MOCA Review & Tips

MOCA, or the Museum of Contemporary Art, has three locations in Los Angeles: MOCA Grand Avenue, the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, and MOCA Pacific Design Center. This review focuses on the ‘main’ downtown location, offering thoughts about the museum’s exhibitions, logistical information, and whether it’s worth the price of admission.

If it seems like we’ve been spending some time on Los Angeles’ modern art scene lately…well, we have. We first reviewed LACMA, which was not our favorite. Then, it was time for the Broad, which we enjoyed significantly more. Now, MOCA, which was our favorite of the three.

MOCA has a lot in common with the Broad. Beyond the fact that both are located on Grand Avenue in DTLA, near the Walt Disney Concert Hall, both house skew towards modern art, and both have been heavily funded by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad. They also both are relatively modest in size (I’d guess the Broad exists at least in part because MOCA had been outgrown)…

MOCA was established in 1979, and is unique in that it’s the only artist-founded museum in Los Angeles. The museum’s collection consists of approximately 7,000 works, which comprise an eclectic collection of contemporary and modern art.

The ongoing exhibition at MOCA’s Grand Avenue location is Selections from the Permanent Collection, and I’d estimate that this encompasses about half of the museum’s floor space.

The permanent collection includes works by historical figures such as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Brassaï, John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Ellsworth Kelley, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, Ana Mendieta, Joan Miro, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Bridget Riley, Mark Rothko, and Betye Saar. There are also recent works by Noah Davis, Thomas Hirschhorn, Josephine Pryde, Sterling Ruby, among many others.

These works are grouped based upon theme, subject, and artist to create some engaging galleries.

Although not all of the pieces appeal to me from an aesthetic perspective, I found the galleries themselves presented in a way that was provoking.

By far the highlight of our visit to MOCA was Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective exhibition, “Mastry.” This came to Los Angeles after stops in Chicago and New York, and is an excellent 78-piece display. There’s a lot to unpack in each work, and Marshall rewards viewers with layers of detail and meaning.

Like the double entendre of the exhibition name, each painting evokes conflicting feelings of joy, hardship, and a range of emotions in between. “Mastry” is the most thought-provoking and challenging art exhibition I’ve ever seen. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Get Out, which is altogether beautiful filmmaking and discomforting social satire.

I really enjoyed that movie and this exhibition, and both also made me uneasy in ways I’d consider good; confronting my own privilege and systemic discrimination has been tough.

I think this is an ongoing, societal conversation that needs to happen, and art is an excellent conduit for that. (That’s just one of many takeaways I have from viewing “Mastry.” It was really powerful.)

While this exhibition was exceptional and I’d highly recommend anyone in Southern California make a point of seeing it, the fact is that it closes in a week. Fixating on it in this review is of little benefit to anyone considering a visit to MOCA at a later date.

Well, it’s still helpful from the perspective that Kerry James Marshall is deserving of all the accolades and exposure he can get…even (hopefully?) if coming from some random travel blog.

“Mastry” aside, I’d probably put MOCA on equal footing with the Broad, or perhaps just behind it. Of course, once Mastry is gone, a new exhibition will replace it.

If that’s half as good as “Mastry,” MOCA could maintain its edge for me. (That’s almost entirely a matter of personal preference–YMMV.)

The advantage that the Broad holds is that admission is free. Particularly for those who have had little exposure to modern or contemporary art, that makes it a more logical jumping off point. I’ve noted several times that modern art is not my preferred style, but I continue to expose myself to it because I like the challenge it presents.

Others may find modern art is even less their cup of tea, in which case the free price tag on a visit to the Broad makes it no-risk way to get your feet wet. For those who enjoy the galleries of the Broad, or at least have their curiosity piqued, a visit to MOCA should definitely be in order.

In terms of tips, there’s not really a ton to know about the Broad. The cost of admission likely provides something of a check on normal crowds, to the point that if you’re willing to pay for entry, you’re probably relatively safe to visit whenever you want. (As with any museum, it’s going to be more crowded on weekends, school breaks, and California’s tourist season.)

If admission is too steep for you, Thursdays from 5 until 8 p.m. are free. We did not visit on a Thursday evening, but you can expect to “pay” for the free admission by virtue of a much more crowded experience.

We’d recommend allocating around 1.5 to 2 hours at MOCA, but you could spend more or less time there depending upon your interest level in the exhibitions. Listening to the audio guide is one way to extend (and get more out of) your experience.

If you’re visiting downtown L.A., one of the easiest options is to take public transit to Union Station. Failing that, there are a number of parking lots by City Hall and the Los Angeles Times building that charge $8-10 for the entire day, and have discounted rates after 4 p.m. and on weekends.

We’d also recommend making a full day of your DTLA experience. At the very least, you should have lunch at Grand Central Market before or after your visit to MOCA. Here’s a list of other good dining options nearby in DTLA.

Overall, we were big fans of MOCA. At this point, I’m not prepared to give it a ranking among my favorite things to do, because I’m not sure how much my enjoyment of “Mastry” would impact its score, and I’d like to see how strong future temporary exhibitions are before making such a judgment. While the admission charge does hurt it relative to the Broad, the expectation that art museums be free is a ridiculous one (and I feel a bit guilty for fixating on it so much). However, the practical reality is that cost relative to alternatives is something to be considered when making determining what to do in a city.

If you’re planning a California vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to do. For Los Angeles-centric trips, we’ve found the most useful guidebook to be The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas, which is written by locals (and we use it even as locals!). If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading! 

Your Thoughts

Have you visited the Museum of Contemporary Art – Grand Avenue in Los Angeles? If so, what did you think of experience? Did you see the “Mastry” exhibition? Thoughts on that? If you’ve visited other art museums in Southern California, how does MOCA rank for you? Other recommendations in downtown Los Angeles? Would you visit MOCA again, or do you think it was a ‘one and done’? Hearing from readers is half the fun, so please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

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