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Can an art museum drive sustainability? Q&A with MOCA’s Klaus Biesenbach

  • Contemporary art may seem tangential to environmental concerns for many people, especially those who are active practitioners of conservation, but The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles is looking to shift that perception.
  • MOCA has formed an Environmental Council that aims to address some of today’s most pressing environmental issues. The council, composed of a diverse grouping of high-profile environmentalists, will specifically focus on climate, conservation and environmental justice and its cross-section with art in Los Angeles and “beyond”, according to a recent press release provided to Mongabay.
  • In this exclusive interview, Director of MOCA Klaus Biesenbach speaks about the formation of MOCA’s Environmental Council and what it aims to achieve.

Contemporary art may seem tangential to environmental concerns for many people, especially those who are active practitioners of conservation, but The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles is looking to shift that perception. MOCA has formed an Environmental Council that aims to address some of today’s most pressing environmental issues. The council, composed of a diverse grouping of high-profile environmentalists, will specifically focus on climate, conservation and environmental justice and its cross-section with art in Los Angeles and “beyond”, according to a recent press release provided to Mongabay.

In this unique initiative, a broader and more inclusive concept of “preservation” is on display, as art and environment converge under one umbrella. Of course, museums are, and always been, in the business of preservation.  Museums invest major effort to preserve art and maintain it in its original state, so that people may enjoy these timeless pieces for generations to come. This basic iteration of preservation is, of course, redundant to environmentalists, who strive to protect and maintain our planet’s vulnerable ecosystems. With the establishment of its Environmental Council, MOCA is expanding their “preservation lens” beyond its own walls and traditional purview, an exciting step that could bring more people and more resources to the table in the protection of the planet.  After all, what good is a piece of art if we don’t have a habitable planet to enjoy it on?

The Museum of Contemporary Art as seen from Grand Ave. Photo by Elon Schoenholz.

Today, we interview Director of MOCA Klaus Biesenbach, who was instrumental in the formation of MOCA’s Environmental Council. Biesenbach has worked on a range of art and environmental collaborations, including the large-scale ecological festival EXPO 1 with the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 and a series of projects with the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy with artists such as Patti Smith, Katharina Grosse and Yayoi Kusama.


Dave Martin for Mongabay: What is your background and how did you end up as the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles?

Klaus Biesenbach: I arrived in Los Angeles as director at MOCA during the wildfire season of 2018. From the very beginning I talked with the MOCA board chair Maria Seferian and board president Carolyn Powers about art and ecology. Together, we hosted a very large artists’ benefit, and I tried to answer this same question that you are asking now. I explained that as a kid, when I was in primary school, I had an incredible teacher who was influenced by the artist Joseph Beuys. Joseph Beuys, in the 1970s, co-founded the Green Party in Germany. He practiced civil disobedience; for example, he once sat on the highway so that the airport couldn’t be built. He was an ecological activist, sculptor, and performance artist. He very famously planted 7000 Oaks over the course of a decade as a social sculpture. As a kid, because my art teacher was so influenced by him and studied with him, I grew up thinking that all art was environmentally motivated, performative, and political, and has the aspect of societal impact. I think my experience of that early “art education” in school, with certain life detours along the way, put me on the trajectory to becoming a curator, first in Berlin, and then in New York. I was a curator with the Museum of Modern Art for more than a decade, and now I am in Los Angeles as the director of MOCA.

Klaus Biesenbach

Mongabay: The creation of an environmental council is the first for a major art museum in the United States – what prompted the decision to establish the council?

Klaus Biesenbach: As a former curator and now a museum director, I’ve valued finding new forms and founding new initiatives and institutions. When I lived in Berlin in my early 20s, I founded KW, the Institute for Contemporary Art and the Berlin Biennale. After moving to New York, I was fortunate to help co-found the Department of Media and to co-found the Department of Performance Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I think the idea of “founding” is always either born out of an opportunity or an urgency. Coming to California in 2018, it was very clear that a significant environmental initiative would benefit from a substantial institutional framework and support structure. In the current day and age, how a museum deals with this issue cannot be anecdotal. One important thing a contemporary art museum does is to collect and exhibit the art of its time. Artists are concerned and inspired by the environment, and they are more than just paying attention to environmental challenges right now: they are creating images and visualizations for these challenges.

Mongabay: The Council is a diverse powerhouse of people. How did you bring this group together?

Klaus Biesenbach: Literally and metaphorically, many of us came together through studio visits. When I visited Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s studio, and while we were waiting for someone to join us at the studio, we looked at her paintings – the incredibly meticulous way, caring way, and detailed way that she depicts plants. I told her that as a kid, I had moved from my parents’ house into a greenhouse, living with plants, and started incubating wild geese. Ever since, I’ve understood that plants, animals and humans are just beings, and because of this understanding, I was able to relate even more closely to her work, which I am convinced is an important view of the world. We bonded, I think, through that conversation, waiting for somebody during a studio visit. She is now on the Environmental Council.

When COVID brought us all into lockdown, MOCA started studio visits online. We visited artists like Olafur Eliasson and Anicka Yi, who focus on major environmental and synthetic biology related questions. Several of the Council members and advisors came together during these Zoom visits, encountering artists and understanding that the environment is an important matter to them.

And my colleague at MOCA, Samuel Vasquez, had made the art institution that he helped launch, the ICA LA, solar powered, so he has practical institutional experiences grounded in LA. I would like to thank each Council member. First and foremost, co-founder David Johnson, who together with the artist and conservationist Haley Mellin and myself, initiated this council. David has a long history with social and environmental justice and with MOCA! Sheikha Al Mayassa Al-Thani Zoomed in from Qatar, and I had observed her to be a great advocate for ecological causes. Aggie Gund, from New York, dedicates so much of her resources to social justice, and now to ecological justice. Brian Sheth, the founding chair of Global Wildlife Conservation, I had met before the studio visits when we gave a presentation more than a year ago about conservation together, invited by Haley Mellin. Aileen Getty, is a major advocate for environmental causes and with her foundation, helps museums to address this, to tackle it in a detailed way. If you think about these members of the Council, you can see that we built it around people who are committed to art and artists in the current day. In 2020, we are becoming more aware of our environment and how important maintaining a balance is. We expanded with an advisory council to include incredible specialists like Lisa Jackson, who took part in the studio visit series that I mentioned, and who are very engaged with art in their own right.

Aileen Getty Plaza at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Photo by Samuel Vasquez.

Mongabay: What are some of the sustainability initiatives that you plan to undertake in the next year?

Klaus Biesenbach: Great question. There are many initiatives we plan to undertake such as greening the Geffen Warehouse space in Little Tokyo, establishing a community garden and sculpture garden with shading for and with our neighbors, and setting up the Grand Avenue location with renewable energy. These ambitious goals require efforts from the entire museum, so it’s a process. We are utilizing this time working from home to lay the foundation for these larger initiatives, while also implementing smaller changes that will carry on after we return to the offices. This includes shifting over to 100% recycled paper, reducing over 50% of paper usage museum-wide, and moving away from single-use plastic. We are excited to make change at every level of the organization.

Mongabay: Beyond implementing protocols to reduce waste and the overall carbon footprint of the museum, we are interested to learn more about your exploration of nature-based offset solutions.

Klaus Biesenbach: We are in the process of exploring offsets and carbon negativity, which I am learning about through our advisors. We have engaged a group of specialist advisors, precisely because this is new ground for the museum, so that we may explore the best options in an informed way. Waste reduction and use reduction are key to the environmental sustainability of an institution and are likely the most achievable initial steps to take. We will focus first on emissions reductions and are exploring options to offset what we cannot reduce. In an initial step forward, MOCA’s upcoming exhibition with Pipilotti Rist will be carbon neutral. The Council has been reviewing a range of offset options as we move toward carbon negativity. One offset option is nature-based solutions such as land conservation, this being one of the planet’s most efficient and long-standing technologies for carbon sequestration. With our advisors, we are learning how offsets through tropical forest conservation also support the hydrological cycle, the reservoir and aquifer system in California. Mongabay covered a story that showed how rainfall in California is directly impacted by deforestation in the Amazon. A conversation with Dr. Chris Jordan showed us that atmospheric rivers of warm super storms, which come to California from the Pacific, provide around 50% of the state’s water supply and precipitation. Deforestation affects these atmospheric rivers to some degree and potentially contributes moisture that ends up falling, or not falling, in California. With the advisors and the Council, we are reviewing a variety of options to achieve our goal of offsetting the museum’s footprint. It has been an educational process for all.

Installation view of Anicka Yi, Le Pain Sympathetique, 2014, mixed media, The Foundation of the Museum: MOCA’s Collection, May 19, 2019–January 27, 2020 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Zak Kelley. Anicka has conserved a large parcel of cloud forest in Central America via Art into Acres.

Mongabay: Art, like conservation, seems to be something that bridges gaps across political divides. Do you see MOCA’s initiative as an opportunity to increase inclusivity between groups that might not share the same political views or cultural experiences?

Klaus Biesenbach: As the artist Douglas Gordon says, “Art is an excuse to talk about the really important matters in life.” I do think that it’s not a coincidence that this Council is founded around a museum, because art captures images that do not age. It captures images that are, basically, new every single day moving forward into the future. I think that art has the ability to bridge divides, because in a certain way, it’s not reduced by words and partisan slogans. Art can really touch, disturb, distract, and make us pause on a different level. Yes, in this way, I think that art has a very inclusive and inspiring quality.

Mongabay: Haley Mellin, Environmental Council co-founder, said that “Art and conservation are about legacy and permanence” in MOCA’s recent press release. What are your thoughts on the ability of art to endure and how does this parallel environmental conservation? Can you expand on this idea?

Klaus Biesenbach: When I first began working at a collecting museum, after I had worked with non-collecting art centers and biennials, it was important for me to understand that the museum is preserving art, like a time capsule. As a time capsule, a museum dedicates resources to make sure that what artists have created is preserved and accessible for future generations. If you think back in time, what do you remember? What do you remember from cultures that are long gone? You often remember the cultural artifacts, the art that endures and that stands for a certain civilization and a certain culture. I think that the idea of conservation in natural conservation and in museum conservation are actually very related. I got to know Haley better through her Art into Acres initiative wherein she translates one conserved value, like art, into another conserved value, like large-scale land conservation. Haley’s quote, “Art and conservation are about legacy and permanence,” is exactly where art and conservation meet. Together with David Johnson, former co-chair of the museum, life trustee and strong advocate for social and environmental justice, it is important that an artist, Haley Mellin, is co-founder of this museum council as a role model for institutions to come. Haley’s presence together with Los-Angeles based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby is very powerful. I couldn’t imagine a better synergy for an art museum than doing this environmental shift in-step with the artists and audiences that we exist to be of service to. A museum is a time capsule to conserve art for future generations to come, and conservation conserves the natural world for generations to come, as an absolute essential value for us humans inhabiting this planet. This demonstrates the ability of art to endure and parallels the endurance of environmental conservation.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in downtown Los Angeles, California. Photo by Elon Schoenholz

Mongabay: How can the general public get involved?

Klaus Biesenbach: For me, the term “general public” is very abstract. You never know who sees, or hears, or experiences, or is moved, or influenced by a work of art. For me, the mission of the museum is to make art that so many artists have created accessible. By having the Council, and with it more resources to support environmental artistic practices, I think we will raise awareness and show that art is not about the past, but that art is very important for anticipating what is yet to come, and to anticipate this with strong images. These images will be lasting, and it is my hope that these images will be received as avant-garde and influence the world in finding its future form, with the environment hopefully more intact. In his studio visit for the ecological council, artist Olafur Eliasson quoted a fellow artist, the painter Gerhard Richter, “Art is the highest form of hope!”