Next in Line for a Bailout? A Major Art Museum

Almost exact­ly a year ago, I caught up with Jori Finkel, a jour­nal­ist who cov­ers the Los Ange­les arts scene, and we talked about an art-world con­tro­ver­sy that she first wrote about in The New York Times. The con­tro­ver­sy focused on muse­ums seek­ing fund­ing from art gal­leries, which can be a direct con­flict of inter­ests, and her lead exam­ple was L.A.’s Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art. Well, it turns out now that MOCA is in seri­ous finan­cial trou­ble, with its annu­al oper­at­ing costs run­ning up to $20 mil­lion and its endow­ment plung­ing below $10 mil­lion. It also turns out that last year’s scan­dal should have sent up some red flags. So we decid­ed to do a fol­low-up inter­view with Jori and get her take on MOCA’s fis­cal cri­sis and bailout plans.

DC: We’ve seen a lot of banks and finan­cial insti­tu­tions look­ing for bailouts, and the more we inves­ti­gate them, the more we real­ize these insti­tu­tions were sim­ply act­ing reck­less­ly. When the his­to­ry of this cri­sis gets writ­ten, I imag­ine that we’ll real­ize that it wasn’t just the banks that mis­man­aged their funds and got caught on a limb. Is that what we’re see­ing here with MOCA?

JF: I’m not aware of any crazy exec­u­tive bonus­es or expen­sive com­pa­ny retreats if that’s what you mean. No, what we’re look­ing at here are two rather clas­sic non­prof­it man­age­ment prob­lems: under-fund­ing and over­spend­ing. L.A. Times crit­ic Christo­pher Knight took MOCA trustees to task for not cough­ing up enough cash, and I’ve also writ­ten a lot about the cri­sis in cul­tur­al phil­an­thropy in L.A. The biggest prob­lem is that Hol­ly­wood types would rather give mon­ey to a cause, envi­ron­men­tal or polit­i­cal, than to the arts.

But it’s naïve just to say the muse­um is under-fund­ed. They were clear­ly over­spend­ing. Their staff bal­looned to 200 while their endow­ment was shrink­ing, and muse­um ambi­tions clear­ly out­stripped their actu­al, legit­i­mate sources of fund­ing. In most busi­ness­es, that would be rea­son to rethink, retrench, down­size. That appar­ent­ly hasn’t hap­pened on a large enough scale here. They seem to have put artis­tic ideals ahead of finan­cial realities–putting what the muse­um should exhib­it ahead of what it can afford to exhib­it.

DC: Dur­ing our inter­view last year, you raised some doubts about how MOCA was fund­ing its major Muraka­mi show. In ret­ro­spect, was that an ear­ly sign that things were going wrong at the muse­um? Were there oth­er red flags?

JF: Yes, I think the fact that MOCA was hus­tling mon­ey for its Muraka­mi show from com­mer­cial deal­ers who rep­re­sent the artist was a sign of finan­cial trou­ble and maybe even des­per­a­tion. It looks in ret­ro­spect like a bright red flag. You raised the per­fect ques­tion last year: Why was MOCA engag­ing in this prac­tice when so many oth­er muse­um lead­ers spoke out against it as uneth­i­cal?

Anoth­er ear­ly warn­ing sign came when the muse­um start­ed clos­ing down the Gef­fen Con­tem­po­rary for a few months at a time. Some reporters are treat­ing this fact like it’s new. It’s not. There was even a time three or four years ago when the MOCA web site car­ried a notice to film scouts—essentially say­ing the Gef­fen is yours for the right price. Can you imag­ine the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art in New York doing this?

Oth­ers have noticed—though this could also be muse­um pol­i­tics as usual—that MOCA has lost a few promi­nent trustees, like Susan Nimoy, who is mar­ried to actor Leonard Nimoy. She decamped to the Ham­mer Muse­um.

DC: Speak­ing of the Ham­mer Muse­um, it looks like there are plen­ty of oth­er muse­ums doing con­tem­po­rary art in town. Why should any­one care if MOCA lives or dies?

JF: MOCA’s col­lec­tion is tru­ly first-rate, but it has spent most of its life in stor­age. So for prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es, it’s the exhi­bi­tion pro­gram that sets the muse­um apart. More than any oth­er place here, MOCA is where you go to see the big shows you might have missed in New York, like Gor­don Mat­ta-Clark from the Whit­ney. MOCA also orig­i­nates major shows like WACK!, the fem­i­nist art sur­vey, and the recent Rauschen­berg com­bines show. You just can’t get those kinds of shows from small­er con­tem­po­rary art muse­ums.

DC: I read that Eli Broad has offered $30 mil­lion to MOCA. Is this going to solve their prob­lems? What does the future of the muse­um look like?

JF: It’s a fab­u­lous amount of mon­ey that could go a long way towards keep­ing the muse­um intact and inde­pen­dent, and pos­si­bly solve the prob­lem that I just men­tioned of the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion not hav­ing a per­ma­nent home. But nobody except Eli Broad real­ly knows exact­ly what con­di­tions will be attached to the gift. Does he want to sit on the board of trustees? Does he want to replace the board of trustees? Does he want to replace the muse­um direc­tor? And does he expect to use the muse­um as a show­case for part of the Broad col­lec­tion? We don’t know what strings there will be; but con­sid­er­ing Mr. Broad’s his­to­ry with var­i­ous muse­ums in town, it is safe to assume there will be some strings.

DC. Just to push the last ques­tion some more… Giv­en how MOCA has man­aged its funds to date, what kind of changes do you think MOCA needs to under­go? Or to put it most blunt­ly, if you were put in Eli Broad’s shoes, what strings would you attach?

JF: Ah, tough ques­tion. My hus­band is a bank­rupt­cy attor­ney who works with trou­bled companies—so he’s the one you should real­ly talk to. But I should add that Eli Broad has already put one con­di­tion on the table. With­out spec­i­fy­ing a time­frame, he did write that he expects MOCA to raise $30 mil­lion on its own. Nobody wants to invest in a trou­bled com­pa­ny that doesn’t have the means to pull through, so this is a famil­iar kind of safe­guard.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.