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MOCA: Say yes to Broad Foundation, no to LACMA

December 17, 2008 |  4:00 pm

Rubiks_cube Thursday the board of Los Angeles' troubled Museum of Contemporary Art meets — for the second time this week — to find a resolution for its daunting problems. With a depleted endowment amid a tanking national economy, two things need to happen.

First, two letters of resignation need to be offered and accepted — one from museum director Jeremy Strick, the other from board co-chairman Tom Unterman. They share primary responsibility for creating the emergency, which at bottom represents less an issue of cash-flow than a crisis of leadership. Their failures brought the nation's premier museum for the art of our time to its knees, and they cannot now be relied upon to fix it.

Second, the remaining 29 trustees must abandon their apparent aim of magically “solving” MOCA's Rubik's Cube of a problem. A bank account can be refilled overnight, but a leadership void cannot. This predicament took years to make, and it will take more than a few pressure-cooker board meetings, with a breathless national art world analyzing every move and rumor, to repair the damage.

And reparable it certainly is. What the board needs to focus on now is not a solution but buying time. No solid fix will be immediate. That's like expecting the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department to fix the faltering U.S. economy by Tuesday. Ain't gonna happen — especially not until new leadership is in place.

So let's begin with the resignations....

Strick's, widely expected, is said to be close. He is the saga's Jimmy Carter: A decent man and very knowledgeable curator who presided in the last nine years over a superlative artistic program and a disastrous financial plan.

But Strick, as MOCA's professional leader, should have told his volunteer trustees years ago that if spending down the museum's modest $40-million endowment did not cease, he would begin looking for different employment. He didn't, and now he must pay the price.

Moca_grand_ave Unterman, a venture capitalist (and once a financial officer at Times Mirror, former parent of the Los Angeles Times) whom I do not know, is the tale's Ronald Reagan. He likewise held top leadership posts during an era of uplifting programs and thoroughly mismanaged finances. In a recent Times interview, he displayed the stunning ineptitude that has brought MOCA to the brink.

Unterman was asked whether selling art from MOCA's collection was being considered as a way to raise operating funds. His answer:

“It’s certainly one of the things that logically appears on an agenda.... Is it a logical option? Yes. Is it a probable option? No, probably not. I don’t want to get way ahead of the board on this because they all may wake up one morning and say that’s the best thing to do, but I’d be surprised.”

In a few sentences, the “logical option” claimed by MOCA's co-chairman wrecked the possibility that, once stabilized, any collector would donate a treasured work of art to his museum — one whose stellar holdings have almost entirely been gifts. No rational person would, since the board's current leadership regards the museum's art not as a cultural legacy to protect but a fungible asset available for cash conversion.

Indeed, conversion to pay bills in a fiasco created by the leadership.

Moca_geffen_lat_liz_o_baylen_3 Unterman's gross misunderstanding of his fiduciary duty at a nonprofit art museum helps to explain how MOCA came to the brink. The corporate mind-set he exposed is precisely what creates a boardroom climate that allows for the otherwise inexplicable decision — repeated year after year — to spend down the endowment on which a museum's stability depends. After all, why not take the spending gamble if you believe, however foolishly, that a bad MOCA bet can be covered by peeling off a couple of the collection's 10 magnificent  Mark Rothko paintings or its 11 incomparable Robert Rauschenberg combines and sending them off to market?

With Strick and Unterman gone, as they should be by the end of the day tomorrow, the way is cleared to begin rebuilding shattered institutional confidence. That's a longer term proposition, which brings us to the essential need for buying time.

MOCA needs two years, not two months or two weeks, to fully address the trouble it's in. Partly the tattered state of the national economy is the reason. Between now and 2011, when some economists think the clouds will be parting, the museum can do the heavy-lifting of recruiting new leadership and developing a strategic plan.

Two offers are now on the table — one helpful to buying MOCA time, the other not; one nerve-racking, the other soothing. The problem is that the helpful idea is also the stressful one, while the unhelpful one is a siren song. Since the board has taken the comfortable route in the past, leading to this awful critical juncture, it clearly must avoid the rocky shoreline now.

Broad_foundation_lat_anne_cusack The Broad Foundation has offered an upfront gift of $15 million, no strings attached, if other donors will step forward, plus $15 million for programs over five years. The gift requires that MOCA remains independent, stays headquartered on Grand Avenue, continues a great program, preserves its collection for public display and provides assurances of steps toward long-term financial health. Those are not “strings”; except for the last, they are simple descriptions of the status quo.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art made a formal 11th hour offer to merge MOCA into its program. In effect, MOCA would become a LACMA department — with the attendant loss of stature such a demotion would mean, even if their merged contemporary collections were to be LACMA's  most important artistic holding, and also outstripping any other of its kind in the nation.

Lacma_lat_mel_melcon A year ago Broad and LACMA were a team. After a falling out they are now rivals. It's like a “Kramer vs. Kramer” soap opera about a divorced couple arguing over an adorable child.

Broad helped birth MOCA and then departed, shifting his allegiance to create LACMA's contemporary program. MOCA is now wary of Broad's power, resentful of being jilted by its founding chairman. Broad, disaffected now with LACMA, doesn't want MOCA to end up there. LACMA knows this, and it also knows MOCA is fearful and bitter; so it has opened wide its embracing arms.

No wonder MOCA's board is nervous. But I say — aside from basta! — better to go with the devil you know than the one you don't. A LACMA merger means MOCA is instant history (after all the lawsuits get settled). A Broad alliance means there's hope, which other potential benefactors will require.

Besides, whether MOCA successfully buys time now or not, LACMA's not going anywhere. It's a permanent fall-back option. That means MOCA's future now has only one clear option, not two, which was there before LACMA stirred the pot on Tuesday. So let's stop dithering and get on with negotiating a  Broad Foundation deal.

--Christopher Knight

Photos: Rubik's Cube, The Baltimore Sun / Jeffrey F. Bill; Museum of Contemporary Art; Geffen Contemporary, Los Angeles Times / Liz O. Baylen; Broad Foundation, Los Angeles Times / Anne Cusack; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles Times / Mel Melcon

Comments () | Archives (10)

Taking Broads offer would certainly be the obvious thing to do, its like a funddrive for a radio station like KJAZ, a real one not a silly mediocrity like KCRW, childrens version of music Taking a buck for each new buck offered. Sounds good. But is it?

How much control does broad want? he keeps on teasing with his collection, which obviously aint that good anyway, LACMA threw him under the bus once they got the building done. He want memorials to himself all over town, a megalomaniac, who through wanting everything, may well end up with nothing. Especially if MoCA does not take the bait.

But it may have to. After all, what have they ever offered or provided to the citizens of Los Angeles? It has always beena party venue for the rich and silly. Decadence that has died in the great disaster its very creators made their wealth from. The people have spokem with silence. We dont care about MoCA. LACMA would be so much nicer if it really had some quality works, it does, but no where near enough to fill up its gargantuan size. MoCA lines its acreage of white walls displaying vanity plates of individual exces, not art. Yet has a vast store of wealth hidden from view, and why the people do not care. It is treated as idiots, when the fools run the asylum.

Let LACMA take it, so perhaps we can see a real quality Modern Art museum in LA. The two combined would be very good, not MoMA, but in the same game, finally. Jettison the contempt uous nonsense, get some cash tit will need, and use the Temporary Con, hate selling names like Geffen, to the highest bidder. Sell the Grand site to Jerry Buss, and open a Laker or basketball museum. it would go with the future plans for the street. its a dead zone now, with MoCA its tombsone.

art collegia delenda est

Unless I'm underestimating my low opinion of LA's wealthiest people - many of whom are on MOCA's board - it seems they will vote with their wallets. That is, they will keep their wallets closed and vote for the LACMA bailout. God forbid they take any responsibility. Even a free mea culpa is above these people. Having to donate their money to saving the museum? No way in hell. That seems to be the precedent that has been set this year, the worst year of most of our lifetimes.

If the impending decision could be bet on in Vegas, my money would be on the LACMA merger.

Christopher Knight covers for Jeremy Strick yet again. He must really love that Luis Vuitton handbag from last season's Murakami MOCA store. When is Knight going to call for artists like Murakami, Jorge Pardo and his other pets to donate back the money MOCA has sent their way - money that cemented their status in the art world - in order to save this institution. Gee, there is a source of untapped revenue... in fact, isn't it where all MOCA's money went in the first place?

You rock, Christopher Knight.

I live in the downtown LA area and enjoy going to MOCA often since I've been here. However, something I'd like to bring up is the permanent collection that they keep threatening to sell from. Whenever I've been there, the rotating shows always completely overshadow this "amazing" permanent collection, which I've only seen in small glimpses. We know they have 11 Rauchenbergs and 10 Rothkos and hundreds of other amazing works including some very famous Pollocks, Gorkys, Stellas, Salles, Schnables, ect., but none of us ever get to see them. If we do, its a couple at a time once every 10 years or so. So why don't they put up or lease out from the permanent collection - They have so much to show at so little cost. THEY NEED TO PUT THE PERMANENT COLLECTION TO WORK!! ?? Is this too easy of a solution or am I missing something?

The irony is why does LACMA have a big box of exhibition space and no permanent collection to display in it? Because Broad reneged on his promise! So now he's trying to prevent MOCA from taking the easy way out (which they will) when it was his own actions that created the easy way out in the first place.
Nice chess move on the part of Govan. Now Broad will have to put up the money or watch LA's premier collection of contemporary art fall
into Govan's hands. As Mr. Knight says, it's like a soap opera.

Everyone wants to paint Govan as the wolf in sheeps clothing, but that wolf has made LACMA the most interesting museum to visit in LA. All the small shows, all the purchases, all the installations. LACMA is a place with problems, but it is also a place of ambition and progress. In Govan vs Broad I pick Govan any time. Broad does a lot of good, but also does damage. The headline when BCAM opened wasn't that BCAM opened, but that Broad wasn't going to give the museum a single work.
As far as MOCA goes, I would shutter the Grand Ave and build around the Geffen. It's a better space, easier to park, and soon it will have a Gold line stop. Mr. Geffen, however, is Broad's arch enemy, hence under Broad's plan, MOCA must continue stuck in a lousy place, in a lousy building, with no parking, and no chance of ever seeing the collection. Mr. Knight thinks LACMA would scare off donors, but that hasn't happened on Wilshire. As a donor, nothing is scarier than the vault.

Although a merger with LACMA would (likely) be the end of MOCA's fantastic exhibitions--it would also mean that the Permanent Collection would be continually displayed, which would be a great boon to the entire city. The collection doesn't benefit Los Angeles residents when it's in storage.

To reiterate an earlier post: MOCA has become too elitist by only catering to a small group of people (curators at other museums, art critics, artists, art collectors and students). While some of its shows are accessible to the average person, many of its shows are too conceptual to appeal to a wide range of people. Although critics argue that a merger with LACMA would ruin Los Angeles' stature as an art center--it seems that the people of the city would be benefitted by the merger.

Yes, curators at museums in other cities will no longer be raving about MOCA's exhibits--but the addition of the Permanent Collection to LACMA's growing collection of Modern and Contemporary Art would quicken its development into a first-rate museum.

As many have already learned, including MOCA some years ago and LACMA at present, be very careful about getting into bed with Eli Broad. At some point, it will be his way or the highway. Plus, how quickly can MOCA raise the required $15M in matching funds in order to receive the promised $$ from Mr. Broad? In time to keep the museum from going under?

Christopher Knight did hit two nails directly on the head: the immediate resignations of the MOCA Board Chair and the E.D. (by the way, how is calling for the resignation of Jeremy Strick "protecting" him? Interesting) are required for any headway to be made in one direction or another. Personally, I believe the LACMA merger would make the most sense, but only if Govan remains at LACMA - he has been outstanding in bringing life and vision to what was a frankly boring museum. OK, with the exception of the King Tut money grab.

Not surprised Christopher Knight favors a Broad/MOCA solution. When writing about LACMA, most articles include some form criticism. Or, when he offers some praise, he does so through gritted teeth. Perhaps Knight is angling for a job with the Broad foundation after he is laid off from Tribune.


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