When I went to Paris in March 2006 for the opening of the groundbreaking exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, which hailed the emergence of Los Angeles as one of the art capitals of the world, I rejoiced not only in celebrating the art and artists of our City of Angels, but also in the fact that so many outstanding works of art came from the collections of our own Museum of Contemporary Art.
These days, MOCA is back in the news; when the name of a Los Angeles museum appears on the front page of the New York Times, it usually spells trouble. Rumors about MOCA's financial difficulties have been circulating for the last few years, but because of the string of very ambitious, successful exhibitions organized by the museum, these rumors didn't gain any traction.
When five years ago an announcement was made that instead of the usual one day per week the museum would close for two days, no one seemed to object. With a straight face, a museum spokesman stated that the new hours were not intended as a cost-saving measure but were intended to accommodate visiting school groups. I thought then that it didn't add up but said nothing about it on this program. Speaking privately to museum trustees and curators, I expressed my concern about the fact that the Geffen Contemporary remained closed for months at a time between exhibitions. Considering all that, the recent announcement about the closure of this space for the next six months as a way of stopping the financial bleeding didn't come as a surprise.
Who knows, maybe we should not just blame MOCA's administration for the failure to keep the museum afloat; maybe we, as members of the art community, are partially responsible for that as well, by being too polite and too forgiving, instead of pressing for answers to hard questions. When some time ago I asked what it would take to upgrade the climate control system at the Geffen Contemporary to today's standards, making it suitable for showing their world-class permanent collection, I was told that it would be prohibitively expensive, costing several million dollars. Then, at a time of relative prosperity, it seemed to me not an insurmountable obstacle, considering the number of wealthy people on the board of trustees. But the embarrassing fact about Los Angeles cultural life is how little money our museum trustees are expected to contribute on an annual basis, compared to what's expected from trustees in other major American cities, especially New York.
It was clear to me that by not doing everything possible to keep the best of its art permanently on display, as the cornerstone of its identity the museum was shooting itself in the foot. So who could blame the late Edward Broida, a major Los Angeles collector, for his decision to bypass MOCA by donating his formidable collection to New York's Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery in Washington? He knew that there at least, his art would be seen in the galleries rather than collecting dust in storage.
With the museum administration keeping mum, the prevailing perception is that instead of facing the crisis, the trustees are exhibiting a bunker mentality and playing the victim. I agree with New York Times critic Roberta Smith that it's time for the art community at large to "pitch in – not just with emotional support...but with money" as well. As in the grass-roots campaign of Barack Obama, it could have a dramatic impact. And though we should be grateful to Eli Broad for his offer of $30 million to save the museum, it's time for us, Angelenos, to overcome the infantile tendency to wait for the father figure to bail us out of trouble. We must learn to stand on our own.