By CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT
November 20, 2008
Re: Rescue plans for MOCA's fiscal crisis
I read with interest in Wednesday's paper about the fiscal calamity plaguing the Museum of Contemporary Art, which seems to suggest that the nation's premier institution for art of the past 50 years is just about broke. I also read about the possible rescue plans you are prepared to pursue, in a desperate scramble to save your sinking ship. I've been hearing about others.
And if what I've been hearing is true, I have just one question: Are you freakin' kidding me? What on Earth do you think you're doing?
OK, that's two questions. Forgive me, but I'm steamed.
We are talking here about an irreplaceable cultural asset, one that has been instrumental in establishing the primacy of Los Angeles on the world's cultural stage. The proposals I've been told about are not solutions to MOCA's real but avoidable crisis. No, they are weak-kneed examples of exactly the kind of thinking with which you got yourselves into this mess.
Times are tough, and every indication is that they are going to get tougher. But don't you dare blame MOCA's plight on a recent economic downturn beyond your control. The meltdown in the markets is not the cause of the crisis, only of your panic.
Lots of art museums are tightening belts and getting by. The fact that you are not speaks volumes.
Ten years ago, in the spring of 1998, The Times reported that MOCA was operating on a $10-million annual budget with a nearly $50-million endowment. A ratio of 1 to 5 -- or even 1 to 4, if you were exaggerating numbers then -- for budget to endowment is pretty good for a nonprofit.
Last year, by grim contrast, MOCA was reportedly operating on close to a $20-million annual budget with a $20-million endowment. That's a ratio of 1 to 1 -- the technical term for which is "suicide."
With ballooning expenses and a shrinking endowment rumored to be about $7 million -- at most -- you have gone from covering between 20% and 25% of your annual budget in 1998 to covering as little as 2%. You steadily pushed the museum further and further out onto a ledge, so that when the global economy finally tanked, MOCA went into free-fall.
Now that's a scenario the California attorney general, whose office oversees nonprofits such as yours, could use as a cautionary case study. As trustees your first responsibility is fiduciary, and in that you have been a flop.
Spending down your endowment is the equivalent of a farmer eating the seed corn. The first time you dipped in, sirens should have sounded. The museum's director and the board's finance chairman should have put an immediate stop to it, but didn't. That is dereliction.
This is trusteeship?
The rescue plans being talked about illustrate the problem. Two of them are frankly shameful.
One would rent your incomparable painting and sculpture collection to a local foundation -- controlled by one of your own trustees! -- in exchange for some sort of multimillion-dollar annuity. The other would be a flat-out sale of it to another museum, so that you might shift the fundraising burden elsewhere, take the revenue and continue as an exhibition-only venue.
Yes, we live in a market economy, where art is bought and sold; but one of the glories of an art museum is that it provides refuge from the crude commercial world. When art enters a museum's permanent collection, it leaves the marketplace behind. That your first instinct is apparently scheming to monetize your extraordinary collection shows that you are not trustees, you are art dealers in disguise.
The third plan I've been told about is even worse -- total Armageddon. A merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which the collection and selected staff would move to the Mid-Wilshire campus and the downtown facilities would close, would mean MOCA would cease to exist. You seem to be willing to allow your own institution, one whose remarkable program and astounding collection are the envy of cities around the world, to simply disappear. Dumbfounding.
Forgotten in this ridiculous saga are the Three Gs of trusteeship. Your job is to give art and money, get art and money, and guard the art and money you have gotten. So, here is what you need to do to actually rescue MOCA. It is not complicated, but it will require work.
You must call an urgent board meeting, gather round the table, pull out your checkbooks and calculators and stay in that room until you have cobbled together at least $25 million. That will buy you a little time -- 18 to 24 months -- during which you must do two things.
First, you cut MOCA's unaffordable budget. Second, you craft a strategic plan.
The centerpiece will be a capital campaign whose goal is between $80 million and $100 million -- the size of endowment that an institution of MOCA's international stature demands. With luck, President-elect Barack Obama will help you: By 2011, the country might be back on a coherent economic track, at which time you would be ready with your revenue enhancement plan.
Believe me, I know full well that among you there are men and women -- mostly women, interestingly enough -- whose past generosity ranks with the grandest anywhere, any time. My sense, however, is that the dereliction of the last decade and the wholly inadequate response to the very real possibility of collapse today might be a generational thing.
It seems a younger generation hasn't followed the lead of an older one, which stepped forward but is now largely done. If so, the new kids on the trustee block might want to inquire of the older kids just what it was like in 1974, when the former Pasadena Art Museum went under.
PAM had a brief but storied life span, including the first Marcel Duchamp retrospective and the first museum show of Pop art -- to its everlasting credit. But its growth as a national art leader outstripped local philanthropy. The "rescue" by Norton Simon left a great but very different museum behind, and L.A.'s contemporary art life suffered mightily.
In fact, central to the ethos of MOCA's launch by artists and their supporters in 1979 was the powerful drive for artistic rebirth in the vacuum left behind. Great art will certainly continue to be made here. But if L.A.'s civic renaissance as an art center is now to be declared over, and MOCA is to go the way of PAM, I fear for the city's future. And I would not relish the thought of being one of those to blame.
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