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MOCA Chief Curator Helen Molesworth on the Evolution of the Museum

Artbound episode "MOCA: Beyond The Museum Walls" explores the programming of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, investigating new programming and curatorial methods that are redefining what it means to be a 21st century museum. This documentary features the The Underground Museum, Wolvesmouth, and Public Fiction. Watch the episode's debut Tuesday, May 31 at 9 p.m., or check for rebroadcasts here.

How do you define a museum in the 21st century?

We approached Helen Molesworth, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, with this complex question. Founded in 1979, technology and social movements have greatly influenced the institution's relationship to art. And in a recent interview for our upcoming Artbound episode, Molesworth details one recent collaboration and two exhibitions that break the traditional mold: A partnership with the Underground Museum, established in 2015, has brought MOCA's dormant archives to life in the community of Arlington Heights; chef and artist Craig Thornton transforms the dining experience into performance art with exhibition "Wolvesmouth: Taxa;" and creative Lauren Mackler, a kind of “human museum,” reconfigures creative space by setting up Public Fiction wherever she may be.

For Molesworth, museums today aren't just repositories of art, they are generators of culture as well.

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How do you define a museum in the 21st century?

This is a vexing, infuriating, and completely enthralling question, simultaneously. Historically, our modus operandi has been you go out, you conquer, you pillage, you return with more booty. More loot. That's what museums are filled with. Loot from other people's cultures, to be put on display, to have some sort of ennobling idea about who we are as human beings, what is human civilization. It's offered to us for posterity, so we know about the past and we're leaving a mark for the future.

I love that idea. I love the time machine quality of the museum. I love the extraordinary history of what humans have made. But we're really different now than we were even 40, 50 years ago. We carry the world in our pocket, in our iPhone. We fly where we want to. We Skype with people across the globe. Those geographical boundaries and those boundaries of time have really eroded in extraordinary ways. I feel like the 21st century museum has to in some way be tenacious and hold on to what is right and good about the previous idea of a museum, but also expand and let go of some of its older ideas. 

One of the things that art has always done is ask you... The best art always asks you, "How do you want to live your life? What matters to you?" As we move into the 21st century, we have to reimagine what matters to us. For me, the Underground Museum and Wolvesmouth are ways of pushing at the bricks and mortar boundary of a museum, to start seeing if we can think non-hierarchically about what matters. It used to be painting, opera, like these were these big things, and then cooking's over here, but we don't really believe that anymore. How do you make a playing field that shows the public and that enacts that you don't believe that anymore. That you believe something else is happening.

Helen Molesworth, MOCA chief curator
Helen Molesworth, MOCA chief curator. | Image: Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: Beyond The Museum Walls."

I think what we're trying to do is stay close to the people who are experimenting. Stay close to the people who are at the edge of their field, and trust that even if they're way past the edge of our bricks and mortar museum, that if we just stick close to the artists who are pushing, that we will somehow end up in the right place. Even if we don't know what that place is going to be, or what the implications of that are going to be for us.

Part of what we're trying to do actually, is make a museum that's ready for the next generation. That's part of the game. The museum isn't necessarily for us now. I think in order to really be the artist's museum, you have to be on the one hand, totally present in this moment now, and on the other hand you have to understand this moment now is just this moment now. Whatever we do, we're trying to remain as nimble as possible, because we understand that the acceleration of change is the newest development. Change is, as the poet Charles Olson once said, the only thing that doesn't change is the will to change. Change is happening. What we're trying to deal with is the acceleration.

Kahlil Joseph, "m.A.A.d."
Kahlil Joseph, "m.A.A.d" video projection installation view. | Image: Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: Beyond The Museum Walls."

Why did you choose to lend Noah Davis and the Underground Museum MOCA’s permanent collection?

Most of every museum's collection is in storage. As a contemporary person, that actually sometimes feels just really bad, that we acquire a work of art and what we do is actually send it to purgatory. We send it to storage. What Noah was offering was a way out of purgatory. He was offering a way for artworks to have a totally new life, at the Underground. That just felt really exciting.

MOCA has long had this history of calling itself the artist's museum. I've always been really fascinated by what that might mean. For me, what it started to mean in relationship to Noah and the Underground was that if you're the artist's museum, what your job is is on the one hand, to introduce artists to a general public, but it's also to make things possible for artists that they can't do without you. That's what it means. It means to take all of the authority and all of the capacity that the museum has as a cultural institution, and instead of hold all of that wealth internal to yourself, you actually give that power and authority and wealth to the artist. That's what working on the exhibitions with Noah felt like to me. Like the museum was this great big engine and we hooked it up to Noah's dream, to aid and abet Noah's dream.

MOCA gallery
Image: Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: Beyond The Museum Walls."

Is the museum an institution that helps create and define culture, or respond to contemporary culture?

I think it's both. I think museums help to create culture. I am of the belief that in the late ‘70s and 1980s, a generation of artists who were women and African-American and gay came onto the scene, and they made work about those ideas and about those identities, and now we have Black Lives Matter. I don't think you get Black Lives Matter without having had an art world and a group of museums that supported David Hammons and Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems. I believe that culture works in a really interesting way. It's like crabgrass. You set the seed and then it grows laterally. It's a horizontal shift that happens, and over time, crabgrass takes over. Over time, those ideas take hold.

On the one hand we have to be in the moment and present, and reflect what artists are doing, but we also have to try and understand that what we're setting into motion by doing that will become a kind of de rigueur platform, 10, 15, 50 years from now. That's where the pressure comes from, to try and get it right. Not just be a mirror, but be a selective mirror.

"Wolvesmouth: Taxa" at MOCA
"Wolvesmouth: Taxa" at MOCA. | Image: Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: Beyond The Museum Walls."

What do you look for in an artist or artwork that you're curating?

It can be very visceral. You can walk into a thing and just be like, "Oh my God!" Right? It can be intellectual. You can walk in, you can be puzzled and then you can start to think it through and realize how layered a thing is. I'm looking for layering. I'm looking for an art object or an artist that is in dialogue with the history of his or her medium. For instance, when I saw Kahlil Joseph's [m.A.A.d.] film for the first time, it seemed to me he was unbelievably aware of the history of experimental film, even though Kendrick Lamar was the soundtrack. He was able to marry the most important hip-hop artists of our time with this other history of experimental film that started in the ‘60s. I love that kind of wire crossing. I like work I don't understand. If I walk in and I get it right away, I might really love it, but I'm not going to be thinking about it on my drive home, because I'm not trying to figure it out.

MOCA gallery
Image: Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: Beyond The Museum Walls."

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