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MOCA, though foundering, is still afloat*

December 2, 2008 |  5:34 pm

Mocablog_2_2 Although there is “an urgency” for leaders of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art to right its foundering fiscal ship, it still has enough money to get by at least into the next fiscal year, and museum-goers can still anticipate new exhibitions there.

“This situation is not that drastic. MOCA is not teetering on that kind of an edge,” board member Douglas R. Ring, a real estate developer and husband of former L.A. City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, said this week.  “The board in general has very deep pockets, but whether they are deep enough to solve the problem we’ve got is another question.”

Until normalcy returns, art lovers interested in MOCA’s post-World War II offerings — hailed by critics and contemporary art experts as among the nation’s top collections and exhibition programs — will have much slimmer pickings than they have grown accustomed to. MOCA has scheduled just six shows, about half the usual number, for this fiscal year, which ends in June. And only four additional shows are currently listed on the museum’s website for the season starting in July. *UPDATE: MOCA officials said that three additional shows drawn from the permanent collection will open by June 30, bringing the year's total to nine, rather than six.

Among the possible solutions: arts philanthropist Eli Broad’s offer to donate $30 million as an “investment” in MOCA’s rescue. However, museum Director Jeremy Strick has said a variety of avenues are being explored, including raising large sums from other sources and entering into some sort of fiscally beneficial merger or partnership with another art institution.

Museum officials have declined to say how much is left in MOCA’s coffers or to detail its current finances, beyond saying that this year’s budget is now $21 million after a 10% emergency spending cut that will include closing the Geffen Contemporary for at least six-and-a-half months after Dec. 15, when the current exhibition of conceptual art is scheduled to close. *UPDATE: The Geffen Contemporary will close Jan. 5 until at least June 30.

After that, shows will be limited to the main museum on Grand Avenue and MOCA’s space at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

Public records show that MOCA, as of mid-2007, was about 45% poorer than it had been in mid-2000, its assets having dropped from $67.1 million to $37.5 million and its investment funds from $38.2 million to $20.4 million. To get by, the museum had borrowed $17.2 million from its endowment, taking “restricted” money originally donated for narrowly specified uses and spending that money instead on general operations.

“The outcome, or risk, to MOCA of this condition cannot presently be determined,” the museum’s independent auditors wrote in a note to its mid-2007 financial statement. “The board ... and management intend to develop a plan to repay the deficiencies.”

Before the overall economy’s slide began in September, MOCA’s policy since 2005 had been to try to grow its way out of its difficulties. It ramped up exhibitions, hoping the resulting buzz would attract not just visitors but also the donations it desperately needed. The tack was controversial within the board: Former trustee Susan Bay-Nimoy said this week that she resigned in mid-2006 because her pleas to economize rather than increase spending on exhibitions were not being heeded.

Meanwhile, trustee Ring said, he entered discussions with government officials about MOCA obtaining cost-free use of public land near either the Grand Avenue or the Geffen Contemporary facility — the aim being either a new wing on Grand to compensate for that venue’s size limitations or a renovation and expansion at the Geffen, a converted warehouse that currently lacks the fine-tuned climate controls needed to display more delicate artworks.

With an expansion campaign, museum leaders hoped to be able to land massive donations that would not only pay for construction but also replenish the museum’s endowment and restore its financial equilibrium.

The Geffen site came to be seen as more workable, Ring said, because MOCA wouldn’t have to compete for land with the massive though still not begun Grand Avenue project, a housing and retail plan seen as a linchpin of downtown revitalization. But after national and global economic shock set in, MOCA abandoned planning for an expansion campaign and the museum sought other ways to reverse its fiscal slide.

“I would not bet anything on what the ultimate solution will be,” Ring said, acknowledging that the board of trustees is still divided about how to proceed — including whether MOCA's ultimate salvation lies in cutting back or in thinking big. Eventually, he said, unity will be a must: “The board’s going to have to” unify behind a plan. “It’s not a multiple choice.”

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Maintenance worker Juan Ramirez sweeps up outside the Geffen Contemporary. Credit: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times

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