale mural by Njideka Akunyili Crosby in February of this year; Crosby’s works had at that point fetched $10.7 million at auction in the previous five years.

Crosby is not only the only black woman on the list, and the artist closest to the $10 million cut-off; she is also the artist most recently discovered by the auction market, with no public sales at all before September 2016. That was just 17 months before her mural was unveiled.

Molesworth, then, was sending a very clear message to the kind of collectors who love to bask in the reflected glory of their Ruschas and Rauschenbergs and Murakamis: Your kind of artists aren’t going to get big solo shows at MOCA any more. Not in shows I curate myself, and not in shows which are organized underneath me, in my role as curator-in-chief. If you want to donate such works to the museum, that’s great, but we’re not going to lionize them as being canonical giants in the way you might want us to. Very few boards of trustees would be happy putting their support behind such a message; MOCA’s clearly weren’t.

Of course, everybody is in favor of museum shows for curatorial darlings and underrepresented artists. MOCA has always had such exhibits, interspersed among the Warhols and the Basquiats. The difference with the Molesworth regime was that it abandoned the big-name artists entirely. Until, of course, the museum abandoned Molesworth entirely.

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