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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Forward Looking: MOCA director Amos Klausner.

Pushing the Envelope

New MOCA director Amos Klausner tests the boundaries

By Gretchen Giles

Emerging from his office on a recent afternoon, Amos Klausner is full of apologies. While hands are still being shaken, he apologizes for being dressed in utterly clean work boots, crisp laundered jeans and a new-looking plaid work shirt. Dressed down for the day to help install an auction exhibit, he's not, he explains good-humoredly, in his "design" clothes, the sharp monotone ensembles and excellent shoes that mark such of his ilk--those mad for the clean, spare lines of the contemporary aesthetic.

Hired last November as the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Klausner, 33, also apologizes for the root canal that made him unable to attend a caterer's meeting the day before, necessitating a small break in this day's interview to discuss mushroom fondue sticks with a chef. But as any reporter knows, such a small break requires absolutely no apology. Let the unfettered snooping begin!

But snooping in Klausner's boxlike office upstairs in the corporate aerie of Santa Rosa's Luther Burbank Center reveals few surprises, though one wonders how a man with such a modern bent can stand working most of the day in such dreary surroundings, his window's view being of the dumpsters below. It makes sense, though, that Klausner, having just finished a five-year stint as the director of the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, would decorate his walls with oversized posters emphasizing cleanly drawn jazz artists and Dutch aesthetic sensibilities.

There is a neat stack of books on the Mexican-born painter Enrique Chagoya, a Stanford art professor due for a one-man exhibit at the MOCA later this year. The addresses of local newspapers are modestly taped to Klausner's computer monitor, and the schedules for his museum's exhibition slate occupy one wall. But a long piece of butcher paper stuck to the back of his door does prompt interest. There, furiously scrawled in colored markers, is a compelling list. Established environmental artists Andy Goldsworthy and James Turrell are joined with such art-world luminaries as Robert Motherwell, Cindy Sherman, Basquiat, Ann Hamilton and about 30 others, most of whom have never exhibited in the North Bay before.

"Oh, that's a list that Gay and I drew up," Klausner explains upon returning from his caterer's meet. The "Gay" he means is Gay Dawson, the former executive director of the MOCA who stepped down from the rigors of fundraising and administration to the more pleasant position of museum curator last year. "She gets to have all the fun," he agrees with a chuckle. Klausner's job of running a museum, overseeing the proposed erection of a new 5,000-square-foot exhibition space and raising $5.5 million in capitol to fuel it all may be pleasant, but it certainly isn't easy.

Perhaps compounding such difficulty is the fact that Klausner is poised to take the MOCA in an entirely new direction.

 

Established in 1982 as the California Museum of Art, the exhibition space at the LBC has since changed its name twice, morphing from the optimistic grandness that the "California" in its name evoked to the more regional title of Sonoma Museum of Visual Arts--a moniker easily confused with the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art--to the simplicity of the current MOCA. Like the vagaries of its name, the institution has struggled for years to establish and maintain a focus. Should it show only North Bay artists, should it collect and curate, should it establish itself as an European-style kunsthalle, should the exhibitions be of national scope or confined to the Bay Area, should the artists be mostly established or emerging or even amateur, depending on the exhibition?

Financing and space limitations have dictated many of the museum's decisions. With little funding for insurance, shipping and security, and with no reliable temperature controls for its current space, there will never be a Rembrandt gracing the walls at the LBC. But under Dawson's guidance, the museum has shown emerging and midcareer contemporary artists whom many North Bay residents might not otherwise know. Bay Area artists Deborah Oropallo and Lucy Puls were introduced to area viewers; the great abstract jazz painter Mike Henderson is a familiar; and New York's innovative Two Palms Press helped to showcase work by artists such as Chuck Close. Moreover, almost every exhibition of national or Bay Area scope has had an element tying it to the work of artists from the North Bay.

Under Klausner's leadership, that final element looks to be on the wane. "We've supported local artists for the last 20 years," he says, settling into his chair. "If my budget were balanced, if people knew what we were, we'd keep doing it at the same level. But it's not and they don't. The museum has always been very good at supporting North Bay artists.

"Will it continue?" he asks rhetorically. "Yes. At the same level? No." Instead, Klausner means to reposition the museum's exhibitions to emphasize the universalities of excellent design, even if that means finding itself sometimes in contrast to the individual challenges of the fine-art experience.

"We've decided that we need to change the nature of the content to reflect the nature of the museum. It's a move away from local to state, national and international," he says. This decision is prompted in great part by the museum's need to fundraise toward the building of its new $2.5 million exhibition space, an ambitious structure designed by Oakland architect Douglas Burnham that recently won a Best Unbuilt Design award for 2004 by the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Figuring that if he builds it, they will come, Klausner hopes to attract visitors beyond the North Bay to a destination museum experience by 2010. Such art tourists are savvy, and, Klausner says, "We have to provide an experience that meets certain standards that these visitors have come to expect."

To that end, marketing research has been launched, the museum staff learning that Bay Area patrons like photography and politically charged art. Enter the politically charged paintings of Enrique Chagoya, exhibiting this summer, and the moody dramatics of San Francisco photographer Todd Hido, slated for December.

In order to better serve the greatly underserved Latino community, MOCA has asked Chagoya to give a lecture delivered solely in Spanish. Additionally, former U.S. Biennale representative Ann Hamilton may produce a small show of maquettes and other symbols of her intelligent installation work for the MOCA in 2006.

Klausner has also been in touch with painter Richard Diebenkorn's widow, Phyllis, and is hoping that this Healdsburg resident will consent to show some of her husband's works on paper next year. Diebenkorn's more famous paintings are too delicate and valuable for the temperature-insensitive, low-security environment the MOCA currently inhabits. That, Klausner determines, will change with the new museum structure.

"Our goal is to slowly ramp up to the names that are on that list," he says, pointing at the back of his office door. While heading to that goal, Klausner intends to showcase arts not normally found at the MOCA, including ceramics and plain old great examples of good design. Having worked as the architecture and design forum coordinator at the San Francisco MOMA for two years, Klausner clearly hopes to reproduce that institution's important design exhibits on a smaller scale in Santa Rosa.

"Destination architecture is not enough," he says. "It's what's on the inside that sells, and while architecture and design are a tough sell, people expect to enter a certain experience when they enter a museum. How do you integrate this with painting and sculpture?" he asks with his characteristic rhetorical bent. "Well, cultural indicators are not pointing at painting and sculpture. It's the things we use everyday that interest us.

"My feeling is that objects will be so much more important than the fine arts to the next generation. In this new world, where we are all networked together, the fact that we share an item," he gestures with his pen as example, "is much more valuable than one thing existing alone [as with a piece of sculpture]. It doesn't mean that what the fine arts are doing isn't important, but there's an equality between designing objects and the fine arts, and we have to accept it. They each comment on each other in equally valuable ways."

Klausner's more immediate future concerns spreading the word about his museum. Living with his wife in San Rafael for the past decade, he himself was unaware of the MOCA. "A lot of people don't know we're here," he says with a smile. "My goal is to make people aware of who we are and what we do. We're building something from scratch, and that's exciting.

"The future of the museum," he continues with evident relish, "is to reflect the accepted currents within the community. Our goal is not to buck the trend, but we do intend to push the borders."


The MOCA launches a new series of monthly Thursday-night lectures by Bay Area architects with CCS Architecture founder Cass Calder Smith on May 5 at 7pm. MOCA, at the LBC, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. $5-$10. 707.527.0297.

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From the April 27-May 4, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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