Trouble in Purgatory

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.

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.

The change in the footprint of the galleries has been even more pronounced. The unworkable arrangement left over from the fish market days was reconfigured so that separate galleries are now located on and beneath the mezzanine; the main galleries are in the double-high space that runs across the front of the museum.

Nothing brought this quick and remarkable transformation home better than the opening, a few weeks ago, of Colorado Biennial, Masuoka's master stroke. The show -- love it or hate it -- did exactly what it was meant to do: attract hundreds of visitors to MoCAD and thus become the talk of the town. With it, MoCAD made its presence known in Denver, and no one deserves more credit for this than Masuoka. But as insiders knew last summer, while Biennial was still being planned, Masuoka was already looking for an emergency escape hatch.

The story of Masuoka's dissatisfaction was leaked to me in an unsigned letter and a couple of faxes that laid out the myriad ways in which Cannon prevented people -- Masuoka in particular -- from getting things done. And although the faxes were intended to be anonymous, the name Susan Evans appeared at the top of them. If it was easy to dismiss Evans's claims, since she had earlier quit her staff job at MoCAD in disgust, there was no denying that what she was saying was the same thing so many others had been saying: Masuoka was not getting along with Cannon.

Their difficulties soon became one of the worst-kept secrets around: It was hard to keep a lid on things when the two actually got into screaming matches about the direction of the museum. If Cannon had appreciated the major changes Masuoka had wrought, she surely wouldn't have yelled at him. For his part, Masuoka was said to delight in "blindsiding" Cannon by taking apart her ideas in public, hardly the way to treat a big donor.

Either way, what had been rumored for months became official last week: Masuoka will leave MoCAD at the end of the month. Many boardmembers, including Cannon, have contacted me, and all have expressed profound regret over his departure. A search for a replacement is already under way.

In a way, the MoCAD board shouldn't have been surprised that Masuoka came and went so quickly; after all, he did the same thing at Emmanuel. Although he did a fabulous job during his short stint, his resignation demonstrates something important -- that Cannon has a lasting commitment to MoCAD and Masuoka does not.

So my salutation to the next director is the same as it was to Masuoka: "May God save your immortal soul."

The Colorado Biennial, Masuoka's first full-tilt effort as well as his parting shot at MoCAD, will be on display through December. Next week I'll take a look at this groundbreaking, if uneven, exhibit featuring fifteen Colorado artists.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia