November 25, 2008

MOCA's Fiscal Future, Contemporary Art's Rocky Past

Does MOCA's downward spiral remind anybody of the Bush Administration? Like MOCA, it starts with an outward projection of denial, as in, "The fundamentals of the economy are strong." Next comes tight-lipped loyalty in the face of disaster where projecting an inscrutable but unified front is more important than fixing the problem.

Even after Christopher Knight's open letter to MOCA, there were no mea culpas, only secret catered board meetings. It seems the only way to initiate a dialog was to either be a multi-millionaire and write an op-ed for the LA Times, or crash a lecture on conceptual art.

Realistically speaking, the support for cutting-edge contemporary art in Los Angeles has been pretty thin and fickle, despite the world-class art that's produced here. Comparisons have been made between MOCA and the defunct Pasadena Museum of Art, but I can also see another parallel form the more recent past.

In the mid-'70's, the only non-profit spaces dedicated to exhibiting contemporary art were the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA) and an exhibition space in the shopping mall under Arco Towers run by the oil company. As the contemporary art scene grew, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) opened in the bridal district, and LAICA expanded, trying to position itself as an important venue as some of the other ICAs--like those in London and Boston.

At the same time, the groundwork was laid for building MOCA on Bunker Hill, and the money that flowed into not-for-profit art was pulled downtown--to the detriment of LAICA. By the mid-'80's when MOCA was in full swing, LAICA was forced to scale back its aspirations. Unfortunately for LAICA, LACE had already established itself on the lower rungs of the feeding chain, and coupled with spending and ambition that didn't match it's economic situation, LAICA shriveled into the ether.

In similar ways the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA) and the Hammer have been putting on important shows without MOCA's deficit spending, while the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has been sucking dry the small pool (puddle?) of high-profile donors. Like LAICA, MOCA has found itself in a fiscally barren middle, while ignoring the financial reality of its situation.

Despite the context of the worldwide financial meltdown, MOCA's financial woes were years in the making. Even the Getty--with its deep pockets--was tightening it's belt. Back in May, Lee Rosenbaum reported on The Getty Museum's shortfall, and how it took decisive action:

The J. Paul Getty Trust, which recently posted its fiscal 2007 annual report online, last year incurred a staggering operating deficit of $49.36 million on a budget of $307.7 million. The previous year, the deficit was $18.29 million on a $293.57-million budget.

This growing shortfall is likely one of the reasons for the recently announced elimination of 114 jobs, including 40 layoffs. Anne-Marie O'Connor of the LA Times recently quoted this explanation for the cuts by trust president James Wood:

"The whole goal here is to focus the Getty on the core mission of the visual arts. This is to ensure that we have flexible funds to devote to both building our collections in the museum, the research institute and the library and undertake targeted strategic initiatives where we feel we can really make a difference..."
Other actions included reduced museum hours, increased parking fees, and reductions in routine maintenance and cleaning.

Now--like the automakers going to Washington with their hat in hand (via corporate jets)--MOCA's desperate for a cash infusion. At the same time, there's not a word from MOCA's management or trustees about fixing the money pit on Grand Avenue. I can expect the lower rungs of the art world to renew their memberships early as a way to help out, but I don't think that rich folk--who make their money by investing wisely--will throw their dollars in a pot that's leaking cash so profusely.

MOCA's management should watch the video below so see how other executives respond to financial problems on their watch:

Can you believe Jeremy Strick makes four times as much as the CEO of Japan Airlines?

At this point, the ball seems to be in MOCA's court. Artists, journalists and philanthropists don't want to see MOCA's collection folded into another institution--or work sold off. And as Christopher Knight pointed out, those who value MOCA's world-class permanent collection are unwilling to support a board that is so cavalier about frittering that collection away.

I hope MOCA's board and management can figure out exactly how to reduce spending and plan for the financial long term. If not, then they should step aside.

One suggestion would be to set aside a wing of their Grand Avenue space for a permanent installation of a selection from their permanent collection. I expect everyone with a MOCA membership has the experience of returning to an art museum in another city and revisiting a familiar and loved work of art--be it Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at MoMA, El Greco's View of Toledo at the Met--or whatever floats your boat. Building an in-depth, and long-term relationship with a work of art is a logistical impossibility with all of MOCA's space being used for temporary exhibitions. Not only would this reduce the expense of pulling together large-scale shows, but it might help build a longer term relationship with Los Angeles' fickle art crowd.

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  1. Speaking today with someone close to the pangs of conversation I was told that MOCA approached Steven Lavine about CalArts potential interest in purchasing Geffen.

  2. The Geffen space is leased from the city of Los Angeles. Perhaps Strick et al are interested in having CalArts take over programing, transforming it into the Geffen REDCAT? If that's the case, they could very well leave most of the stuff up from the current show, since it's mostly CalArtians anyway.

  3. I should add that this same gossip train held the possibility of MOCA subleasing Geffen for the Calarts Grad Show. But as I understand, this most likely won't be the location.

  4. Here's the link to the on-line petition to support MOCA:

  5. Thank you, Michael. This is one of the best thought pieces I've read about the situation. You make a lot of excellent points. Please keep blogging, esp. now that it looks like Tyler Green has lost his grip on his senses, what with his recent out-of-left-field post about Strick joining the Hirschhorn. Huh?


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