When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art under director Michael Govan proposed taking over L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008, the art world rallied against it before MOCA turned it down. But reaction has been different to this week's news that LACMA has made another offer, this one at the behest of some MOCA leaders.
One reason for the zeitgeist shift is the popularity of Govan, who has overseen an ambitious expansion of the LACMA campus and its art collection since his arrival in 2006. Another oft-heard strain is a loss of hope in MOCA's ability to raise money and attract first-rate curators and exhibitions, following staff and board defections in recent months.
FOR THE RECORD:
LACMA-MOCA bid: An article in the March 9 Calendar section about reaction to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's proposed acquisition of the Museum of Contemporary Art said MOCA is considering committing to raise $100 million. LACMA's proposal contained the commitment to raise $100 million. —
One prominent supporter of fusing the two museums is Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum, which is affiliated with UCLA.
"I think it's time for us all to stop lamenting what could have and should have been and recognize that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," she said in a statement. "Michael is coming to this with great thought and consideration as well as the resources and support of his board. This is not about world domination for Michael, he is really passionate about L.A. and the health and development of its cultural landscape. I think it could work."
Suzanne Isken, executive director of L.A.'s Craft and Folk Art Museum, says she opposed the takeover in 2008, when she was MOCA's education director.
"What seemed very frightening in 2008 sounds less threatening now," Isken said. "What's changed my mind is that we were really afraid of what we'd lose back then. At this point, it seems there's much to gain," noting that MOCA would retain its name and its two downtown buildings.
After MOCA's near financial meltdown was stemmed by Eli Broad's multimillion-dollar bailout in 2008, "the hope was we could recover and go on," Isken said. "Obviously it didn't happen if they're still in these conversations."
While MOCA continues to pursue other options, including a commitment to raise $100 million, LACMA's offer is the only one that's both concrete and public.
MOCA officials have declined comment, but conversations between MOCA and USC about some kind of partnership are said to be ongoing. Citing an unidentified source, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday that MOCA has approached the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and that both declined to join in.
The Museum of Modern Art declined comment. A spokeswoman for the National Gallery of Art said the museum was in talks with MOCA about "programmatic opportunities."
Broad, whose 2008 agreement with MOCA has language precluding a merger with LACMA any sooner than 2019, declined comment Friday. The agreement came when MOCA was financially on the ropes and the philanthropist had pledged $15 million in exhibition support over five years, and an additional $15 million for the museum's endowment if it could raise matching funds.
Cindy Bernard, one of the artist co-founders of MOCA Mobilization, the grass-roots group formed at the time out of opposition to a merger, sounded open to some benefits of a LACMA acquisition of MOCA.
"This desire to keep MOCA an independent institution was something that was very important to us in 2008. But having seen what's happened to MOCA since then and seeing the limited options out there, it's harder to discount a LACMA acquisition," Bernard said, speaking as an individual. "And certainly LACMA under Michael Govan has become a much more vibrant institution than it was before."
Merry Norris, a collector and art consultant who helped spearhead MOCA's founding in 1979 and was a key fundraiser in its early days, said she's still trying to come to terms with the idea of MOCA being subsumed under LACMA.
"It may be a wonderful idea, but I'm still thinking it through," she said. "What Michael Govan has done at LACMA is just extraordinary, but combine the two? I don't know if they should be under one umbrella. If it's a financial necessity, I guess so, but it's hard to believe that sufficient money couldn't be raised at MOCA to propel it forward."
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.
"Two great museums are better than one," Young said. "If there's no other alternative and [LACMA] is prepared to do what it takes to give MOCA what it needs to be a great museum, it's probably a good thing."
Hugh Davies, longtime director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, said that LACMA's stewardship of MOCA "would be a very civic and sensible solution to keeping the best of MOCA in Los Angeles and in business. I don't see it as some sort of voracious corporate takeover or something like that. I see it as a generous and carefully crafted proposal to keep the culture of Los Angeles intact."
Davies said that a MOCA pairing with USC also could work out well, paralleling UCLA's oversight and partial funding of the Hammer Museum on its Westwood doorstep.
"I think the partnership or merger with LACMA is a more natural move," he said. "The two cultures are very similar and sympathetic. In the case of USC, you would have to know how its president and trustees really view the idea."