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Thursday 03.07.13

« Object Focus 1: The Bowl at MOCC | Main | Monday Links »

MOCA takeover by LACMA? Again?


This just in, LACMA makes a formal offer to take over MOCA. Yes, this again. To me it is a bit like the consolidation of banks, airlines and cell phone carriers over the years as a way of streamlining operating costs and resetting soured or miasmic investor/donor faith in the management. In this case (like most corporate mergers) I don't like it because it creates a less diversified ecosystem, though it may be the way out I've suspected Deitch has been looking for since the dismissal of Chief Curator Paul Schimmel.

The problem is a city like LA needs diversification of institutions on a patronage level for it to become a full fledged art capital like New York or London is now. Besides, LACMA already has a contemporary program that would get confused with the addition of MOCA which is a "contemporary only" program and not a generalist art museum like LACMA. Think of museums as charismatic megafauna in an ecosystem, their presence indicates the health of the entire system. I believe the focus and diversification is crucial as the packs or tribes (patrons) that an institution must cultivate to survive have immense collateral effects that range much farther than the physical plant of each institution. A more monoculture approach might be convenient (at least on paper) but it is ultimately a missed opportunity for diversity.

What I dislike is how a takeover would let MOCA's board off the hook when faced with tough decisions. Overall, as an excellent arts city LA needs to stop this cycle of MOCA going from crisis to simplified fix to crisis again... especially when it is arguably the best contemporary institution in the country over the past decade (thanks to Schimmel). MOCA was founded by artists and therefore has a different culture than LACMA, though Deitch has somewhat butchered that history. Yes Deitch may have scared the artists off the MOCA board but I still say rise up artists before this corporate takeover happens. MOCA and LACMA need to be different and a shared development staff (fundraising) creates commonalities that over time will assert themselves.

Obviously, Eli Broad has a part to play in this ongoing saga... he is building a museum of his own right next to MOCA after all. Broad's somewhat strained relationship with LACMA over recent years is likely at the heart of this drama.

I'll watch for updates as they develop and it makes the interview I intend to publish here soon all the more interesting.

*Update: The New York Times article sheds further light on the situation as Eli Broad and USC have a competing offer. Broad probably noticed how UCLA's association with the Hammer has worked out well. Vogel's article also distorts the comparative value of LACMA and MOCA's collections. MOCA has a great deal of the Panza collection, which is a benchmark by which any art collection is measured. LACMA's holdings are good and of course much more encyclopedic but not exactly a yard stick like MOCA's (btw this LA Times graphic totally misses the point, there are qualitative and focus issues making the merger unwise). For example, MOCA's Rauschenberg holdings aren't just good, they are crucial to any retrospective. Overall, it makes sense that the MOCA board would invite the LACMA offer as a form of due diligence after Broad developed his offer. There is a huge difference between a higher education institution taking over a museum compared to another museum taking over a more specialized rival and LA's art scene is very tied into its schools. Still why does a merger have to occur?

Also, MOCA Mobilization has heeded the call and the artists have risen up again, read their statement here. It is absolutely true, the board has continued to fail this institution.

*Update update 3/8/13; LACMA is giving this the full court PR press. Call it anything you want but it is a collection grab after Deitch has bungled so many of MOCA's strengths. Somehow the idea that MOCA doesn't need a takeover from outside but a change of management's accountability at the board and director level needs to be foregrounded. Whereas, the board simply punting on this issue of fixing MOCA is the tragedy here and it has happened over and over again (haters can hate Broad all they want but at least he seems to care more than the actual sitting board members... will his USC offer be superior to LACMA's?). The real travesty is losing the artist initiated tenor of MOCA turning it into just another art museum (Like LACMA, which is nice but honestly a step down in terms of intention and practice). Museums develop a culture around them, LACMA is very professional and general, MOCA is focused on the exceptional (Panza, Schimmel, initiated by artists, etc) and contemporary. To me a merger with LACMA seems to benefit LACMA more than MOCA in the long term. Solutions that enhance MOCA's independent and innovative nature should be considered first. Why is there no talk of a different director and serious board building being undertaken at MOCA? Bringing Schimmel back while replacing Deitch would be the logical choice to rebuild confidence.

I'm with the words of Charles E. Young, "the former UCLA chancellor who was brought in by Broad as chief executive to help set MOCA back on sound footing at the start of 2009 - serving until Jeffrey Deitch became the museum's director in mid-2010 - said 'it's a good question' why the MOCA board, which commands great personal wealth, can't muster the will to keep the museum independent.

'There have been people brought on with the understanding they don't have to do much,' Young said.

'There are members of the board who are there for their names, I think, or who have some clout of some kind because they are major collectors or whatever, rather than people who have been, are, and will continue to be dedicated to making MOCA what it ought to be. But there's a lot of unhappiness on the board. People are not willing to do things.'

He said the ideal would be an independent MOCA if it can be done."

As ever Christopher Knight gets it right...autonomy is crucial and this current situation isn't as dire as the 2008 one. The only institution in a hurry seems to be LACMA with its press barrage, a move that Im sensing is starting to backfire. They seem to be just a little too eager. The details for USC and another rumored plan are yet to come... but a new director and a new, more active board should be looked to before merging with another museum. The basic things that autonomous institutions need like an active board and effective director are all that MOCA really needs.

BTW Eli Broad just tweeted this: "For me, hands-on philanthropy is the more meaningful way to give back." Broad seems to be the one patron who really cares and though Deitch was an over-correction and simply a bad choice I think we haven't heard his cruicial voice in this whole mess yet. I believe Broad really just wants MOCA to stabilize but perhaps feels like he is getting in the way (yes and no). What MOCA really needs is a proper director, an engaged board and Broad as a figure that brings people together not polarize them (choosing the right director is key). Hopefully, the end result will be a MOCA which retains it autonomy as an art institution and identity (which is derived from that autonomy). Let's hope Broad's next "hands on" has the right touch. The arts need trust, and a sufficient endowment with proven leadership is the best way to go after so much drama. Sometimes the innovation should be left to the art and institutionally things need to be done by the book.

**Update 3/9/13: Christopher Knight discusses the real issues, why LACMA wants MOCA and what MOCA really needs. It sets the stage for Broad's offer with USC (which LACMA seems to be desperately trying to garner support for before Broad plays his hand). The thing is things are less urgent than they appear and MOCA should only make a deal if it is the right deal... one that offers autonomy, honors the spirit in which MOCA was formed (artists at the governing table) and gives MOCA the endowment it has needed all along. LACMA's deal only gives 1 out of 3. LACMA's deal is great for LACMA, less so for LA's cultural ecosystem and MOCA. Why? Because if MOCA loses or shares its collection with LACMA then it never expands its permanent gallery spaces at its downtown location (as intended). Ultimately losing that permanent collection housing opportunity dilutes MOCA's future synergy with its temporary exhibitions that have the artist's POV at its heart.

*Update 3/12/13 Thanks be to Eli Broad, it looks like a short term deal between the National Gallery and MOCA is just about to become reality. This maintains the autonomy that I believe is crucial and doesn't let the MOCA board off the hook.

What I like about this plan is it takes a step back from all this hot and heavy "must decide now" pressure that the merger ideas all entail... especially the LACMA full-on press push (which is unseemly). It's like the richest young man in the city starting a rumor that the prettiest girl in town will marry him (all with the offer to pay back debts and enough save her ailing grandpa). It puts tremendous social pressure but ultimately it is a horrible idea.

Hopefully this move lets Dietch leave while the national gallery helps undertake a director/chief curator search and develop programming. I know people want to see Eli Broad as the villain in all this but I believe he is looking at some key issues... IE what is ideal. What is ideal is to keep MOCA autonymous so it can get a good director and chief curator and re form the board into something more active. From there it can plan to expand and make room for permanent display of its outstanding collection sometime in the next 10 years. The LACMA deal would have killed that opportunity and LA would be the less for it.

Ok so this is another 5 year reprieve. With the National Gallery involved as a consultant of sorts way makes Broad seem less like he is hand picking a new director or chief curator etc.... something I believe he wanted to avoid at all costs. Hopefully, Dietch is out (it was interesting on paper but a bad thing in practice), Baldessari and other artists rejoin the board, an effective director will be chosen and serious board building and endowment campaign can get underway in earnest. (There is a great curator with the initials P.S. who would be the perfect chief curator)

Overall, the healthier and more autonymous MOCA can be the better it is for LA and even LACMA. Instead of taking over other institutions LACMA really needs to bulk up its collection somehow... there are a few private collections in LA besides Broad's or MOCA's that would do the trick (some who are rarely ever discusses publicly and make it seem like Broad is LA's only big leaguer).

What MOCA needs isnt a takeover but a steadying move so it can move past all the over-corrections and drama we've seen since 2008. Looks like it can happen now and since very few will state it publicly "Thank You Eli Broad." That said Mr. Broad, you are definitely gonna have to be instrumental in building MOCA's endowment some time soon if you want to remembered the way a patron of your stature should be.

*Update 3/13/2013 Apparently many in LA and Washington are confused by the NGA deal that is developing with MOCA (it still might not be as good as the USC option). True MOCA can learn exactly nothing from the NGA as far as contemporary programming goes. But I see this as a way for Broad to take the focus on him and Deitch (that is only if Deitch is gone and the NGA helps with a replacement search). I like Deitch in his role as an art dealer/impresario but he has had an incredibly disruptive effect on MOCA. I find it odd how little his name has been brought up and how quiet he has been in all this and I suspect this is his way out... he's far more valuable to the art world in his best role. Basically I support any plan that gets MOCA an effective director and board. This has to be Broad's goal as well and I dont believe he has a plan to take over MOCA himself. Hopefully he's found a way to stabilize MOCA without over-correcting (AKA hand picking Deitch who botched things with Schimmel).

Basically, MOCA needs a time out and good governance. The NGA deal could bring that if a Deitch is out in the process (no director would leave MOCA even more staff impared than it is now without help from the NGA).

*Update 3/19/13 The MOCA board wisely rejects any merger, including LACMA. Let's see if MOCA's board takes responsibility and replenishes the endowment like they are promising to.

*Update 4/17/13 MOCA has 75 million in endowment pledges.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on March 07, 2013 at 14:16 | Comments (0)


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