The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

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The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

250 S. Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90012
Telephone: (213) 621-1750
Fax: (213) 620-8674
Web site:



Even with a $13.5 million operating budget and one of the largest contemporary art collections in the United States, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), toiled to draw crowds in 2001. Competing against a variety of entertainment destinations in Los Angeles County that ranged from beaches to baseball games, along with other museums, MOCA's recently appointed director Jeremy Strick wanted to surpass the previous year's 500,000 MOCA visitor count. Hoping to boost awareness of the museum throughout Los Angeles County, MOCA released "Labels," the largest advertising campaign in its 21-year history.

The $1 million campaign, created by the Los Angeles office of ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day, first appeared on January 1, 2001. The core of the campaign consisted of 61 billboards across Los Angeles County that featured black copy on white backgrounds. The billboards' copy parodied the description labels that appeared beside artworks in museums. Each billboard featured a message relevant to its surroundings. Above a restaurant's valet parking service, for instance, one billboard's title read, "Men Running with Keys, 2001." Below the title it listed the "medium" as "Restaurants, thick-soled shoes, paper tickets with red ink / Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art." Similar advertisements appeared across Los Angeles newspapers, outdoor posters, dry-cleaning hangers, and radio spots. The campaign's three television spots featured titles such as "Husband and Wife on a Sofa, A Study of Still Life, 2001," "Remote Control, 2001," and "The Demise of Culture, 2001." The campaign lasted for six months.

Some critics felt that the billboards' message was misunderstood and required too much reading; others disliked them completely. As Los Angeles Times writer Christopher Knight explained, "Artists tell me that they hate the MOCA campaign." Nonetheless, the advertising community showered it with praise. Advertising Age's Creativity awarded "Labels" with one of the magazine's annual Creativity Awards in 2001. The campaign was one of the most awarded entrants for the 2001 annual International ANDY Awards, where it collected a Gold ANDY and 10 Silver ANDYs.


In 1999 Jeremy Strick was appointed the director of MOCA, one of America's largest contemporary-art museums, with a staff of 130 people, 13,000 paying members, and an annual attendance of 450,000. Because Strick had only been a curator at his previous post at the Art Institute of Chicago, many critics denunciated the new director for his lack of administrative experience.

To establish himself as an apt leader, in 1999 Strick opened a MOCA retrospective exhibition of the commercial artist Barbara Kruger's work. Kruger was famous for printing pithy comments such as "I shop therefore I am" upon images of women. Not only did the Kruger exhibition generate wide acclaim, but Los Angeles critics were also impressed by the show's attendance. The show also led to the addition of 1,700 new MOCA members. Strick strategically asked Kruger, whose résumé included working as head designer for Mademoiselle magazine, to create the show's advertising. "She developed print ads with us and also radio ads," Strick was quoted by the Los Angeles Business Journal: "We see this as a way of both getting the word out about MOCA and the exhibition and bringing art into new and different public spheres … The show's been well attended and people seem very aware of the campaign. It's stirred up some interest and a little controversy, too. That's great."

According to the Washington Post, in late 2000 Strick approved the allocation of $1 million to brand the museum as "something new, something fresh" to do in Los Angeles County. Just six days before "Labels" was released, the Los Angeles Business Journal quoted Strick explaining, "MOCA is all about creativity and inspiration. The unique gift we bring to Los Angeles is to showcase the creativity of cutting-edge artists from throughout the world, in the hope that it will in turn inspire our visitors."


The "Labels" campaign targeted creatively minded 25- to 34-year-old Angelenos, the nickname for inhabitants of Los Angeles County. Suzanne Evans, a writer for the Los Angeles Business Journal, described the campaign's target as a "wary, advertising-bombarded youthful audience that is sometimes difficult to reach." Strick explained in the New York Times that Angelenos were often more leery of blatant advertising than the residents of cities such as Chicago and New York City. Instead of merely advertising the museum's logo or full name on billboards, "Labels" hoped to recreate the contemporary-art-museum experience within Los Angeles so that the target could engage with the community as an outdoor museum. Billboards suggested that the audience reflect on normally mundane objects such as restaurants, stoplights, and freeways in the same way that museum visitors reflected on art inside MOCA.

Some Los Angeles art critics pointed out that the campaign not only alienated its target market, including longstanding MOCA members, but also actually embittered the museum's featured artists. Doug Harvey, an art critic for LA Weekly, described the billboards as "unfathomable condescension" and "second-rate '60s conceptual art." Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight wrote, "The museum, with its conceptual commercials, appears to be usurping the role of artist, and bad artist at that."


Not only was MOCA competing against two other contemporary-art museums within Los Angeles city limits, but it was also contending for visitors to larger art museums such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the wildly successful J. Paul Getty Museum. With the exception of the latter, most of Los Angeles's museums were struggling financially. Having to compete against the city's other attractions, such as beaches, concert halls, theater houses, sporting events, and movie theaters, the museums struggled to remain profitable. The Latino Museum of History, Art, and Culture was forced to shut down in August 2000 after sinking $500,000 in debt. According to the Washington Post, Maya Rao, the TBWA\Chiat\Day copywriter for the "Labels" campaign, explained, "Why do museums need to advertise? Well, there is a lot of competition for eyeballs in this town."

With small advertising budgets, museum directors had to market their museums creatively in 2001. In Chicago the Museum of Contemporary Art's (MCA) director, Robert Fitzpatrick, began his new position by getting the museum's guards "out of those awful paramilitary costumes," Fitzpatrick was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times. The MCA spent $17,500 on new uniforms that Fitzpatrick had ordered from the Banana Republic retail store. Fitzpatrick also commissioned Chicago artist Dan Peterman to construct benches outside of the MCA to provide seats for businesspeople to eat their lunches. Different farmers' markets were brought to the MCA plaza as well. Free admission days were increased from once a month to once a week; and Fitzpatrick decreased the price of the museum's self-guided tour AcoustiGuides from $3.50 to $1. "It's not just advertising, but it's about being accessible," Fitzpatrick further explained in the Chicago Sun-Times. "Are you going to spend $7 here, as opposed to a movie? It's not a choice you force them to make, it's a choice that you invite them to make, by being inviting."


For the months prior to January 2001, TBWA\Chiat\Day copywriter Maya Rao and art director Moe Vergrugge traversed Los Angeles in search for billboard locations that they could use for their upcoming MOCA campaign. What resulted was Los Angeles's largest site-specific billboard campaign in history. After writing more than 80 possible executions, 61 billboards were chosen. All of them advertised MOCA for at least six months. In addition to appearing on the billboards, the campaign's copy was placed on dry-cleaning hangers, paper coffee-cup bands, buses, free postcards distributed at bars, newspaper ads, and gas-pump handles. Radio and television spots were released as well. With more than 150 media placements, the "Labels" campaign was, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal, one of the largest ever released by a Los Angeles museum.

Every advertisement appeared as a label, similar to those describing artwork in a museum. One of the more provocative billboard titles, which was placed above a strip club, read, "Nudes 2001." Below the title the copy explained, "Bodies, dimensions variable. A study of First Amendment rights, entertainment, and business, all acting in concert to provide a debate among lawyers, politicians, and the general public. On loan from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles."

TBWA\Chiat\Day took a risk with the amount of copy used on each billboard. According to Melanie Axtman, the group media director at TBWA\Chiat\Day, an advertising-industry guideline for outdoor advertising was that billboard copy should be limited to eight words or less. The ad agency justified breaking the guideline because the "Labels" billboards were placed in heavily congested areas where people were afforded more time to read the message. Some critics disagreed. The senior editor for National Public Radio, Andy Bowers, joked on the radio program All Things Considered that the billboard above a shopping plaza that read "People in designer labels buying more designer labels" should have instead read "People in designer labels ignoring billboard." Bowers later added, however, that once onlookers understood that the billboard was commenting on their surrounding environment, they became instantly fascinated by the advertisement.


In 2001 the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), released 61 billboard ads throughout Los Angeles that mimicked the description tags commonly found beside its works of art. To increase awareness about MOCA in the Los Angeles community, the campaign attempted to recreate the same reflective thinking needed to understand contemporary art. One billboard ad above a street crowded with car washes and tiny Mexican restaurants read, "Car Washes and a Couple of Taquerias, 2000." Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Drawing its pithy campaign back to the museum, MOCA sold coffee cups in its museum gift shop that read, "Habit, 2001: Coffee in glazed ceramic. On loan from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles."

Although the campaign's copy required more reading comprehension than most billboards, MOCA officials believed the campaign still befit Angelenos. According to the Washington Post, Strick explained, "People are used to seeing labels in museums and we liked the idea of labeling the city—extending out to the city the museum experience … Billboards are an L.A. institution. It's the way people communicate here, driving as much as we do, and so we asked what happens if you look at the city with the same attentiveness you look at art in a museum?"

Three television spots aired as public-service announcements across local TV stations in Los Angeles. The commercials featured titles similar to the billboards, such as "Husband and Wife on a Sofa, A Study of Still Life, 2001," " Remote Control, 2001," and "The Demise of Culture, 2001." The campaign included screensavers and computer-desktop wallpaper that could be downloaded from MOCA's website,


The "Labels" campaign collected some of the advertising industry's most coveted awards. In 2002 it garnered a Gold EFFIE Award in the "Culture and the Arts/National or Regional" category. Advertising Age's Creativity magazine awarded the campaign one of its 2001 Creativity Awards. "Labels" also earned one Gold ANDY and 10 Silver ANDYs at the 2001 annual International ANDY Awards, making TBWA\Chiat\Day the most-decorated advertising agency of the ANDYs that year.

Despite the campaign's positive fanfare at awards shows, MOCA only attracted 315,000 visitors during 2001, a major reduction from the 500,000 visitors it recorded in 2000. Some analysts attributed the decline to the museum's dwindling donations and to budget cuts made by the California Arts Council, which provided a large portion of the museum's funding. MOCA's operations budget dropped from $20 million in 1999 to $13.5 million in 2001. Besides reduced funding, the nationwide recession and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had affected all of Los Angeles County's museums. Jay Aldrich, director of tourism and publications at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, explained in the Los Angeles Business Journal, "Attendance was in decline in every Southern California attraction in 2001 due to 9/11."


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                                              Kevin Teague

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