2001-2011: Imaginative MOCA Galas Survive Financial Woes

By Alesandra Dubin August 15, 2011, 8:45 AM EDT


The ever-evolving galas hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, are significant to a city not widely known for its relationship with high culture—or worse, erroneously associated with a certain lack of it. Over the last decade, the events have brought broad attention to the importance of the museum, with imaginative, interactive experiences tied to exhibits that generate major buzz and raise big funds, particularly important to a museum that has struggled financially.

“I think MOCA is one of the first museums [locally] to take the traditional gala and turn it into an exciting event experience. It became a social happening, almost an extension of the exhibition,” said the museum’s former event chief Vanessa Gonzalez. “Guests know when they come to a MOCA gala they are not getting a conventional black-tie dinner—they are going to attend a one-of-a kind experience, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. MOCA really helped pave the way for the museum galas we see today. We were one of the first to take risks.”

That strategy really got under way with the highly publicized, experiential gala in 2002, when a May event celebrated the opening night for an Andy Warhol retrospective with a Factory-inspired theme and Studio 54-style after-party, all produced by the Donahue Group. Guests entered through a 20-foot-high stack of Brillo boxes, and period-styled models engaged with guests.

“Everything before that was just a formal dinner, a traditional gala, no specific details or frills that made it original. Warhol was an opportunity to have fun and be playful. It was the first time we took it to the next level, creating an environment that engaged the guests much like an exhibition,” said Gonzalez, who came on board that year and was spearheading the project by 2005. “It was really meant to feel like you were at one of Warhol’s parties and not a stuffy gala.”

In terms of getting attention, 2007 was another high point. That year, the museum built its fall event around one of the most accessible artists on the contemporary scene: Takashi Murakami. The weekend of events hailing the show opening broke attendance records, with 8,000 fans cramming the members’ evening at the Geffen Contemporary. That meant Gonzalez, working with Best Events, had a big turnaround for the gala the following night. More than 1,300 guests came out for cocktails and nearly 1,000 stayed on for the dinner, which incorporated a Kanye West performance and souvenirs from sponsor Louis Vuitton.

But after that splashy event, the museum was in the throes of well-publicized financial difficulties, Gonzalez departed, and there was no gala in 2008. Two years later, however, the museum hosted one that broke fund-raising records: The late-2009 event for 1,000 guests—including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Jeff Koons—took in $4 million and included a performance piece starring Lady Gaga.

By 2010, the gala’s ability to raise funds had been reestablished. “There is the sense that MOCA is back,” said producer Carleen Cappelletti of Bounce. “People in Los Angeles and internationally—so it was discovered last year—are really committed to the success of MOCA.”

For the 2010 gala, the museum commissioned artist Doug Aitken to transform the benefit into an experiential work of art. The event took place inside of a tent topped by a dramatic installation in the ceiling: a sculpture made from 2,400 feet of running white PVC pipe interspersed with 191 pieces of VersaTube.

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