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MOCA's board exodus: Nine members have left

February 3, 2009 | 12:54 pm

MOCA's Grand Ave. Building

L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, which last week eliminated 20% of its paid staff to cut costs, is now faced with finding replacements for some of its highest-profile board members. Nine of the 35 trustees who were on the board last fall before the museum's near-collapse have since resigned.

Peter Morton, the Hard Rock Cafe co-founder, began the exodus in September, followed in November by financier Arthur H. Bilger and Christopher V. Walker. By then, MOCA trustees had come under intense criticism for presiding over a decade of deficit spending that left the museum near the financial brink and eventually led to the resignation in December of museum Director Jeremy Strick.

Departures in December were Guess Inc. magnate Maurice Marciano, developer Douglas R. Ring and Jennifer Simchowitz. Three more trustees exited in January, having stayed long enough for a pre-Christmas vote to accept a $30-million bailout from Eli Broad and an announcement that board members would kick in $20 million of their own. Those departures were Rosette Delug; Ruth Bloom, a board member since the 1990s; and Gil Friesen, a former A&M Records executive who was the MOCA board's president when Strick was hired in 1999 and was vice chair when he resigned.

Also gone is E. Blake Byrne, who in 2004 made one of the largest art donations in the museum's history. However, a MOCA spokeswoman said Monday that Byrne did not resign but has taken a leave of absence.

Charles E. Young, the former UCLA chancellor brought in as chief executive in December, said he's trying to meet with all those who have left the board. The $20 million in trustee pledges remains unaffected, museum officials said.

Charles Young "Some have made it clear they don't want to continue, and it's for reasons we can do nothing about," such as a decision that being on the museum board just wasn't how they wanted to spend time and money, Young said.

But Young added that he hadn't given up hope of retaining others who left because they were unhappy about how the museum had handled its finances or how recent decisions were made.

"We can tell them we are curing the deficit -- or have it pretty well cured -- and that the board will be involved in all the issues it should be involved in and base its decisions on full and complete information," Young said. "I think some have agreed to at least reconsider, depending in part on whether we are truly going to do what I told them we are going to do."

Young said MOCA leaders are determined to build the board back up; he declined to say how much members are required to pledge in annual donations. The museum's annual budget was pared from more than $20 million to about $16 million with last week's announcement that 16 full-time and 16 part-time staffers had been cut. MOCA has relied on donations for most of its budget. Every trustee of the much larger Los Angeles County Museum of Art is expected to make an annual gift to LACMA of at least $100,000.

Ring, the only board defector who could be reached Monday, said he didn't want to hash over his reasons for resigning in early December. "There were several of us who were not pleased with the direction things were going, although what Eli has done is wonderful, and with Chuck Young there and the others, it will right itself. But it will take some time," he said.

Audrey Irmas, one of MOCA's six "life trustees," a title that honors exceptional service to the museum but doesn't carry voting rights, said the resignations were part of a necessary process of getting the museum back on track. "A new broom sweeps clean.... It's perfectly OK. If people don't feel really positive, they should resign," she said.

Irmas said Young seems to have the firm style MOCA needs: "He's a straight-talking administrator. You know you have to be that way when you're working with prima donnas. I'm not saying everyone is a prima donna, but in the art world as a whole, I think it just comes with the territory."

In another change, MOCA has hired Richard Weil as interim chief financial officer, replacing Diana Allan, who museum officials said resigned after serving about a year.

Also, the museum's Geffen Contemporary building, closed until at least July as a cost-saving measure, is scheduled to be abuzz on the evening of Feb. 12 -- not for art lovers, but for video game enthusiasts who'll man more than 100 gaming stations during the launch party for Street Fighter IV. The game's creator, Capcom, is renting the venue for the event.

The "events policy" on MOCA's website says that when it rents out its spaces for corporate functions, they "should have as an integral component the opportunity for viewing the works of art currently on exhibition." This time, whatever art is on display will be courtesy of Capcom, whose press release announcing the invitation-only party says it will offer "a 20-year retrospective of the [Street Fighter] franchise, and its pop culture relevance on art, anime, film, culture, toys and more."

"It's very helpful additional income," said Young.

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Top, the roofline of MOCA's Grand Avenue building; Charles E. Young. Credits: Top, Brian Vander Brug /Los Angeles Times (roofline); Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times (Young)

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