The Blind Leading the Blind?

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By nature, I am an optimist. But being an art critic and historian, I put things in perspective, which keeps my positive impulses in check. So, I guess that makes me a cautious optimist.

at081216a.jpg With the recent debacle at MOCA, one of the most distinguished cultural institutions in Southern California, the outpouring of public support in response to the danger of its demise has warmed my heart, as it proves that art does matter to many people. But at the same time, the stonewalling by the museum's director and trustees, who have thus far refused to be interviewed or make any public statement, makes me sad. There is no doubt in my mind that these people, on whom the museum's wellbeing depends, have good intentions in their heart, but as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Some of the trustees have privately expressed frustration at not being fully informed about the sorry state of finances at MOCA, but still, the question remains: Why have these good people -– so generous in contributing their art and money to the museum -– been so lackadaisical in fulfilling their responsibilities as trustees of this public institution? Why didn't they ask hard questions about the fact that the museum's endowment was dwindling year after year? Why, instead of mounting emergency fundraising to cover day-to-day operating costs, did they continually authorize the practice of dipping into the museum's reserves, which absolutely goes against professional standards governing American museums?

at081216c.jpg Unfortunately, this sad development is not an isolated case, but an indication of a larger problem affecting so many American museums -– nonprofit institutions, dependent on public philanthropy and governed and supported by a board of the trustees. Do you remember the recent brouhaha at the Getty, when its former CEO, Barry Munitz, had to resign as a result of the investigation into his questionable handling of museum finances? When the first reports of the Getty's troubles appeared in the news, the trustees simply refused to talk to journalists. Later, when the storm turned into a hurricane virtually paralyzing the museum, a number of trustees had the decency to resign or were simply removed from the board.

Here's another case. In New York, not long ago, a museum trustee -– Peter Lewis, Chairman of the Board of the Guggenheim Museum -– tried to exercise fiduciary responsibility by refusing to authorize museum spending exceeding projected revenues. He had the courage and conviction to publicly reprimand its director, Thomas Krens, for refusing to balance the museum budget. Guess who lost in this battle? The board voted against its chairman, so Mr. Lewis resigned and Mr. Krens continued his irresponsible practice.

at081216d.jpg Considering all the above, I wonder if people who become museum trustees fully understand what it means to be a trustee, when you are expected not simply to contribute financially to the institution, but also to have an understanding of the inner workings of a nonprofit organization and be an active participant instead of sleeping at the wheel. By this measure, many of MOCA's trustees are not making the grade. The systematic failure of so many American museum boards indicates the urgent necessity of organizing a public forum where all these issues should be discussed, and a new, more stringent set of requirements can be devised to determine the qualifications of potential trustees.

at081216b.jpg While MOCA, in its exhibitions, is not afraid to deal with artists asking tough questions –- including recent shows of Marlene Dumas and Louise Bourgeois, or the conceptual work of Chris Burden, who literally and figuratively exposes the museum foundation – the museum and its trustees shy away from confronting problems and lack the courage to face the public.


Banner image: Marlene Dumas, The Blindfolded, 2002; Oil on canvas, 3 panels; 51.18 x 43.31 inches (each), 130 x 110 cm; © 2002 Marlene Dumas