Saving MOCA – Part One of Three parts
The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art – as everyone now knows, is so short of cash it has considered selling part of its permanent collection – or merging with another arts institution, such as LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Now since MOCA’s financial problems have been known for years, it should be no surprise to anyone in the art world that with the current financial crisis, the situation is now critical.
What no one has publicly considered, though, is that more than a few the seeds of the current crisis were first planted when crucial decisions were made about the Grand Avenue building during the museum’s founding (and more about that later).
Then, these inherent structural problems were worsened by the failure of the trustees to be able to carry out a major capital campaign in the past decade, though the trustees were, belatedly, about to launch one.
Finally, there was immediate cause of current crisis; the leadership of MOCA, after they were unable to raise enough money to cover even their operating expenses – much less putting aside any money for the future, still recklessly spent down their uncommitted funds reserve, temporarily borrowed from restricted funds that were not supposed to go towards operating costs and allowed the endowment to decline in value – even before the current financial meltdown.
Ironically, though, there is some good news in all this.
Unless there are unexpected surprises, all that money was spent to make MOCA the best curated and most respected contemporary art museum in the world. MOCA clearly does not have the type of leadership crisis that happened at the Getty where millions were squandered and an art collection was greatly compromised by one man’s ego. I can only speculate that the trustees felt by continuing to spend money to keep up the standards up at the museum, that they would then attract additional donors and backers by their creating a world class museum.
They took that gamble – and they lost.
For a variety of reasons (which will be explored in part 2), no new major donors ever showed up. And for whatever reasons they had, the trustees also did not step up to write the checks themselves – nor did any of them step down to bring in people who would write those checks.
So then came the Christopher Knight article in the Los Angeles Times about the pending collapse of MOCA – and shock waves reverberated throughout the art world. But as the hours and then days passed – not a word came out of MOCA – other than the story about the trustees being about ready to hand over the collection to LACMA – and it soon became clear that the trustees had no agreement on how to solve the crisis.
At that point Eli Broad started making calls around the city – and that night there appeared on the LAT website his Op-ed offering $30 million to MOCA on the very general condition that other people in Los Angeles step up to the plate with their checkbooks – and he made it very clear he did not limit that challenge to the trustees.
Unfortunately, days, then weeks have gone by with still no response from the trustees.
Now, in one way this is not necessarily a bad thing. I take it that while there is a minority ready to sell out MOCA by handing the museum over – all or in part – to another institution – I cannot see the majority of trustees being willing to do this, even without the social and public outrage that would follow.
So the potential good news is that rather than fighting in public – or back stabbing each other in the press, the board seems to be trying to put together a real solution to their problems and trying to find a solution that all of them – or at least all of those who plan on continuing being board members – can agree upon. And hopefully those who cannot give or get the money needed – or who do not agree with this approach, will do the honorable thing and step aside for those who can be a part of the solution.
This then brings us to the present day – and the question of where do we go from here? And I am talking about those of us who are not trustees and who do not have the ability to write the kind of checks that will make a difference.
To begin with, it is time to stop lowering the bar of what we expect from both the trustees and our civic leaders.
It is time to stop saying that it is OK to close wither the Geffen or Grand Avenue on a permanent or short term basis, other than the already scheduled shutdown of the Geffen next year.
It is time to stop saying that we need to have massive layoffs of the staff at MOCA. It is most of all, time to stop saying that selling even one piece of art to raise money for operating funds is acceptable – much less having any kind of merger with any other arts institutions.
MOCA needs to remain intact and its programs need to continue. To say this city cannot afford to do that is a travesty.
And I’ve been stunned by the number of people – and the members of the press - who are saying that one or more of these options needs to be considered. This is particularly offensive since there is now no need to any longer consider these options.
For one thing, Eli Broad's 30 million gift – which he was careful to say would be paid out over a period of time, will – with whatever is raised by the trustees and other sources – cover the current deficit and keep the doors open without having to sell or transfer any of the collection. And by his saying his money will be spread over a period of time – it will allow for a two or three year period to at least stabilize the situation.
And as for the trustees supposed being ‘afraid’ of whatever strings Eli might attach. I have two words.
If anyone thinks that Eli Broad has nothing better to do than to micromanage MOCA’s affairs – they clearly do not know the man. He has already been here and he has done that – and he has moved on. This whole crisis is the last thing he has time for with all the other things he has got going – and the less he needs to do to get MOCA back on track – the happier he will be.
So the first thing we the public can do is insist that the trustees declare both the institution and the collection as being out of bounds – and the staff, too, as much as is possible - and that they then work out a deal with Eli for the 30 million. They then need to announce what their personal contributions will be and how much in pledges they have either already raised from other sources – or will commit to raising.
The second thing we can do is sign up to the Cindy Bernard and Diane Thater founded (though other people are now also involved) MOCA MOBILIZATION site on Facebook, and then sign the petition - and then read up on what is happening. It is the one place we can all communicate and try to work together.
Third, we can not only encourage friends to buy memberships but we can also give memberships as Christmas – or whatever particular holiday you celebrate this year - presents. And if every artist in LA gives just one membership as a present - rather than a sweater – that’d be a hell of a lot of memberships – and I swear I hear it’s going to be a warm winter.
Fourth, we can hold artist and community run fundraisers. And while every dollar counts – what is more far more important is to keep the issue alive in the press. That is why we need to think of the fund raiser as being art projects – performance pieces in their own right.
And we should have a lot of fun doing them.
So how about the Gorilla Girls dressed in gorilla bikinis and washing cars in front of the Geffen? Lucha VaVoom doing a benefit event in front of Grand Avenue – with artist participation? How about Steve Martin doing his classic old routines at one of the old Broadway theaters? Or the Kipper Kids? Or Chris Burton’s greatest hits? Or artist-oriented bands doing concerts? Or an artist Christmas decoration and bake sale along Grand Avenue? Or giving Machine Project full run of Bunker Hill?
Now I know some of these ideas are kind of… nuts - but that's the whole idea. Let's have some fun while we whistle past the graveyard. And lets keep the story of MOCA in the public eye because even right now – 90% of the people in this city still have no idea what is going on.
So to close up Part 1 of this essay – it is up to the trustees and the civic leaders to match Eli’s challenge and that will solve the immediate problem for the next 2 or 3 years. And it’s up to us – and our friends in the media – to keep the pressure on the trustees to do this AND to keep MOCA independent. And it’s also up to us to keep the mission in the public eye.
This then brings us to the two big, long term problems facing MOCA; first the structural problem that has plagued MOCA since even before it opened – and then the far bigger problem that has haunted all of LA's visual arts organizations - and all LA artists – for like… forever.
And so the structural problem, the more easily solved problem, is part 2 – so cut and paste the bottom link.