MOCA Metamorphosis

New director Ginger Shulick Porcella takes on 20-year-old museum

Her two dogs may not be too keen on their new home in scorching Tucson, but Ginger Shulick Porcella is.

Porcella, her husband, artist Don Porcella, and the two disconsolate pups departed balmy San Diego for Tucson in April, when she began her new job as executive director and curator at MOCA-Tucson.

The pets may be pining for cooler climes, but "I don't care that much about climate," says Porcella, a native of windy Chicago, speaking in her office after a string of 116-degree days here. "Cold or hot, what's important to me is the community. And Tucson is a really great art community."

Plus, she adds, she has beautiful views of the Catalinas from her house.

Porcella is delighted to have arrived at the downtown contemporary art museum just as it's turning 20 years old.

"I like MOCA," she says. "The artists are diverse and it has lots of resources."

The museum has come a long way from its birthplace in a rickety old warehouse on Toole Avenue, where visitors had be careful to step around holes in the floor and cover their ears when trains rattled by, blaring their horns.

MOCA is now ensconced in a coolly "brutalist" modern structure, an ex-fire station whose large ex-garage accommodates gigantic installations like the rocket-ship-like structure in the gallery right now. Created by Virginia Overton, a New York artist out of Tennessee, it's made almost entirely of splintery old wood salvaged here in Tucson.

At 44-feet long and maybe 15 feet high, "It was quite a feat getting it installed," Porcella says with a laugh. "It was a real barn-raising."

(The Overton installation and other three summer exhibitions were curated by now-departed curator Jocko Weyland.)

Even so, Porcella has big plans to improve MOCA: to ramp up its budget, to stage myriad events, and to take advantage of the top-floor living spaces to invite more artists to town to do residencies. Most importantly, she wants to open up those firehouse doors and welcome in Tucsonans of all kinds.

The museum regularly stages shows of cutting-edge, even baffling, art, and many of its patrons are art-world insiders.

"I don't know if we've been making our shows accessible," she says. "You can do academic, critical shows and still make people feel welcome. We need to be telling people what we're doing. We can't afford to be disconnected from the community. This should be a gathering space."

Porcella hopes to reel people in with lectures, interactive events and even movies—just last weekend MOCA screened the Salma Hayek film Frida. She's already lined up some small-sized art lovers: as she spoke, kids in the museum's summer art camp trouped noisily past her office.

"As a curator I'm more interested in the programming," she says. "I want people to feel engaged."

Porcella stirred up a bit of a ruckus in her last job, when she set out to revitalize the San Diego Arts Institute. When she arrived three years ago as executive director and chief curator, the place was "in disrepair," she says. "No one was coming. It was on the verge of closing. I came and told them to change everything, from fundraising to programming."

The museum had long given shows primarily to its dues-paying member artists. Porcella forged ahead with exhibitions of local and outside emerging artists, from San Diego, but also from Tijuana and Los Angeles. The changes ruffled the old guard but audiences soared and grants poured in.

When she announced her departure this past March, San Diego Union Tribune writer Michael James Rocha called her the "creative and energetic force behind the transformation of the San Diego Art Institute."

She's already on track for a little creative disruption at MOCA. Her first outing will be all-museum show about the border and immigration, to run from October 7 through December. The cross-border exhibition will hop multiple boundaries: it will be staged indoors and out and will showcase a wide range of genre-jumping art, from installations to murals to sound arts, created by a border-crossing crew of international artists.

Marcos Ramirez ERRE of Tijuana will partner with U.S. photographer David Taylor, a UA professor who's won acclaim for exquisite images of the borderlands. Also on board will be Paul Turounet, a photographer whose multi-media installation of an actual stretch of the border wall dazzled at the UA Museum of Art five years ago.

In a couple of weeks Porcella is heading down to Nogales, Sonora, a city teeming with artists, to meet with the folks behind the Museo de Arte.

"There's been a bit of a backlash in San Diego against border shows," Porcella says. "but it's an important issue, and artists think it's important to keep doing the art."

Just 35 years old, Porcella has a long resume in the arts biz, as both administrator and curator. She studied art history at DePaul University in Chicago, and then moved on to New York, where she picked up a master's in anthropology at Columbia University.

Anthro, she explains, is what she's doing every day. "My practice is based in anthropology. It's about cultural production."

After grad school, she took a job at Art Connects New York, a nonprofit that commissions artists to create installations in social justice institutions. A favorite show, she remembers, was put on by Liberian immigrant artists from Staten Island, in the offices of the International Rescue Committee, a refugee aid organization.

Her next stop was Flux Factory, an indie arts space in Queens, where she was interim director, the first non-artist hired.

"I'm not an artist," she says. "I'm an arts administrator first and a curator second. I'm proud of being an administrator with good ideas. I take crazy ideas and make them work."

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