“Museum at the Brink”: Worst. Timing. Ever.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles is in trouble.  The museum consistently runs over-budget, uses it’s endowment to cover operating costs, and needs to raise $25 million to stay afloat.  Also, it’s endowment has shrunk from something around $50 million to a measly $6 million since 1999.  Clearly, this ship is sinking, but according to an article in Monday’s New York Times, it can be saved.  In “Here’s How to Rescue a Museum at the Brink” Arts staff writer Roberta Smith writes about the troubles facing MoCA and what the museum can do to turn this disaster around.

I’d heard a little about MOCA’s trials and tribulations – my brother Isaac Resnikoff, UCLA MFA graduate student and all around talented artist was visiting recently and updated me on all the crazy shenanigans going on down south – but I’m ashamed to admit that I wasn’t aware of MOCA’s importance in the art world until just a few weeks ago.

Maybe it’s the Northern California bias I was raised with or my persistant (and false) belief that the only thing worth visiting in the LA area is Disneyland, but I’ve never been to MOCA or even thought about it as one of the stars of the museum world.  Apparently, though, I’m very, very wrong.

According to Smith, we have MOCA to thank for the concept of the star curator. It’s original director Pontus Hulten (and how awesome a name is that?) and those who followed him were quick to put the curators first.  This lead to some really incredible shows that, according to Smith, “reshaped our thinking about postwar art,” and challenged local LA artists, helping to create a vibrant art scene in Los Angeles.  It also lead, at least partially, to the huge financial disaster that is looming over MOCA’s future.

Smith lays out the two most obvious options for MOCA.  The first is a merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which she says would have an effect on the art community equivalent to what would happen to New York if the Met took over the Whitney.  Bad news bears, essentially.  The second is a bailout by Eli Broad, who she calls a “developer, collector, and serial museum trustee.”  I like that: a serial museum trustee.  So does he run around, endowing institutions willy-nilly?  Because if so, I have a museum for him: The Shoshana Resnikoff Gallery of Unpaid College Loans.

But in all seriousness, the problem with a single-person bailout is that it gives said single person too much control and has the potential to rob the museum of it’s autonomy.  Which brings us to Smith’s hidden third option: a grassroots bailout organized by “nonrich” art lovers.  She proposes that everyone who feels that MOCA has in some way improved their life, LA culture, and the art world in general should try to donate what they can to a rescue package for MOCA.

Personally, I love the idea.  In an age when the new President can get elected on the backs and pocket-books of average Americans, what could be more appropriate than a community-organized museum rescue?  Of course, financial speaking I’m not sure how feasible it will be – with the economy the way it is, I can’t imagine people lining up to give money to a contemporary art museum.  Still, maybe that could be a nice recession-style Christmas present: give your friend the art lover a donation to MOCA in their name this holiday season.

This sort of grassroots organizing might also help to make MOCA an even more important part of LA’s landscape.  If the museum’s endowment is essentially rebuilt by the contributions and efforts of run-of-the-mill folk, that will help to create a sense of personal investment in the well-being of the museum that might serve it well in the future.

Of course, I should be practicing what I preach,  which is why I’m considering making a small donation to MOCA… once I get a paying job, of course.

3 responses to ““Museum at the Brink”: Worst. Timing. Ever.

  1. Christopher Knight, LA Times art critic, wrote a really really angry letter about this maybe a month ago. So angry you can see the spittle, even here:

    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/arts/la-et-mocaletter20-2008nov20,0,5599508.story

  2. You know, and another thing — it seems to me that there’s a fundamental difference between politics, (in which you’d call large scale donation an antidemocratic power purchase) and philanthropy. There’s a reason you don’t get a tax write off when you donate to a politician.

    The arts, on the other hand, have developed a sort of mutually parasitic relationship to the rich, in which the rich pay to absolve themselves of their richness. Whatever the draw backs to such a system, it’s become a sort of positive responsibility of people who have accumulated so much in a capitalist democracy.

    Smith’s model, which is hip in it’s crowdsourciness, actually functions to shift the burden of art patronage onto those who can afford it less.

    Clearly there are benefits to a decentralized, grassroots art funding. It would be nice if even the taint of extreme wealth and it’s interests could be wiped away. But calling on the poor to take on this responsibility of the rich is foolish and regressive.

  3. Well, maybe MOCA is moving towards some resolution: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2008/12/moca-strick.html

    The populist in me found Roberta Smith’s argument persuasive, but Eli Broad can fund the museum with his pocket change. (He also just dropped $25 million on UCSF for stem cells. ) I think it would be hard for a grassroots effort to raise the $30 million he has put on the table.

    And as is being reported tonight, I think it is unfortunate that heads may have to roll in this situation. Yes, the museum overspent its budget but the result was all these amazing shows with lavish catalogs, a huge education department (almost $1 mil a year on that, I think) and just general awesomeness. Yes, the director and board have fiduciary responsibilities but maybe rather than firing people we can keep the curators and install some sort of CEO to keep the money moving in the right direction.

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