MOCA in Peril: Don't Ask for Whom the Bell Tolls

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at081125a.jpgRumors about the financial difficulties at LA's Museum of Contemporary Art have been circulating for a few years, but the institution, much admired for its cutting edge exhibition program, has maintained a brave face. The museum continued to mount exhibitions in all three of its facilities –- two large spaces downtown and a smaller one at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. Ambitious exhibitions were accompanied by thick, scholarly catalogues, well designed and obviously expensively produced. So, maybe these rumors were unsubstantiated; after all, in the last few years the museum, instead of cutting its staff, actually expanded it.

at081125b.jpgA week ago, all hell broke loose. First, the Los Angeles Times reported about MOCA's financial meltdown and the desperate measures the museum is considering to avoid going belly up. The next day, the paper published an angry, accusatory letter by its chief art critic, Christopher Knight, addressed to MOCA's Board of Trustees. In it, he blamed the board for being complacent in allowing the museum endowment to shrink from $50 million ten years ago to about $7 million now. Instead of stepping up to the plate and getting out their checkbooks, the trustees -– against all rules and regulations -– repeatedly authorized the use of the museum's endowment funds to pay for its day-to-day operations.

at081125c.jpg There is speculation that the museum is already operating in the red. With museum officials refusing to speak publicly and with the financial report about the 2008 fiscal year not due out until next summer, such a frightening possibility is starting to gain traction. Additional information came to light in reference to various scenarios that museum trustees have been discussing behind closed doors, including partnership with other Los Angeles cultural institutions. If that doesn't work, the last resort could be a merger or even total absorption into another museum, possibly LACMA, bringing back unhappy memories of the once celebrated Pasadena Art Museum which fell onto hard times and was 'saved,' or as many people would say, swallowed, by Norton Simon.

Through the years, I've established good professional and personal relationships with many of MOCA's trustees and curators, and it breaks my heart to observe what appears to be a vacuum in museum leadership, or could it be cluelessness? So far, no curators have been willing to martyr themselves by speaking on record about the museum's troubles, and none of the trustees have been brave enough to break rank and accept responsibility for the perils facing their museum.

at081125d.jpg When I read a copy of the letter sent by MOCA Director Jeremy Strick to museum friends, I was struck by its lack of urgency and refusal to acknowledge the extent of the current crisis. Instead, it offered a litany of museum accomplishments, which, though undeniably impressive, skirts the real issue, which is that museum leadership has failed in its fiduciary responsibility.

at081125e.jpg To the rescue comes a knight in shining armor, Eli Broad, the LA philanthropist equally famous for his generosity and unpredictability in dealing with cultural institutions. He has offered to invest $30 million in MOCA, on condition that the museum board and others make significant contributions of their own.

at081125f.jpg One definitely hopes that MOCA's trustees and museum director either rise to the challenge and demonstrate genuine leadership or simply have the courage and decency to resign. The survival of this museum is crucial to the well-being of Los Angeles, and maybe the city's civic and cultural leaders need to declare a state of emergency and form a temporary ad hoc committee to sort out the mess that MOCA has gotten itself into. The demise of this museum will come at a price. Remember the immortal words of John Donne? “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Banner image: MOCA supporters with armbands made from torn white cloth and lettered with a black Sharpie marker