MOCAShow

"You will have a very full and rich story ... told from the vantage point of Los Angeles," chief curator Paul Schimmel says. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The financial chickens came home to roost at the Museum of Contemporary Art a year ago, but on the eve of what's being dubbed "MOCA New," a 30th-anniversary celebration centering on the museum's biggest exhibition ever -- drawn almost entirely from its own collection -- museum leaders want to prove to the public that those birds have flown.
FOR THE RECORD:
MOCA: An article in Sunday's Arts & Books section about the Museum of Contemporary Art referred to "a Mark Rothko bull's eye" painting in the museum's collection. The painting is by Elaine Sturtevant, based on a target image by Jasper Johns. —



Nevertheless, as chief curator Paul Schimmel planned the show, "Collection: MOCA's First Thirty Years," he and artist Andrea Zittel mulled whether to house eight bantam hens in her conceptual piece, "A-Z Breeding Unit for Averaging Eight Breeds" -- as the sleek, steel-and-glass, climate-controlled henhouse-as-inverted-pyramid did when it first was seen in 1993.

Zittel was game, Schimmel said, but she worried that the birds would be too cooped-up during a show scheduled to run nearly six months and proposed creating a new, roomier version. Schimmel decided viewers at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary building, which will reopen after being dark 10 months to save money, would have to be satisfied with the existing structure, sans hens. "This," joked the talkative, tousle-haired curator, "is the new, more economically viable MOCA."

Large as it is, the anniversary display spares MOCA the expense of importing art, except for five paintings borrowed locally from the Broad and Weisman foundations. But the show, which occupies all of the Grand Avenue headquarters building and half of the Geffen Contemporary to the east in Little Tokyo, offers the deepest and broadest gaze presented of the museum's collection.

It ranges in time from a 1939 painting by Piet Mondrian to works created in 2006. Among the newest are Charles Gaines' "Explosion Drawing #7," a billowing inferno that could be the flame-and-smoke flowering of a suicide bomber's belt or an improvised explosive device.

MOCA's fiscal crisis wasn't just a product of last year's global meltdown. It followed nearly a decade of chronic fundraising shortfalls, during which museum leaders steadily spent down a $38-million endowment to continue the ambitious exhibitions that helped cement its reputation for presenting perhaps the world's finest roster of shows dedicated exclusively to post- World War II art. When the worldwide economic woes hit, they left MOCA nearly tapped out.

Finally, the board accepted a $30-million bailout from Eli Broad, whose conditions included trustees escalating their own contributions, while putting a lid on spending. Nine months later, museum officials announced that nearly $30 million in additional pledges and donations had come in this year, including $2 million from board member Fred Sands.

With director Jeremy Strick forced to resign, Charles Young, the former UCLA chancellor, came out of retirement to shepherd change. By June, he and the board had cut staff and spending 25%, yielding a museum with a $15.5-million budget and 119 employees. The recruitment of several new board members and the return of two who left around the time of the crisis are signs that at least some wealthy funders are buying into the plan.

Young hopes to give way by March to a new director being sought with help from an executive search firm hired in September.

MOCA recently began buying art for its collection again after a six-month freeze, Young said. The museum's most significant purchase was its $11-million acquisition of the Panza Collection in the early 1980s; the 80-work trove of Abstract Expressionist and Pop-era art heralded the young museum as a force in the contemporary art world.

The collection has grown from there mainly through gifts. Over the years, major donations of art collections have come from Marcia Weisman, Barry Lowen, Scott Spiegel and Rita and Taft Schreiber, the Lannan Foundation and through funding from the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation.

"Having the collection up" -- as in the anniversary show -- "is by far the most successful way of soliciting individuals to make donations," Schimmel said.

As the museum banners its 30th-anniversary gala and exhibition (the party on Saturday is being directed by artist Francesco Vezzoli and includes a one-off performance piece he's conceived for pop singer Lady Gaga and dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet), the aim, said Young, is to show "that MOCA has turned itself around, MOCA is out of survival mode, and is self-sustainable and moving forward."

But MOCA still has work to do before many in the art world are convinced it is really back, says Lyn Kienholz, founder of the L.A.-based California/International Arts Foundation, which aims to raise the profile of California artists.

In her circles, Kienholz said, "everybody's feelings are on hold" as to whether the museum can muster the funding and nerve to jump back into the expensive game of regularly booking touring shows and organizing ambitious homegrown special exhibitions.

The shows that allowed MOCA to make its name typically have relied on intensive curatorial research to scout, study and borrow outside artworks, then the added expense of shipping, insuring and installing them. "They've done a fabulous job over the years," Kienholz said, "and we hope it will continue."

At the moment, the exhibition larder at MOCA's two downtown venues is thin, with only a traveling Arshile Gorky retrospective announced.