Britt Robertson, Janelle Monae, Aaron and Sam Taylor-Johnson Turn Out for MOCA Annual Gala


The guest of honor was fabled artist John Baldessari.

“That was fun!” Rosanna Arquette panted as she brushed by, a bead of sweat rolling down her cheek. She’d been boogying on the dance floor in front of Janelle Monae, the young funk singer known for her bouffant and electric stage presence, who was rocking out with her band at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual gala.

The fundraiser, held in a tent next to the Geffen Contemporary in Downtown Los Angeles, was a fun and low-key affair this year, with less pomp — apart from Monae’s set — and more circumstance. The guest of honor was fabled artist John Baldessari, looking handsome as ever at 83, whose word paintings and conceptual photography helped change the course of art history.

“He changed the way we look at representation of the world and of ourselves,” said new MOCA director Philippe Vergne, “not because John appropriated images — actually, he never did that. He reclaimed images that we appropriated from us. That were stolen from us. He freed them from the world of mass media, entertainment and mass consumption, and he gave them back to us.”

Tomorrowland star Britt Robertson

MOCA co-chair Lilly Tartikoff Karatz thanked hosting sponsor Louis Vuitton, as well as the artists who donated to the recent fundraising auction for MOCA held at Christie’s, which raised $22.5 million for the museum. Several of those artists were in the audience, including Mark Grotjahn, whose painting sold for $6.5 million at the auction, Barbara Kruger, Mark Bradford and Ed Ruscha. “MOCA is humming,” said Tartikoff Karatz.

The gala raised more than $3 million dollars, bringing the museum’s endowment past $120 million. It’s hard to believe that this is the same museum that saw its funds dip below $6 million in 2008. With several successful fundraising efforts by the board of trustees, the auction and gala, and a whole new staff led by Vergne and new chief curator Helen Molesworth, MOCA is more stable than it has ever been.

Conspicuously missing was Tartikoff Karatz’s co-chair Maurice Marciano, who was injured in a car accident three days ago — but Vergne pointed out that Marciano’s on a quick road to recovery.

Apart from Rosanna Arquette and her sister Patricia Arquette — who dates artist Eric White — Dita von Teese and Marisa Tomei, the evening was light on celebrity. Mostly it was names with ties to the art world, such as 50 Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who began her career as a fine artist represented by blue chip gallery White Cube. Taylor-Johnson came dressed in Louis Vuitton with her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Albert Brooks was seen chatting with his brother, vaunted collector Cliff Einstein. Also attending were MOCA board members Jeffrey Soros, Jamie McCourt, Susan Gersh and Steven Roth, accompanied by his son, Josh, the head of UTA’s new fine arts division. Tomorrowland’s Britt Robertson and Gia Coppola also were spotted, both wearing Louis Vuitton dresses.

Janelle Monae

“It doesn’t always need to be about the entertainment industry,” Taylor-Johnson was overheard saying at the dinner.

In the past, MOCA’s galas have attracted many more A-listers. Just last year, Katy Perry, Owen Wilson, Pharrell Williams and Jane Fonda were in attendance.

The lack of focus on glitz was a concerted move by Vergne, who said that he wanted to put more of the focus on artists at MOCA, which was nicknamed “The Artist’s Museum” when it was founded in 1979. In 2013, artists Baldessari, Kruger, Ruscha and Catherine Opie left the board of trustees during embattled former director Jeffrey Deitch’s term. Baldessari, Kruger and Opie are back on the board, along with Grotjahn. The gala was held next to William Pope.L’s Trinkets exhibition, which is one of the more compelling, but challenging, shows in the recent history of the museum.

Baldessari, for his part, was upbeat about the museum, telling THR that he’d been to every gala MOCA has had — except for the Rob Pruitt art-directed, marijuana-theme gala held April 20, 2013. “I liked them all,” he said in his singularly demure manner. “This one’s nice too.”

Baldessari is a well-known film buff, mentioning to THR that he’d been powering through all the Bond films, including the recent ones, lately. Later in the evening, during a dinner of loup de mer and white asparagus crafted by Wolfgang Puck, Baldessari mused on what it meant to be honored: “I moved to Los Angeles [from San Diego], and I was talking with somebody up here in the art world, and I asked, ‘What’s a gah-la?’ They said, ‘No, no. [it’s pronounced] ‘gay-la.’ Well, I was hoping maybe we could have Louis Armstrong playing in the background, ‘You say potayto, and I say potahto.’ But now I know what a gay-la is, and I know what a gala is. Thank you very much.”

Vergne put it best by quoting Baldessari: “ ‘It’s a bit scary to have acceptance. You wonder what you have done wrong.’ Well, John, according to this statement, you’ve done a lot wrong. Because you have a lot of acceptance and respect.”

Vergne’s speech wrapped up with a touching tribute to legendary L.A. artist Chris Burden, who passed away May 10, before the evening gave way to Monae’s rocking performance, where Arquette, gallerist Shaun Regan and Vergne all busted out their best moves.

Dita von Teese