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.

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