For MOCA director Klaus Biesenbach, 2020 started with a housewarming party. He had just moved into an industrial space in Downtown L.A., originally a sewing machine factory, and hosted a barbecue complete with a firepit and a pizza oven outside. The party drew a good mix of artists, including Mary Weatherford, Barbara Kruger, Doug Aitken, Rafa Esparza, and Simone Forti, who said she was “first to arrive and last to leave”—a minor feat at age 85. A few celebrities showed up as well, including Ricky Martin, a friend of Biesenbach’s whose art-circuit appearances are rare enough that most everybody mistook him for a man who looked a lot like Ricky Martin.
Biesenbach’s home, for its part, could pass for an art gallery, as L.A. dealers like David Kordansky and Jeffrey Deitch (himself a former MOCA director) have transformed similar warehouses with concrete floors and wood bow-truss ceilings into cavernous showrooms. But this space, a few blocks west of Staples Center, has no art—also no bookshelves, no clutter, and less furniture than your average gallery. There is just a bed that can be wheeled into an alcove; two stainless steel tables, also on wheels; half a dozen chairs; and an electric bike—the latest example in Biesenbach’s long history of living rigorously and thoughtfully amid very few things.
“I thought, using the old logic of urban density and proximity, that it would be very nice to have a place near to MOCA,” he told me recently. It was, he added, an alternative to the New Yorker’s Hollywood dream of a big house up in the hills with a pool—what he calls the “house as convertible” fantasy of L.A., all sunshine and wind in your hair. “I thought it would be wonderful to have a house that’s more like a truck, more utilitarian, more a tool than a lifestyle.”
While the truck analogy might sound a little strange coming from someone who doesn’t drive (Biesenbach avoided getting his license as a teen in Germany, he says, for fear that if he did, he would never leave his small town there), his vision of his home as a social space reflects just how important mingling is to any museum director’s job. But Covid upset those expectations, like so many others, and the property instead became a dramatic frame for Biesenbach’s solitary work-from-home routine, the daily rhythms of his pet goose, named Cupcakes, and the slow growth of dozens of potted plants in his greenhouse, which runs outside one wall of the warehouse.
Biesenbach, 54, was hired in 2018 as MOCA’s director, and is set to become its artistic director later this year, when he cedes some managerial duties to a new executive director. He has faced extraordinary challenges in recent months. Fully closed per Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders, the museum lost about a quarter of its $20 million annual revenue. Last spring, Biesenbach laid off 97 part-time staffers, in areas like visitor services. At the same time, he furloughed about 30 full-time employees, but was able to bring that group back over the summer, thanks in part to PPP loans. With the help of the board, he was able to keep the museum’s budget balanced.
He also faced a creative quandary: how to keep MOCA’s purpose and mission alive at a time when its doors were closed to visitors. Biesenbach’s response over time was to produce two online series of artist videos. And in this way, his home did play a supporting role. Instead of becoming a social space, the warehouse became a social media hub: an ad hoc production studio that serves as the sparse, but leafy, setting for his MOCA-TV videos.
One series, begun during the initial lockdown of spring 2020 and still going, consists of two-hour-long Zoom-based studio visits that Biesenbach does with leading artists. Each includes a slideshow he creates reviewing the artist’s work—a digital retrospective of sorts. “I think people missed being in a room of like-minded people talking about something different than Covid or Trump,” he said. Forti, the artist--dancer-choreographer-writer, who has an upcoming MOCA show and who opened up her studio for one visit and tagged along for others, said she was impressed by Biesenbach’s receptiveness to artists’ ideas: “He’s a very sweet person, and very respectful of artists in a natural way.” (As for the warehouse, she said, “It could be a great dance studio, if it had wood floors.”)
The other project, begun this year, is an Instagram Live series called MOCA Mornings, set in Biesenbach’s greenhouse, in which he asks artists for advice on getting through the pandemic. Drawing on his considerable following and his knack for asking earnest, open questions (he gently begins sessions with a version of “How are you?” before moving on to “What are you working on right now?”), these 15-minute segments have proved instantly popular. A recent MOCA Mornings chat with Virgil Abloh, who spoke of the urgency of “using this moment to digest history” and what he liked about the 2019 Halston documentary, drew about 40,000 viewers.
The programs help to continue the conversations that sustain the global art world—and also offer vicarious travel when so many national borders, not to mention art fairs, are closed. “The studio visits were a way I could be of service to the museum without putting anyone in danger. Everyone stays at home, nobody gets together, and we’re visiting artists where they are,” Biesenbach said. “We visited Camille Henrot at her parents’ house in the French countryside. Korakrit Arunanondchai was in Bangkok. William Kentridge was in his studio in Johannesburg. It’s incredible that while you’re so local, you can be so international.”
The Zoom sessions have also become an important fundraising tool. After plans for MOCA’s annual gala were scrapped because of stay-at-home orders, the museum decided this past fall to offer instead a “subscription” to the second season of online studio visits to its board members and other supporters. About 50 people participated, raising some $500,000. The videos are ultimately shared on YouTube, but only subscribers get access to the studio visit while it’s in progress, along with an informal gathering at the start and a Q&A with the artist at the end—the Zoom equivalent of an invitation to the post-opening private dinner.
Before Biesenbach came to L.A. for the MOCA position, he spent a decade running MoMA/PS1 in New York, championing, above all, artists who defy traditional media, such as Francis Alÿs, Yoko Ono, and Marina Abramovi´, as well as advocating for environmental causes, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Most of his time there, he lived in a one-bedroom, all-white, nearly empty apartment on Grand Street that offered fast-flowing views of the Hudson and East rivers, traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge, and Manhattan street life. (In 2009, W visited this apartment; it was monastically furnished with a bed, a small table, and a few chairs.)
But Biesenbach’s rejection of a conventional consumer lifestyle came long before that. In high school in Germany, he left his family home to live in a greenhouse on the property that had a small cabin attached. “Growing up, I always felt I didn’t belong. So as a child, I took these very long hikes in the forest. I would incubate and hatch wild geese, and I spent time in this greenhouse,” he said.
Later on, he found another refuge: artists. At 23, while in Berlin right after the fall of the Wall, and in his second year of medical school, he began moonlighting as an unofficial intern in the East German cultural administration. (“I wanted to be an intern at a gallery, but no gallery would take me,” he said.) The government let him turn a 19th-century margarine factory in Mitte, the center of the city, into artists’ studios—an experiment in communal working and living that became the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. He stayed in medical school a few more years for the stipend, he said.
He was also thinking about artists’ studios while settling into his L.A. home. “The main thing I did to the warehouse was take things out: tiles, carpet, paneling,” he said. “I think when you look at artists’ studios, which are a great inspiration, often they are stripped down to the solid surface: It’s the wood of the bow-truss ceiling, the concrete of the floor, the solidity of it all.” Otherwise, he made only a couple of changes. He transformed a shed into a makeshift greenhouse by replacing a corrugated-steel roof with translucent panels. And he painted the interior warehouse walls navy, matching the color of almost all of his suits. “Navy is not black. Everybody in the art world always thinks it’s black. Navy is more modest in a way, a little more like a uniform. For years now, I’ve basically only worn that color, and it feels neutral, which I like,” he said.
He shares this interest in uniforms with his friend the artist Andrea Zittel, who was his flatmate in the mid-’90s in Berlin and whose compound in the desert near Joshua Tree has been one of his few Covid-era destinations. Three decades ago, Zittel turned the pressure to dress for a gallery job inside out by creating her own art world uniform, the start of a series of artworks. As Biesenbach put it, “Uniformity can liberate you from making choices.”
Still, Biesenbach’s rather rigorous detachment from objects—also labels, as he likes to transfer shampoos and other products into plain white bottles—never edges entirely into austerity because of his love of nature. He tends to all of his plants himself, including different species of palm trees, wheeling them indoors as needed, for their sake or his. “I know every single plant I have. Many of them I raised from seeds, seedlings, or cuttings,” he said.
He also incubated and hatched Cupcakes, an Egyptian goose, from an egg he bought four years ago in New York. “You can buy the eggs online; they ship them in bubble wrap,” he said. He went on to describe how a goose “imprints on” and identifies with “the first object she sees moving, whether it’s a cat, a boot, or me. The little gosling thinks: I’m a cat, I’m a boot, or I’m a Klaus. My goose doesn’t think she’s a goose; she thinks she’s a human being. I’ve been grateful for all of these beings—whether it’s Cupcakes or a palm tree—throughout the pandemic. One of my daily rhythms is watering or taking care of important small things that become big things.”
These days, since the new normal has made both city density and home entertaining less appealing, Biesenbach is even thinking about trading his warehouse for greener pastures. He talks about being closer to nature and farther from downtown, like his friends who post Instagram photos of L.A. by night, when the city looks like a field of sparkling lights in the distance. Now, without visitors, he thinks he can make do with less space.
Some hiking trips over the summer to the Angeles National Forest, where he stayed on a farm, helped to plant the seed. “I think I’d like to live in a small cabin with a window,” he said. “You don’t have to own the exterior space; you can just look at it.”