Some doubted whether LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art was even going to make it through to their 30th anniversary. Years of lackluster fund-raising had drained their $38 million endowment and then 2008 hit.
Such was the tsunami of problems and dark reportage that Jeremy Strick, the then-director, spoke of merging with another museum, or perhaps of sharing their collection.
But then the mega-collector Eli Broad stepped in, pledging $30 million, and encouraged others to follow. So the 30th anniversary gala on November 14, 2009, could be seen as a triumph, a special party, a black-tie chow-down, yes, but also an Art party. Which was why they brought in Francesco Vezzoli.
I was covering the preliminaries for The Daily Beast when Maria Arena Bell, chair of the MOCA event, told me that bringing in Vezzoli had been the idea of Dasha Zhukova, an oligarch’s daughter, now living in London, who had recently started the Garage, an art space in Moscow.
Vezzoli is a Milanese artist whose work blurs art and life, but it’s a particular kind of high life, which feeds him to use celebrity and branding as art materials. He first was noticed for videos that used the likes of Marisa Berenson and the top model of yesteryear, Veruschka.
His trailer for a remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula, a five-minute excursion into elegantly polysexual excess, which included cameos with Helen Mirren, Karen Black, Benicio del Toro, Courtney Love, and Gore Vidal, was the hit of the 2005 Venice Biennale and came on to the Whitney Biennial.
It was no surprise that Vezzoli should have seen this swell museum gala as another juicy opportunity to exercise his peculiar talent for mingling seduction and subversion.
“They basically offered me a social ritual as a blank canvas upon which I could make a project,” he told me at the time.
But what to do? “Thinking of something that could merge art and entertainment I came up with the reference of Ballets Russes,” Vezzoli says. “Diaghilev [Sergei, the company’s founder] has always been a big hero of mine. I went onto a conceptual search, and I thought that mixing Lady Gaga and the Bolshoi would be the most daring, absurd thing ever. Gaga is one of the Nijinskys of our epoch. So I don’t know if it’s going to be a great artwork. But so far I think I made a good choice.”
He also got the architect Frank Gehry to design Lady Gaga’s hat, Miuccia Prada to design outfits for the dancers, and artist Damien Hirst to customize the piano.
The art collector Dasha Zhukova was present at the gala as an honorary chair. Indeed the Los Angeles Times noted that a third of the thousand-plus guests had come from outside the city, including the artist Takashi Murakami and Don and Mera Rubell, the collectors from Miami Beach, and it was perhaps relevant that well in advance of the gala (then board co-chair of MoCA) Maria Bell, and billionaire collector Eli Broad had been in both the Venice Biennale and Art Basel talking up the museum’s future.
A long space had been turned into what looks like a Versailles-themed tent, its roofing colored crimson and hung with chandeliers, and the crowd included such substantial California artists as John Baldessari, Billy Al Bengston, and Ed Ruscha, who had an installation there--a chocolate room, its wall hung with chocolate that had been silk-screened onto paper.
And, this being Los Angeles, folk from the entertainment business included Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Gwen Stefani, Christina Ricci, and Chloë Sevigny.
So to the Gaga moment. Vezzoli had put together a five-minute production called “Ballets Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again).” During this, Lady Gaga performed her new song, “Speechless,” a somewhat husky love song, on a rotating pink grand piano, which Damien Hirst had customized with blue butterflies.
Vezzoli had described this to me as “rather different from most of the music we have heard from her. I like the idea that it would be unexpected. Because we are all happily accustomed to Gaga’s hyperpop. And this is going to be rather more dramatic.”
On either side of her the Bolshoi danseuses did their stuff, looking as tough and dainty as refugees from a Degas.
Gaga’s Frank Gehry hat and the costumery of the danseuses were due to be auctioned online later. But the Damien Hirst piano was knocked down at the end of the evening. It went for $450,000. Meanwhile, as a reporter noted, the theme from The Price Is Right was playing. In all, the 30th Anniversary Gala pulled in $3.5 million for the museum.
As to never seeing “The Shortest Musical” again, well, there was such a twinkling of smartphones recording Gaga and the dancers that the chandeliers flickered. Maybe that was a coincidence but the Shortest Musical hasn’t disappeared, count on that.
And that was the most over-the-top MOCA evening ever?
Not so. Not at all! lt wasn’t long until … but, sorry, you are going to have to wait for that!