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Alma Ruiz: Former MOCA Curator Discusses Three Decades at the Institution

Carlos Cruz-Diez Banner
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Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling weekly articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.

Former MOCA Senior Curator Alma Ruiz has spent over three decades at that venerable Los Angeles museum, during which time she has exhibited some of the most influential and experimental modern and contemporary artists in the world. Ruiz is perhaps best known for two major exhibitions at MOCA that rewrote the recent history of contemporary installation art to include a Latin American perspective: 1999's "The Experimental Exercise of Freedom" and 2010's "Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space." The 1999 exhibition introduced Los Angeles audiences to the participatory art of Brazilian Neo-Concretists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, while the second built on the precedents of the first in establishing a Latin American foundation for the conceptual Light and Space movement that is generally associated with California artists like James Turrell and Robert Irwin. This past March, MOCA announced Ruiz's retirement from the museum after 31 years.

Carlos Cruz-Diez, "Cromosaturación," 1965/2010. Installation view from "Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space," December 12, 2010 - February 27, 2011, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. | Photo: Iwan Baan
Carlos Cruz-Diez, "Cromosaturación," 1965/2010. Installation view from "Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space," December 12, 2010 - February 27, 2011, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. | Photo: Iwan Baan.

During her tenure at MOCA, Ruiz served under four directors: Richard Koshalek, Jeremy Strick, Jeffrey Deitch, and Philippe Vergne. She worked with internationally-renowned Chief Curators Paul Schimmel and Ann Goldstein, and curated solo exhibitions by leading artists including Ernesto Neto, William Kentridge, Ana Mendieta, Gabriel Orozco, Piero Manzoni, Ad Reinhardt, Lynda Benglis, and Francesco Vezzoli. When change and controversy hit the museum like a hurricane in 2012, Ruiz was one of only two curators left on staff following a series of high-profile firings and resignations. Throughout it all, she has remained a thoughtful and steady presence, committed to doing challenging work as a scholar and curator, and to creating a program of exhibitions that reflects the diversity of Los Angeles' community and art audiences.

Following her departure from MOCA, Ruiz is slated to curate an exhibition of Venezuelan artist Magdalena Fernández at the museum's Pacific Design Center location in the fall, and has recently been appointed curator of the 20th Paiz Biennial in Guatemala City in June 2016.

Artbound recently caught up with Ruiz to discuss her tenure at MOCA and what lies ahead for her future.

Your career at MOCA spans 31 years. What has it been like to be part of a museum that was only a few years old when you joined, and to help it grow into a world-class institution?

Alma Ruiz: I think I have been lucky to see MOCA go from being the new kid on the block to becoming a mature institution. The museum's early years were really exciting, despite the fact that there was a lot of work to do. But there was a very special group of people who wanted so much for Los Angeles to have a museum of contemporary art that they worked extremely hard to make it a reality and under the leadership and vision of Richard Koshalek the museum transformed itself, in a few years, into a world class institution. He was really a tremendous influence -- in my career, I can say he was someone that I have tried to emulate throughout the years because I learned so much from him. He led by example, he encouraged new ideas, he respected the staff tremendously, and despite having a senior curator and later a chief curator, he always met with all the curators. He wanted to keep that connection, which for him was vital, but I think also for the curators because they never lost touch with the museum director. And I think he also set the tone for the museum's relationship with the artists, who always came first.

During his tenure, no exhibitions were canceled once they had been put on the schedule, and he made a tremendous effort to fundraise for those projects to happen no matter what. So, I think that under his direction the museum had tremendous stability and we all benefited from it. We all worked well together and were able to accomplish a tremendous amount of work. But I also think that MOCA was a product of very special circumstances, and I don't know if it would happen today in the same way. [I was] at MOCA for 31 years -- I came right after I finished graduate school and came back to the U.S. I had been away for three years in Italy working on an MA degree, and then after eight months of being back in Los Angeles I began to work at MOCA. Not necessarily as a curator, but it was a time in which the museum was a place in which you could grow along with the institution.

So I think of MOCA being a product of a very, very special time in Los Angeles, after the Pasadena Museum of Art closed, and as a result of this tremendous desire that a lot of people in this city, including a large number of artists, had for a space to showcase contemporary art, the museum happened, and once it was up and running the collector support poured in, in the form of extraordinary collections that were gifted to MOCA in the 1980s. For example, the Taft and Rita Schreiber collection, the Barry Lowen collection, and the Philip and Beatrice Gersh collection, also the acquisition of the Panza collection helped make MOCA into a world-class institution and it is a time that I treasure tremendously. Also, some of my former colleagues like Julie Lazar, who as curator of media and performing arts, curated "Available Light," which was commissioned for the inauguration of the Temporary Contemporary (now Geffen), Kerry Brougher who is now back in Los Angeles as the Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum, and also Ann Goldstein who was the director of the Stedelijk Museum for about three or four years, and then Elizabeth Smith who is now the Director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation in New York, we were all part of this amazing time and I think it really made us what we are today professionally. So, I think that it was terrific to be there at the beginning, to see an institution grow and mature and distinguish itself for new programming, for edgy programming, for showing work in non-traditional art spaces like the Geffen Contemporary -- I think MOCA was one of the first institutions to use this kind of non-traditional space for its exhibitions -- and also for its architecture program even though I don't think architecture was actually something that contemporary art museums embraced easily, and MOCA was the west coast museum that in time became an important venue for architectural exhibitions. So, I think that I learned a tremendous amount at MOCA -- that it was a very good school for me -- and I do treasure every one of those years.

Installation view. "Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color," and "Space" December 12, 2010 - February 27, 2011, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. | Photo: Iwan Baan
Installation view. "Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color," and "Space" December 12, 2010 - February 27, 2011, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. | Photo: Iwan Baan.

How has your work been affected by economic and demographic shifts in the city of Los Angeles over the past three decades?

AR: Well, I think that my work has certainly been affected by these economic and demographic shifts in the city. Having been here for such a long time, I think that the ups and downs affected the museum, certainly in terms of its exhibition program and being able to maintain a staff that was reasonable in proportion to the institution's needs. Sometimes, you know in lean times, exhibitions had to be downsized or postponed to balance budgets but early on, exhibitions were never canceled. I think that is something that has certainly changed. Nowadays exhibitions are easily cancelled. Contracts are rescinded. Staff is fired overnight, and I think that many see this as a quick solution to a problem, but in the long run this behavior is very damaging to the institution and to the trust that supporters put in the institution, and I think that that's really something that, somehow, we don't think about as much anymore. Museums are institutions that need trust. They need to maintain a certain trust with their supporters to function. But, what museums have to do is to act promptly depending on the situation, and I think that working as a curator, you also have to be flexible and adapt in circumstances like that.

Neville D'Almeida and Hélio Oiticica. "Cosmococa - Programa in Progress," "CC4 Nocagions," 1973/2010. Installation view from "Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color," and "Space," December 12, 2010 - February 27, 2011, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. | Photo: Iwan Baan.
Neville D'Almeida and Hélio Oiticica. "Cosmococa - Programa in Progress," "CC4 Nocagions," 1973/2010. Installation view from "Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color," and "Space," December 12, 2010 - February 27, 2011, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. | Photo: Iwan Baan.

Can you describe how you responded to the controversy at MOCA that left you as only one of two curators on staff in 2012?

AR: Well, it wasn't easy to work under such trying circumstances, but I tried to stay focused on my projects and on the museum's role as an important cultural center in Los Angeles. We were short-staffed, I think that is acknowledged by everyone, but we were all trying to do our best. We also knew that the situation had to be temporary, and were looking forward to a resolution that would bring the museum back to its former self. There were low moments, but in addition to myself who was there for 31 years, MOCA has a core group of people who have been there for a long time. Some of them have been there for 20, 25 years, although because they occupy positions that are not public, they may not be known to a large number of people. They are very experienced and sophisticated, and I think it was this group who kept the museum going during such difficult times and who should be acknowledged for that reason. We talk about Directors and curators, but there were a number of people there who were instrumental in maintaining the museum during those difficult years, and of course the Board is also important to acknowledge at that point, but I cannot deny that those were hard times and that I'm happy that they have been left behind.

Did the departure of the museum's artist trustees at that time affect your ability to realize your own goals and projects? Were you involved in rebuilding those relationships?

AR: The departure of the museum's artist trustees did not affect us in any visible way, I think, but I assume that people's opinion of MOCA certainly changed because of their departure. I'm sure that it affected the way MOCA was able to fundraise. I am sure that many people probably wanted to support MOCA but decided to wait until things improved. I wasn't directly involved in rebuilding those relationships with the artists or trying to lure them back to MOCA. Three out of the four who have left, returned, and the other one didn't because he had already committed himself to another institution, but they acknowledged the work that the curators had done throughout those difficult years, and were pleased and grateful that there was continuity in the museum's operations thanks to the staff that remained there during those hard times.

You were responsible for organizing exhibitions that introduced Los Angeles to some of the most formative and influential modern and contemporary artists to emerge from Latin America, particularly informing the areas of installation and participatory art. Do you feel that the canon of recent art history has been effectively enlarged by your work?

AR: Yes, I do. I think that certain artists I committed early on are now part of that canon. Artists like Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Gabriel Orozco, for example. I think that it would be difficult to teach a course on contemporary art today and not include these artists. Their practices have changed the way other artists think about art. Two exhibitions, "Experimental Exercise of Freedom and Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space," which I did in 1999 and 2010 respectively, were key to show our public that art could be participatory, that art could be seen in a different way. That visitors should not only look at a work of art but be part of it, that in some instances art does not achieve full meaning without their involvement. "Suprasensorial" was very special in that it showed our visitors that art can be a collective experience and that it can have a greater meaning when shared with family, friends, and strangers alike. That art can be many things, including immersing yourself in a swimming pool where all your senses can be activated, that art can be experienced in a "suprasensorial" way as Hélio Oiticica used to say. For example in this exhibition we also had a fantastic penetrable by Jesús Rafael Soto, the Venezuelan kinetic artist, and after this exhibition happened at MOCA, LACMA installed a small Soto penetrable in one of its courtyards, and I think that work has become one of the museum's most popular outdoor sculptures. Children love it. They enter it. They play in it, and it's actually being showcased as part of their fiftieth anniversary. Many of the artists and the exhibitions we have shown have effectively touched our audience in very special ways, and many of these artists are to become part of this canon. The kinetic artists from Latin America are now becoming household names. They are being presented in exhibitions around the city here, and I think people are beginning to recognize their contributions and feel more comfortable discussing their work.

How does the upcoming Getty PST LA/LA initiative build on your scholarship over the past few decades? Have you been very involved in its development or related projects?

AR: No, I am not involved in the development of any of these projects, but I think MOCA will be. I see the upcoming Getty PST LA/LA initiative as an acknowledgement of Latin America as a region that has been fertile ground for new ideas since the beginning of the twentieth century. Even with efforts such as mine and those of colleagues in other private and public institutions around the US, the history of art in Latin America is still not well known, but better known than 30 years ago. My most ardent hope is that PST will help erase once and for all the stereotypes we still hold about Latin American art in the United States. I think that the scholarship that results from all these exhibitions will advance the field to such an extent that many more artists will be integrated into the history of Western art, and I think that as happened with the last PST that focused on California, it'll be a boom for the artists who will be showcased in the exhibitions. They will become better known and they will be looked at more frequently, they will be studied, they will be reviewed, and I think that they will eventually be integrated into a larger history of Western art.

Lygia Clark, "Biological Architectures 1," 1968/1999. Installation view from "The Experimental Exercise of Freedom: Lygia Clark, Mathias Goeritz, Hélio Oiticica," and "Mira Schendel," October 17, 1999 - January 23, 2000, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. | Photo: Brian Forrest.

How has the museum field adapted to new developments with respect to contemporary art history and audiences?

AR: Museums are always looking for ways to improve or adapt to new developments. At MOCA, we consistently presented Latin American art from 1996-2015. I can now see through its future programming that African-American artists are being showcased more frequently in projects and monographs, and that's a good thing. MOCAtv's reaching a large demographic group through social media, and that's a project that was started in 2012 and it's been tremendous in terms of its reach, so that's also a very good thing. I think that museums have to adapt. They have to look at what's going on, and be quick on the step to adapt, but they also have to keep a certain balance in that museums are educational centers and they cannot be a fad. They cannot just follow fads or follow popular culture, because they run into the danger of becoming too superficial and I think that this is something that we seem to struggle with all the time -- how could they be popular but still do a programming that has depth, that has scholarship, that has a certain integrity. It's happening a lot, we can see that in museums around the country and I hope that museums learn from each other's mistakes, because they do happen, and that eventually they may attain a balance. But things are happening very quickly, so I think that also some of the missteps that have taken place lately were unavoidable because of the speed with which things are changing today.

During your tenure at MOCA, you worked with four Directors. How has the role of the Museum Director been changed or preserved by these very different personalities? Can you contrast the leadership styles of a curator-director, a businessman-director, or other styles you've experienced, from your point of view as a curator?

AR: It is true, I worked with four Directors, and briefly met our founding director Pontus Hulten back in the early 1980s. They all have led MOCA in different ways. I think that in terms of leadership styles I prefer what I call the Director-Director vis-a-vis the Curator-Director or the Businessman-Director. I believe that a Director should focus on leading the institution towards the realization of its mission and the Director should let his curatorial team organize exhibitions, but not be a curator. I think that because many Directors come from the curatorial field they don't want to lose touch with that, and many of them want to curate exhibitions, but I have not found a Director who can successfully be both. I think that you have to be very, very careful, and if you make the decision of becoming a Director you need to focus on that aspect of your career, and I think that also goes for the Businessman-Director.

I think that Directors should have business acumen, but not direct the institution as if it were a for-profit company because museums are non-profit, and they need to be run efficiently and on budget to be successful, but need to keep in mind what the ultimate goal or mission of the institution is. So, looking back at the four Directors that I worked under, it seems to me that Richard Koshalek really understood his role as Museum Director because he did not curate exhibitions. He was at MOCA for twenty years, and did not curate exhibitions until the very end. He co-curated with Elizabeth Smith "At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture" which opened in Tokyo in 1998 and in Los Angeles in 2000, and he was the leading curator for the Richard Serra exhibition which happened around that time as well, 1998, but in the exhibitions that he had something to do with, there was always a curator who took the lead for them, and I think that is important. Sometimes a Director needs to curate through other curators, but he needs to focus on what a Director needs to do which is lead the overall institution. Fundraising is very important. A Director needs to focus most of his time on fundraising, most of his time on also maintaining and building relationships with the community: supporters, trustees, collectors, etc., but on a directorial level, not on a curatorial level which are two very different things. With Philippe, I only worked with him for a year so I really don't know him well, but I think that he has what it takes to be a Director and many opportunities to be successful.

Lygia Clark, "The I and the You, Cloth-body-cloth series," 1967/1999. Installation view from "The Experimental Exercise of Freedom: Lygia Clark, Mathias Goeritz, Hélio Oiticica," and "Mira Schendel," October 17, 1999 - January 23, 2000, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. | Photo: Brian Forrest.

Although you have now retired from your position as Senior Curator, you remain involved with MOCA as curator of the upcoming Magdalena Fernández exhibition. What can we expect to see when this Venezuelan artist's work is unveiled at Pacific Design Center this fall?

AR: I'm really excited that the museum has allowed me to curate the Magdalena Fernández exhibition, which is something I had started doing at MOCA before I left. For me, it's always very exciting to introduce new artists to our local audiences, and Magdalena is really new to many. She has shown very little in the United States, and I think that her work is going to be a revelation to many people. She is an artist who was trained in the Bauhaus style and who has a deep commitment to geometric abstraction, given the tradition of that kind of art in her country of Venezuela. So, she brings that into it, but she also brings nature and sound and movement into her works. The exhibition at the Pacific Design Center is not going to be a large one, because the space doesn't allow for an in-depth view of her work, but we have made a selection of six video works and one installation to show. The show will take place in early October, and I think that, as with some other artists that I have shown in the past, she will hopefully be a breath of fresh air and someone that other artists will appreciate, and that our audience will like.

Hélio Oiticica. "Eden," 1969/1999. Installation view from "The Experimental Exercise of Freedom:" "Lygia Clark, Mathias Goeritz, Hélio Oiticica," and "Mira Schendel," October 17, 1999 - January 23, 2000, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. | Photo: Brian Forrest.
Hélio Oiticica. "Eden," 1969/1999. Installation view from "The Experimental Exercise of Freedom:" "Lygia Clark, Mathias Goeritz, Hélio Oiticica," and "Mira Schendel," October 17, 1999 - January 23, 2000, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. | Photo: Brian Forrest.

It's hard to imagine that a curator as active as yourself could ever truly retire. Do you have any independent projects on your radar that you're excited about realizing in the coming year or two?

AR: I think it was somewhat misleading for me to let MOCA use the word "retirement" when I left the museum, because moving on doesn't mean stopping to work altogether. I left MOCA, certainly, because I felt that after 31 years it would be wonderful to start a new chapter, and to continue to curate but perhaps in a different way. I am now very busy with a new project. I'm curating the 20th Paiz Biennial for Guatemala City for June 2016, and I am very happy about that project. Curating a biennial is very much like organizing an art exhibition, but I am excited about doing a large-scale exhibition outside the museum walls, which is something that Hélio Oiticica, the Brazilian artist, was very interested in doing when he created his own work. He always talked about taking the work beyond the museum walls, and so this is going to be an opportunity for me to do a large exhibition in a non-museum setting and I'm also excited about bringing the biennial into the streets of downtown Guatemala City to make it more accessible, to make it more democratic, if I can use that word. I'm traveling to Guatemala next week, and will remain there for three weeks to begin working on the biennial and to start thinking about its theme. It's an international biennial, so I'm hoping to invite a really interesting group of international artists who will have an opportunity to engage with the culture and the art of the country, and also to provide Guatemalan artists with a platform through which they can actually connect and relate to art beyond their borders. I'm really excited about that project, and I have about a year to organize it so there's going to be a lot of work, but really a wonderful project that I'm looking forward to.

Top Image: Carlos Cruz-Diez, Cromosaturación, 1965/re-­â€fabricated 2010, Suprasensorial // Experiments in Light, Color and Space at MOCA | Photo: Iwan Baan

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