Maria Bell, David Johnson Ending Tenures as MOCA Co-Chairs

David Johnson and Maria Bell
David Johnson and Maria Bell
 Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Museo Jumex

TV producer/writer Maria Arena Bell and lawyer and producer David Johnson of Act 4 Entertainment -- who lead L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art during a critical passage in its history -- are stepping down as co-chairs of the board.

During their tenures, Bell, who has served on the board for four and a half years, and Johnson, for five and a half, oversaw the rebuilding of the museum’s finances but also the polarizing installation of former NYC gallery owner Jeffrey Deitch as MOCA’s director. Deitch stepped down in July of this year, after a three-year tenure that included shows ranging from the popular Art in the Streets blockbuster and lauded Urs Fischer retrospective to the critically disparaged Dennis Hopper: Double Standard and a number of collaborations with actor-artist James Franco. He drew cries from the art community after four top artists, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, and Barbara Kruger, resigned from the MOCA board last year after the firing over MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel.

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Despite the turmoil, Johnson and Bell -- whose terms on the board were the longest and second longest respectively ever -- have recently led a successful campaign to bring the 34-year-old museum’s endowment to $100 million, with more than $80 million in donations and pledges already achieved. The numbers represent a major financial turnaround for the downtown museum five years after it was revealed that MOCA’s endowment under past leadership had plunged to a paltry $6 million. “We feel as we near the end of our tenure, that we've done a lot of the heavy lifting to get the museum to a place that we are all I think very, very proud to have been,” says Bell, former head writer and executive producer of The Young and the Restless. “It's gonna be in one of the most stable positions in its history.”

Adds Johnson: “One thing MOCA never had during its history was it never really had a solid financial base. When I get involved with it, it was incredible low point.” (Johnson’s credits including producing such documentaries as the recent Angels in Exile, about street children in South Africa and the musical adaptation of American Psycho opening Dec. 3 in London.)

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The two point to other particular sources of pride during their tenure: the launch of YouTube’s MOCA-TV; throwing benefit galas that put as much of a focus on performance art as on fundraising (case in point: artist Marina Abramovic’s 2011 gala featuring nude bodies as table centerpieces); and the addition of new board members such as producer Darren Star, philanthropist Lilly Tartikoff Karatz, WME’s Ari Emanuel, Ukrainian mega-collector Victor Pinchuk, and the return of restaurateur Peter Morton (who had left the board during the museum’s financial meltdown).

Looking back, though do they have any regrets about taking a risk on Deitch, a savvy and often brilliant maverick who despite his gallery success in New York had never worked in the more research-oriented museum world? Says Bell: “I don't feel that was too much a risk. At the end of the day, Jeffrey did some extraordinary things that will go down in history. Jeffrey was a very unique person. There are other people in the museum world that have been on the commercial side of the art world.”

But Johnson admits that, with the search now on for a new director, the choice is “is likely to be somebody from the museum world, but it's not a directive.” In a sign of relationships being rebuilt, the four artists who had previously left the board over Schimmel’s departure are now helping advise the search team. Johnson and Bell won’t comment on who the top candidates but much speculation has focused on former MOCA curator Ann Goldstein, who recently resigned as artistic director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.

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“We are looking for someone who can really lead and really has ideas for the future of MOCA, somebody who is very dynamic and exciting. And I think we have candidates that will fulfill that completely,” says Bell, who says that it will be important for the new director to be able to assemble her or his own team. The position of chief curator has been empty since Schimmel’s departure.

Coming up at MOCA are a major retrospective of works by the late artist Mike Kelley, presently on view at NYC’s P.S. 1, which will hit MOCA in March featuring additional pieces. “We have other shows that are still in the pipeline but there is room in the schedule because you want the new director to build their own team,” says Bell.

So what will become of Deitch’s proposed show about the disco era – an idea that had drawn wide criticism --- now that he’s gone? Admits Bell: “At this point, it's not on the schedule but we'll see when the new director comes in.”

While MOCA won’t comment on who is succeeding Bell and Johnson, a source tells THR that one of the two next co-chairs will be philanthropist Lilly Tartikoff Karatz. Her husband, Bruce Karatz, the former CEO and chairman of KB Home, joined the MOCA board in April. 

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