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MOCA's not out of the woods

December 23, 2008 |  4:00 pm

Chuck The rescue of Los Angeles’ fiscally strapped, leadership-challenged Museum of Contemporary Art appears destined to be a process of two steps forward, one step back.

When the Museum of Contemporary Art released a 13-point agreement to accept a $30-million aid package from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation late Monday, the deal seemed pretty straightforward. Broad had promised a no-strings offer; with minor exceptions, that’s what MOCA got.

MOCA, an internationally celebrated Los Angeles exhibition facility with a stellar collection of art made since World War II, has been suffering a long-term leadership crisis, both in the director’s office and on the board. That led to a fiscal emergency. When the national economy began to tank in the summer, MOCA was left vulnerable to collapse.

Most points in the Broad-MOCA agreement add up to a simple list of ordinary expectations for any well-run museum: Maintain independence in existing facilities, continue quality exhibitions, preserve and display the collection, get reputable fiscal advice, etc. The fact that the Broad Foundation spelled them out is more in the realm of a public spanking for MOCA’s past bad behavior than an odious burden going forward.

One point, however, made me wince. The agreement stipulates annual trustee dues at a minimum of $75,000 — effectively putting MOCA’s board off limits to all but the wealthy. That’s foolish. Lots of people, such as scholars or community organizers, can make profound contributions to a board. Why exclude them if they don’t happen to be rich?

Not on the list was the announcement of a newly created staff position — chief executive. It had been rumored since early last week that retired UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young, who will turn 77 next week, would be recruited for a MOCA position. The CEO slot turns out to be it.

There’s a lot we don’t know yet about how the chief executive will function. The plan is for Young to have charge of day-to-day business. An advisory committee of art museum and foundation graybeards — among them John R. Lane, director emeritus of the Dallas Museum of Art; Joel Wachs, president of the Warhol Foundation (and former MOCA trustee); and John Walsh, director emeritus of the Getty Museum — will provide a necessary if unwieldy counterweight.

But the chief executive appointment does open a new can of worms. If the job lasts only until a new director is hired, fine. If that plan changes, however, the pool of talented candidates who would be attracted to run the nation’s finest contemporary art museum would shrivel.

Time and again, split leadership positions at museums have been shown to be unworkable — most recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which tried such an arrangement in the 1990s and then abandoned it. Michael Govan, who last week made a formal offer to merge MOCA with LACMA, holds the dual title of LACMA’s director and chief executive.

The new CEO slot also implies that the lion’s share of MOCA’s problem came from a failure of business leadership on the part of the director, Jeremy Strick, who had held the job since 1999 and whose artistic decisions have been widely praised. That’s obvious — but not the whole story. The board’s executive committee shares responsibility. Yet only Strick’s resignation has been forthcoming, not that of any of the board’s poor leaders.

A museum crisis usually sees the board throw the director under the bus. Tom Unterman, a venture capitalist who is MOCA co-chairman and longtime chair of the museum’s finance committee, where the fiscal mess ought to have been halted years ago, should have bitten the bullet and stepped down too.

The advisory committee has its work cut out, because the board has now replicated itself in the museum’s professional leadership. Without irony, Unterman told The Times, “Chuck Young is a very distinguished leader [but] would be the first person to say that he is not a person of the art world.” Therein lies the problem. MOCA’s new chief executive will necessarily downsize, but without any practical experience in art museum operations.

As UCLA chancellor, for example, Young presided over the university’s 1992-94 takeover of the failing Armand Hammer Museum. To underwrite the deal, a disastrous decision was made to sell at auction the only Leonardo da Vinci manuscript in an American public collection. The Hammer has flourished in the last decade but not without that grave cultural loss to the city and the nation.

Perhaps the most heartening news is that unspecified MOCA board members have pledged more than $20 million to the endowment over the next five years. Things will be touch-and-go for a while, since the cupboard is almost bare. But that’s a very good start.

The pledge exceeds the necessary match for the Broad Foundation’s first installment of $15 million. (The remaining $15 million will come in five annual exhibition grants.) It’s also just $2.5 million shy of the board’s commitment to raise a minimum of 30% of a planned $75-million capital campaign.

The pending agreement between MOCA and the Broad Foundation had been the focus of intense art world scrutiny — not to mention burning gossip and rampant speculation — ever since the offer was made public a little more than a month ago. The museum did a poor job of managing its public relations when the grim news broke, which only exacerbated the general outrage.

No one expects a negotiation to be carried out in public, and with the California attorney general’s office reviewing the situation, liability is a very real concern. But the art museum is a tax-exempt public benefit corporation. Until now, we’ve gotten about as much transparency from MOCA as we’re getting from the nation’s bailed-out banks. That needs to change.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: New MOCA Chief Executive Charles E. Young listens as Eli Broad addresses a news conference Tuesday. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

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