Collecting Work by Los Angeles Artists: MOCA Art Talk with Curator Bennett Simpson

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Bennett Simpson, an art curator at MOCA, shared some of the museum’s behind-the-scenes stories about its acquisition of the Laurence Rickels collection of contemporary art, and discussed some of the ways in which MOCA acquires artworks by Los Angeles artists. It was a fascinating gathering in MOCA’s continuing series of free Art Talks. This session saw audience members grab chairs informally from the side of the room to fill the gallery in which the recently acquired collection of Laurence A. Rickels was installed salon-style.

Simpson’s Art Talk offered new insight to MOCA, and the ways in which museums go about building their collections and acquiring gifts. At the end of his presentation, he responded to questions and gave some tips to collectors in the audience.

Simpson began his comments by setting some context for MOCA’s entire collection of about 6,000 artworks, including major Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko paintings, acquired over about a 30-year period; MOCA’s collection of post-war art is now one of the world’s best.

While the museum has acquired such “signal” collections as those from Count and Mrs. Guiseppe Panza, the Herbert and Dorothy Vogel Collection, and that of museum board member Blake Byrne, the Laurence Rickels Collection consists of smaller-sized artworks. The collection was built as a “domestic” collection for someone who wanted to live with it, as might be contrasted with some “big game hunters” who keep huge amounts of contemporary art in storage, Simpson said:

A carefully focused smaller collection can fill an important need, and deepen the quality of the museum’s collection, particularly if it includes specific artists already included in the collection. Also, acquiring the focused collection is one way to add another artist the museum is interested in, instead of collecting by “movements” or “schools.”

Rickels, a college professor who lived in an apartment in West Hollywood,  over time bought several hundred artworks, mainly at benefit auctions and art fairs. The collection reflects Rickel’s interest in art that deals with identity, queer identity, sexuality, pop culture, desire, and story-telling.

Rickels came to MOCA through the introduction of an artist; he was moving away from the area, and wanted to donate his art collection to a public institution.  Over about 18 months Simpson and Rickels went through the collection together to determine which artworks would be given to the museum.  They settled on 125 objects, created during 1990-2002, that deepened existing holdings and confirming MOCA’s collection as one of the deepest collections in this time period.

With the gift of this collection of smaller artworks the museum has been able to add to existing holdings of Los Angeles artists including Allan Ruppersburg, Alexis Smith, Catherine Opie, and Jeremy Blake, who lived in Los Angeles before moving to New York. Simpson pointed out that with the Rickels Collection, as with other gifts, the museum was able to get things by artists with whom they already have a history.

MOCA collection of the 1960s contains great works now, and so now there is an emphasis on holdings of works by younger artists, and this is one reason why MOCA is thought of as “the artist’s museum.”

One attendee asked Simpson about the process of MOCA buying artworks. Simpson  gave an example, beginning with a curator seeing an artwork that he/she thinks should be part of the museum collection; the curator talks to colleagues about such points as

Do we have work by the artist, do we need work by the artist and how does this fit into the existing collection?

The curators then approach the proper committee comprised of patrons, some of whom are collectors as well, and the committee votes upon the proposed acquisition. Generally, Simpson said, at MOCA where the collection is curator-driven, the due diligence work and planning has passed thorough various steps successfully and the committee usually agrees to purchases within budget allocations. These committees meet about three times a year; perhaps 3-12 artworks will be proposed for purchase.  The acquisition budget, he estimated, is about $100,000 per year.

Gifts from artists –including Michael Asher, John Baldessari and Mike Kelley–who have had art collections themselves, have donated artworks by various other artists to the museum over the years. The museum does not accept all gifts, the artworks must fit into the collection to maintain integrity of the collection.

Simpson had some advice for collectors and that is to know what you like before you buy, and only buy what you particularly like; he warned against following trends, and “going in cold,” saying that its best to be organically thinking, and knowing a bit about the art world and culture.  He said one should assess the potential of the artist–will they develop over time? and is any hype around the work justified?

Simpson was asked if there are artists he is particularly interested in today; he said yes, Rodney McMillen, Richard Hawkins, and Terry Adkins of Philadelphia. As a curator, he does not personally collect art. Should he wish to purchase an artwork for himself, there is a lengthy and extended process which he needs to follow as a matter of ethical responsibility.

Up through January, 2014, Selections from the Permanent Collection, organized by curator Bennett Simpson, presents a chronological installation of significant works from MOCA’s collection from the 1940s to the present. Representing important historical movements such as abstract expressionism, minimalism, pop art, conceptual art, and postmodernism, as well as recent works by Los Angeles-based artists, the exhibition includes works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Larry Bell, Hanne Darboven, Willem deKooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Rodney McMillian, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Charles Ray, Mark Rothko, and others.

Museum of Contemporary Art
250 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles 90012
www.moca.org213 626-6222
Hours: Monday 11am-5pm; closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Open Thursday  11am-8p (free admission 5pm-8pm), Friday 11-5, Saturday and Sunday 11-6.

Top photo: Installation view of “A Point of View: Selected Gifts from the Laurence A. Rickels Collection,”, at MOCA Grand Avenue, photo by Brian Forrest, ©The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Installation view of A Point of View: Selected Gifts from the Laurence A. Rickels Collection, February 10–March 11, 2013 at MOCA Grand Avenue, photo by Brian Forrest, ©The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.


Installation view of A Point of View: Selected Gifts from the Laurence A. Rickels Collection, February 10–March 11, 2013 at MOCA Grand Avenue, photo by Brian Forrest, ©The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

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