"The Museum World Is Having An Identity Crisis, And Firing Powerful Women Won’t Help", read a March 19 headline on the Huffington Post website. The article recapped three high profile layoffs of women from leadership positions in art museums: Queens Museum director Laura Raicovich, who resigned in January after what she described as "political differences" with the museum's board; Musée d’Art Contemporain director María Inés Rodríguez, let go on the International Women's Day because her programme was "too demanding"; and Helen Molesworth, chief curator at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), who according to the museum's press statement chose to step down "due to creative differences" - a piece of phrasing refuted by artist and MOCA board member Catherine Opie, who told Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight that the curator had in fact been fired by director Philippe Vergne for "undermining the museum".
All three departures have been covered by the international art press, but Molesworth's case has received special attention, perhaps due to the nature of the institution. Opened in 1979, MOCA is LA's only artist-founded museum, and has a strong history of progressive and groundbreaking shows. It also has a recent history of turmoil, especially during the divisive directorship of Jeffrey Deitch. A relatively small institution, the museum punches well above its weight in terms of influence.
Seeking answers for the surprise announcement, some reports focused on rumours of Molesworth driving out long-serving staff. Others speculated that Vergne's decision to curate several exhibitions of high profile white male artists' work defied Molesworth's programming efforts. But ultimately, as Julia Halperin wrote on Artnet News, "Molesworth’s personal priorities, progressive politics, and constitutional aversion to flattering donors put her on a collision course with the museum’s director and board."
Since the announcement, extracts from earlier interviews given by Molesworth have circulated widely on social media, including this from a 2016 interview with The Art Newspaper:
"Most museums still maintain a commitment to an idea of the best, or quality, or genius. And I’m not saying I don’t agree with those as values. But I think those values have been created over hundreds of years to favour white men. One of the things you have to say as a curator is “We are not going to present the value that already exists; we are going to do the work to create value around these woman artists and artists of colour that would just come ‘naturally’ to the white male artist.”
Molesworth's departure comes at a time when the equity of museums' exhibition programming and acquisitions is closely scrutinised. In a recent article for ArtForum on the work of Simone Leigh, Molesworth wrote:
"The museum, the Western institution I have dedicated my life to, with its familiar humanist offerings of knowledge and patrimony in the name of empathy and education, is one of the greatest holdouts of the colonialist enterprise. Its fantasies of possession and edification grow more and more wearisome as the years go by. ... I confess that more days than not I find myself wondering whether the whole damn project of collecting, displaying, and interpreting culture might just be unredeemable."
A widely identified point of contention was Molesworth's refusal to feign interest in the collections and priorities of board members and supporters if they did not match her priorities. In another article for Artnet News, Felix Salmon analysed auction data for artists featured in MOCA solo shows over the past 15 years. Positing that donor management is one of the chief curator's primary responsibilities, Salmon showed that the number of shows devoted to top-tier market figures had dropped precipitously during Molesworth's tenure. Molesworth, Salmon states, 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." He concludes: "Very few boards of trustees would be happy putting their support behind such a message; MOCA’s clearly weren’t."
In March I attended the Australian Public Galleries Summit in Sydney. On a panel of artists invited to describe about what galleries would look like if artists ran them, Deborah Kelly noted that secure public funding would be in place, which would eliminate the unsustainable business models of appealing to fickle billionaires for financial security. It was a tongue-in-cheek comment, but it reminded me of the gratitude I feel for working in an art world that remains largely publicly funded, and where situations such as those Molesworth faced at MOCA are relatively rare. At the same time, this year the Ministry for Culture and Heritage has about 50 appointments to make to the boards of organisations it oversees. In a period of rapid social change, the need for board members to be self-aware and socially informed - one might even say "woke" - has never been stronger; for the good of our organisations, and for boards' own self-respect.