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Eli Broad going to bat for MOCA overseas -- is it enough?

May 23, 2009 | 10:27 am

Elibroad Leaders of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art are promising that the pain -- slicing the staff by 25% since January and dropping four planned exhibitions on the way to a budget reduction from $20 million to $15.5 million -- will give way to champagne, in a big 30th anniversary celebration come November, centered on the opening of the museum's biggest display of its permanent collection.

Eli Broad, who has provided the fiscal cornerstone of MOCA's attempted rescue, is co-chairing the Nov. 14 opening gala for "Collection: The First 30 Years," and he wants the world to know about it.

To that end, Broad said Friday, he and his co-chair, L.A. art collector Maria Bell, plan to hit the hustings and carry the MOCA flag to Italy and Switzerland this summer, hosting invitation-only meals for the international art set at the Venice Biennale and the Art Basel fair. The aim, Broad said, is “to let people know good things are happening” at MOCA after its long season of turmoil, and interest wealthy collectors in buying tables for the gala benefit.

But Dean Valentine, a prominent L.A. art collector who left MOCA’s board several years ago over what he saw as irresponsible financial moves and uninspired leadership, is deeply skeptical that a corner is being turned.

“None of the fundamental issues that brought the museum to this pass has been dealt with, and simplyDeanvalentine cutting a few million dollars isn’t the same as a plan,” Valentine said, reiterating his belief that only a complete turnover of the board would give MOCA a chance at reliable financial support and lure a new director with a strong creative vision. Charles E. Young, the former UCLA chancellor who took over as chief executive in late December with a mandate to put the financial house in order after the ouster of Jeremy Strick, has said that, at 77, he's not planning to keep the job beyond mid-2010 at the latest.

“To attract a good director, they’re going to have to prove it’s not a museum that belongs to Eli Broad, and has an independent board with a depth of knowledge and financial wherewithal,” Valentine said. “I can’t imagine any director is going to come to MOCA in its current state, unless it’s somebody who desperately needs a job.”

Chances are that Valentine won't be on the invitation list for those parties in Venice and Basel.

For those keeping score, MOCA's financial statement for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, shows that it racked up a $5.6-million deficit while spending an unprecedented $26.9 million (although about $2.4 million of that was property depreciation and a hit for uncollectable pledges). And that was before the econony went in the tank. Auditors noted that the endowment, valued at $13.5 million last summer, suffered an additional $2.8 million in investment losses by the end of November 2008. Young has said that the endowment sank to $5 million by the end of 2008 -- from which we can deduce that MOCA spent something approaching $6 million out of the endowment to pay bills during the second half of 2008.

The bad news is that MOCA, after 8 1/2 years of borrowing from its endowment, has to pay it back to the tune of $30 million. Broad has pledged half of that, to be paid dollar for dollar as the museum raises endowment donations to match his. The good news, if you can call it that, is that it's probably better to owe yourself money in this environment than to be on the hook to bondholders for millions in annual interest payments. That's the case for several other Southern California cultural institutions, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Eli Broad, top. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

Photo: Dean Valentine. Credit: Beatrice de Gea / Los Angeles Times