Thinking About MOCA

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We don’t know what’s next for the struggling Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, but we know the MOCA Board is promising an announcement after its next meeting tomorrow. Right now MOCA has two options on the table. One is that $30 million offer from omnipresent philanthropist and MOCA co-founder Eli Broad. The money would go to MOCA in stages, first as a quick shot of $12.5 million into its endowment — presuming that MOCA could raise $15 million of its own in matching funds. The remaining money would be doled out over five years to support exhibitions and operations.

Then there’s the offer made yesterday by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — a “merger” that would somehow “preserve the independence and integrity of both institutions while combining their operations and infrastructure.” LACMA hasn’t offered many details yet on how the merged institutions would operate and just who would make decisions on everything from budget to programing at the “independent” MOCA. But from the perspective of true institutional survival mergers are funny things. More often than not the weaker partner — and in this case that would be MOCA — ends up submerged.

For LACMA, on the other hand, merger with MOCA would be a windfall. LACMA’s contemporary art collection, with its heavy emphasis on SoCal artists, is full of gaps that the the more global and comprehensive MOCA collection would do nicely to fill. And as everybody following this drama is aware, the Eli Broad collection, which LACMA once thought it was getting as part of the deal that put the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) on the LACMA campus, was snatched away by Broad when he let drop just before the BCAM opening earlier this year that he had decided instead to have his Broad Foundation hold on to the collection and lend it to other museums, with LACMA as a kind of privileged borrowing partner. And then Broad announced last month that he also plans to build his own Broad museum where his Foundation can mount exhibitions of its own. So for LACMA the Broad collection is a shaky asset at best.

Even if LACMA has its pick from Broad’s collection in perpetuity, however, that collection has balance problems of its own. It’s a snapshot of standard billionaire tastes of the past two decades, and a tribute to the salesmanship of the dealer Larry Gagosian. At the BCAM opening exhibition of work from the Broad collection, so much of the art on view came from Gagosian’s shop that the show might as well have been called “Hats Off to Larry”.

But would a merger benefit the larger LA art scene? I can think of reasons why it wouldn’t. They’re the same ones pointed out recently by Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times — encyclopedic museums like LACMA, which have collections spanning many cultures and centuries, have a poor track record when it comes to dealing with the newest art. That’s why museums and institutes of contemporary art grew up in the first place. Over the past decade MOCA hasn’t been much good at balancing its books, but it’s been very good at mounting first rate shows.  LACMA Director Michael Govan used to be head of the Dia Art Foundation, so he’s more attuned to new work than say, Philippe de Montebello. But who’s to say that would be true of the next LACMA director?

As for the $30 million Eli Broad offer to MOCA, on the face of it it would seem better designed to keep MOCA truly independent. And meanwhile the L.A. Times is reporting that two city council members who oppose a merger “introduced a council motion Tuesday asking the city Community Redevelopment Agency to give MOCA $2.8 million in rent money derived from the neighboring California Plaza development.” What this means is that there are also some public revenue streams that also might be available to MOCA in its hour of need.

All the same, unnamed MOCA trustees keep telling reporters they have fears that Broad’s offer comes with strings attached that would put real control in his hands. One thing they may very well be concerned about is that Broad would move to install a new board of his own choosing. In which case, one way that Govan might encourage them to accept the LACMA offer is to signal that he might keep them in place.

I wondered in my previous post whether an ambiguous passage in yesterday’s LACMA statement — which said that MOCA should go forward “with a strong director and management team already in place” — was a way of doing just that, and maybe even a way of signaling that MOCA Director Jeremy Strick would get to keep his job, too. But at least as far as Strick is concerned it looks like that’s not going to happen. The New York Times is reporting this morning that Strick is already negotiating with the MOCA board to step down.

But what that means is that if MOCA merged with LACMA, it would come into the new partnership without a chief, or with someone new to the job. Even if that someone turned out to be MOCA’s chief curator Paul Schimmel, who has been with the museum since 1990, he’d be doing a certain amount of on the job training, while on the LACMA side there would be Govan, a more experienced player.

As for what the LACMA-Broad competition for MOCA means for Govan’s future relations with Broad, a (non-voting) life trustee of LACMA and still a big man on that campus, well, it will certainly be interesting to see.