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Critic's Notebook: Seeing L.A.'s MOCA as a company — therein lies the rub

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If you're confused by the convulsive goings-on at the internationally admired Museum of Contemporary Art, which culminated in the June 25 firing of the illustrious chief curator instrumental in putting the museum on the map, don't be. It's not that complicated.

In fact it's quite simple — as easy as one, two, three:

1. In 2008, MOCA was operating a stellar art program on a dysfunctional business plan. When the U.S. economy tanked, the museum careened into a ditch.

2. In 2010, MOCA announced the unprecedented decision to put an accomplished businessman, one who built his career in art, in the director's chair, charged with fixing the broken business side. The reins were handed to a successful New York gallery owner with virtually no experience running a large nonprofit.

3. By 2012, the new director had made little progress in repairing the museum's dysfunctional business plan, but he was far along in dismantling the once-stellar art program. Dumping the chief curator ignited an explosion.

That's all there is to it. One, two, three.

A great art museum whose board of trustees has a combined net worth far in excess of $21 billion shouldn't have financial problems. But welcome to MOCA.

This leading museum has suffered staff defections, postponed programs, left millions in potential matching funds languishing untapped, solicited guest curators with questionable financial interests in their shows and seen a bizarre public rant by the museum's director about fundraising difficulty.

Most important, many dull exhibitions have been high on celebrity quotient and low on artistic merit. Things came to a head when word leaked, just days before the start of a new fiscal year, that MOCA had fired its longtime chief curator, widely regarded as one of the best in the international museum field.

Here's the inexplicable part: Museum officials seem to think that changing the art program will fix the business plan. They're wrong.

Jeffrey Deitch, the prosperous businessman who became MOCA's director, had flourished since the 1980s — first as a bank's art-investment advisor and then a gallery owner. But that memorable career did not prepare him to manage a nonprofit.

A museum is not a company. Corporate policy doesn't function well there.

What we've seen is what happens when a museum is run according to accepted business practices. First and most prominently, core jobs have been outsourced. The number of staff curators has been cut from five to three. Guest curators are conspicuous.

Eleven of 15 MOCA-originated shows since fall 2010 are not credited on the museum website to in-house curatorial staff. Outside contractors are cheaper in the short run because the museum doesn't carry salary and benefit costs. The director also assumed a curator's job, organizing several of the shows. One, which garnered big attendance, was jointly run by the director and two guest curators.

MOCA announced that the chief curator won't be replaced. How many guest curators could be hired for his salary of $235,000 plus benefits? How much more bang could the museum get for its buck?

That's the free market talking. It's speaking gibberish, of course — and not just because no market is really free. It's gibberish because a nonprofit art museum doesn't operate in a commercial marketplace. Business measurements of success don't apply.

Here's an example of today's free-market business principles now being foolishly applied to MOCA: For fall 2013, a London-based guest curator has been hired to organize a midcareer survey of Zurich, Switzerland-born, New York-based sculptor Urs Fischer, darling of the big-ticket, international collector crowd.

I don't have much interest in Fischer's art, which draws heavily on more compelling work by Chris Burden, Martin Kippenberger, Charles Ray, Robert Therrien and other artists. Museum solo shows at Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof in 2005 and New York's New Museum in 2009 left me cold, and I didn't bother to review them. ("The show feels like a stack of three commercial gallery exhibitions," wrote an oddly admiring New York Times critic of the New Museum's Fischer effort.) But that's not the point; critical opinions always differ.

The point is this: MOCA isn't putting its own money where its institutional mouth is, it's just outsourcing the job to cheaper labor. Staff curators are invested in the institution for the long term. Guest workers, however talented, are not.

Fischer is newly represented by Gagosian Gallery, whose major client list includes billionaire MOCA trustees Eli Broad, Steven A. Cohen and Victor Pinchuk. With 11 showrooms in eight cities spanning the globe, it's the world's largest commercial vendor of contemporary art. (The super-gallery also has a La Jolla office about a mile from Mitt Romney's famous beachfront tear-down — but I digress.) Fischer, in fact, was the artist featured in this year's celebrity-studded annual pre-Oscar opening at Gagosian's Beverly Hills outpost.

MOCA seems to be betting that mega-collectors and high-end galleries who are invested in the artist will drop a few gold coins into the museum's outstretched tin cup, flattered that one of their favorites is getting big-deal treatment.

Fat chance. Trickle-down economics is a fraud and a flop. MOCA is just being recruited as another art-market service industry. Upward trends in the art business always spawn them, from personal shoppers to auction houses staffed with MBAs.

Trustees, like staff curators, are also institutionally invested — at least theoretically. MOCA's board is jointly headed by television producer Maria Arena Bell and Hollywood entertainment lawyer David G. Johnson. Their museum's operating endowment, even at its 1990s peak, wasn't half of what it should have been. Today it's less than one-fifth what MOCA needs to function at a high level of achievement.

General philanthropy and museum endowments buy a measure of intellectual freedom. No evidence certifies that MOCA's long-standing failure to erect a healthy enough financial structure is close to being resolved.

The ostensible fix now is to chuck the once-stellar art program with its staff-driven curatorial heft. That's why the gifted chief curator was, after 22 remarkable years, disposable. Mediocre shows with flashier attendance that combines high numbers, red-carpet publicity and big bank accounts appear key to MOCA's boneheaded plan.

Sorry, but it will fail. Collectively, the board's net worth of $21 billion-plus is like the hollow storefronts and blank houses in Potemkin Village, designed to shield the passing royal entourage from the shacks out back. A dysfunctional art program won't cure a museum's dysfunctional philanthropy.

Deitch often claims that society is erasing old distinctions between art and popular culture. That creaky contention has been kicking around for decades. It applies to only a fragment of artistic expression, though it's sure to flatter his board's Hollywood leadership.

But to then assert that old distinctions between nonprofit art museum culture and for-profit business culture also demand erasure is just faulty logic. The breadth and depth of artistic freedom that makes museums worth having is what's really being rubbed out.

And MOCA is being erased in the process.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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