Forty years ago in Los Angeles, the decision to invest millions in a museum dedicated exclusively to contemporary art — not to mention its formerly desolate downtown location, where the vibe was more apocalyptic than artsy — was a risky proposition. But now that the city’s cultural heart has shifted south of Hollywood, it seems visionary.
And thanks to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new director Klaus Biesenbach, what once seemed bound to be a big flop was buzzy on Saturday night, with the MOCA Benefit gala attracting an eclectic crowd that included punk rockers (Patti Smith) and politicians (Mayor Eric Garcetti) as well as pop stars (Katy Perry and Ricky Martin) and leading men (Keanu Reeves and Orlando Bloom) to its benefit.
“I’m excited about Klaus leading the museum because he has a vision and he’s someone who is willing to take risks,” said the Mayor of Los Angeles and unlikely art aficionado, Eric Garcetti. “Contemporary art has always been about destroying the rules, not abiding by them,” he added. Take, for example, nearby guest Barbara Kruger, the artist whose overtly feminist work “Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground)” is suddenly more timely today than when she created it in 1989.
“Destroying the rules” — specifically abortion bans — pretty much summed up the cocktail conversation before dinner. Even the mayor couldn’t focus on city politics at the moment. “It seems like half a century ago we had long passed a moment when men would legislate what women can do with their bodies — and yet, just look at the laws in Alabama and Georgia and now Missouri,” he told Variety. “When Pat Robertson is saying the [Alabama] law goes ‘too far,’ it’s just crazy.”
For actor James Marsden, it’s infuriating — and the importance of being an ally was all he would talk about. “We should stay and fight,” the “Westworld” star told Variety. “Very succinctly: I believe it’s a woman’s right to choose what she wants to do with her own body. It’s appalling to me that this is still an issue.”
Ironically, the only person who wasn’t discussing this issue was artist and typically outspoken activist Patti Smith. But as the event’s headliner, she was dealing with a more pressing problem — her pianist canceled. Somehow her close friend Biesenbach talked her into playing with “a young man I’ve never met,” as Smith described actor Keegan Allen. Perhaps only in LA — and where else but MOCA? — could one see legendary musicians like Patti Smith and guitarist Lenny Kaye perform an Elvis Presley cover with the star of “Pretty Little Liars.” But then Smith has made a career out of taking risks, and tonight was no exception.
Her own feelings about the anti-abortion movement were ultimately expressed through song. But instead of voicing frustration or anger, Smith ended the evening on an optimistic note with her 1988 ode to peaceful protest, “People Have the Power.” As the crowd sang along to the lyrics about “wrestling the earth from fools” and “turning the world around,” she pumped her fist in the air and improvised a lyric about voting: “Don’t forget it,” Smith shouted. “Use your voice!” Needless to say, her plea struck a perfect chord.