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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

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