Saving MOCA

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

There's a real civic sadness looming in the reports that LA's Museum of Contemporary Art is reeling in financial trouble. If MOCA were to disappear -- and it might – our culture would be infinitely poorer.

Speaking as an observer of Los Angeles, the MOCA story reverberates on so many levels.

It poses questions that need to be confronted before we'll really know whether the museum is on safe footing.

First, of course, is what happened? It was less than thirty years ago that, legend has it, a chance encounter at the Beverly Hills Hotel between Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, City Councilman Joel Wachs and philanthropist Marcia Weisman led to the birth of a new museum.

LA lacked a top venue for contemporary art, so wealthy arts patrons stepped up to raise the necessary pledges of cash and love.

The Temporary Contemporary opened in Little Tokyo in 1983, in a former hardware store that Frank Gehry helped remodel.

Three years later, the jewel of Grand Avenue was completed amid the office towers and vacant nighttime streets up on Bunker Hill.

Earlier this month, the LA Times broke the news that MOCA has been living off its endowment for years. The term crisis was used, with director Jeremy Strick invoking the prospect of a merger, possibly with LACMA.

Times critic Christopher Knight followed with a blistering open letter to MOCA's trustees, demanding to know what they'd been doing as the institution fell into chaos.

He suggested that their financial stewardship was ripe for scrutiny by the state Attorney General, who monitors nonprofits. And sure enough, within a few days Jerry Brown's office said it was interested in looking at MOCA's books.

Another big question posed by the crisis is whether Eli Broad can again save the day. He wears at least three hats when it comes to the MOCA discussion.

He's the city's most generous arts donor and its leading modern art collector, he helped will MOCA into existence in the 80s -- and he's the godfather of the fledgling Grand Avenue Project.

That's the controversial effort to deem Grand Avenue as the center of civic life downtown and to build up the district with skyscrapers, stores and a park. A thriving MOCA is crucial to his vision.

Broad submitted an Op-Ed piece offering $30 million from his foundation – and calling on his rich friends to stop everything and help save MOCA from an early death.

LA is not a one-philanthropist town, he wrote, invoking the urgent campaign several years ago to raise the money to finish Disney Hall.

Blogger Tyler Green, who provides some of the best enterprise reporting on the LA art scene, called the Broad manifesto a game changer.

It froze the momentum for a merger between MOCA and LACMA, and heaped pressure on the MOCA trustees to get their act together. Now we'll see if it works.

One of the final questions – which is, does anyone in LA really care about MOCA and, more broadly, about modern art? – was answered in the affirmative last weekend.

More than 400 visitors answered an Internet call to visit the museum en masse and throw a few bucks in the tip jar.

They, and the 2,000 people who have signed up on a Facebook page called MOCA Mobilization, show there is real concern in the city.

The biggest question of all, though, is whether MOCA, and other valuable LA institutions, can survive the financial darkness that everyone seems to agree is coming.

We're just at the start of this recessionary phase. And already the Music Center is cutting ticket prices and the Pasadena orchestra has shut down.

No one knows what LA culture will look like on the other side, just that it will be different. It's going to take more than good will to get there in one piece.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.