Trouble in Purgatory

Mark Masuoka will leave MoCAD after rushing in where angels feared to tread.

Less than a year ago, when I learned that Mark Masuoka was set to take on the director's job at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver on January 1, 2000, I told him, "May God save your immortal soul."

Masuoka gave out a ready guffaw, but I wasn't even half-kidding. You see, I knew something he didn't: that MoCAD was unmanageable, and that no director would be able to take the reins of the institution because they have always been in someone else's tight grasp -- that of the president of the museum's board of trustees, Sue Cannon.

In a sense, this is appropriate, since Cannon played a laudable role in the establishment of MoCAD and, more than anyone else, is responsible for the margin of success it has had. And aside from being one of the founders, she's also been the museum's chief financial angel, kicking in $50,000 to $60,000 per year from her vast personal fortune -- not an inconsiderable amount of money for an institution with a budget that hovers around $400,000 this year.

An abstract picture: The Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver in Sakura Square.
An abstract picture: The Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver in Sakura Square.

But it's her position as a big donor that allows her to push her weight around, and she's consolidated her power through the museum's organizational by-laws, which she helped write and which put her officially in charge. That means that any director -- including Masuoka -- is actually an assistant director.

This isn't a new story. Even before MoCAD's first exhibit in 1997, its founders were leaving in droves. Cannon, it was said again and again, was a micro-manager, capricious and given to quick and disorienting changes in plan. At first this wasn't all that bad, especially since the museum was more of a fantasy than an actual facility. But that changed in 1998, when Kenworth Moffett was hired as the first permanent director and MoCAD set up shop in Sakura Square.

It would be kind to say that Moffett fell flat on his face. His first show, The New New Painting, just happened to be made up of artists whom he'd been promoting for years, and still promotes (Moffett organized a variation of the show at New York's Armory, a rental venue, last winter). After six months of part-time work -- and a $60,000 salary -- he left MoCAD, although it was hard to notice, since he'd never gone so far as to actually move to Denver.

Mark Sink, a well-known photographer, curator and arts advocate, took over as interim director. But while he revealed himself as an intelligent curator, he was also an inept administrator.

Masuoka had applied for the MoCAD gig in 1998, but lost out to Moffett and took a job as director of the Emmanuel Gallery, on the Auraria campus. Too bad MoCAD's directors didn't hire Masuoka in the first place. It would have been better for them and better for the Emmanuel. When Masuoka left the Auraria gallery, there was no one left there to argue a case for its future. Emmanuel lost its funding shortly thereafter and has been empty for months. (In the best possible scenario, the gallery will be re-funded by the fall, though student and faculty shows may be presented sooner.)

But if Masuoka left Emmanuel swaying in the breeze, he hit the ground running at MoCAD. To understand how far he has taken the museum in just nine months, we need only recall the appearance of the place last fall: Visitors were greeted by window walls of smudged glass through which the backs of desks and showcases could be glimpsed along with tangles of hanging electrical cords right at eye level. Believe it or not, this front window space was chosen for MoCAD's main offices, and there was no legitimate excuse for it. It wasn't to save money or to reuse some existing setup that just happened to be there. No, good money was spent on the electrical work needed to put the ugly offices right up front. This was done under the direction of board president Cannon.

All this, and we hadn't even gotten inside yet -- a task that wasn't easy since the front doors were inoperable electric ones that needed be pushed so hard that anyone who tried risked a back or shoulder injury. Instead of fixing or replacing the doors, however, Sink, who was still serving as interim director at the time, denied in print that they were even broken. Well, that solved the problem, didn't it?

Once inside, visitors were confronted by a gift shop that looked like a garage sale and an abandoned-looking rabbit warren of odd-shaped and awkward rooms. The problem was that the two-story facility had been a fish market before, and little had been done except to remove the refrigeration units. The place was dingy, even dirty. And although I never ventured into the restrooms, freelance curator Sean Hughes threatened to walk out on his widely hailed Western Vernacular show, which took place during the summer and fall of 1999, if someone didn't clean them before the opening.

Things changed immediately when Masuoka took over. He moved the office clutter upstairs with the rest of the offices and had the windows cleaned. The gift shop was relocated to a niche just inside the front doors, and the doors were replaced. Just opposite the entry, a reception area was built with a sleek information and ticket desk. Behind it is a donor display created by sculptor and furniture designer Russell Beardsley. Masuoka also added a good-looking coffee shop decorated with multi-colored "ant" chairs clustered around handsome little cafe tables made of expanded metal mesh. Finally, MoCAD had an interior to match its urbane-looking exterior of raw concrete and glass, which really gives off the attitude of a small big-city museum.

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