MOCA needs some tough love

The Museum of Contemporary Art is more than a civic cultural treasure. Along with its Grand Avenue neighbor -- the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the brilliant Esa-Pekka Salonen -- it has become one of the essential windows on the restless, searching, cosmopolitan creativity of this city’s 21st century spirit.

That’s why the financial collapse that currently threatens to engulf and destroy -- or irrevocably alter -- MOCA is, even in these desperate times, a problem that requires immediate attention from Los Angeles’ elected officials. The city has a strong interest in the museum. Though its governing board is made up of private individuals, and private philanthropy has provided its endowment, the city has played a crucial role in MOCA since its inception 30 years ago.

The museum’s main Grand Avenue facility -- its signature building by architect Arata Isozaki -- was constructed as part of a city-brokered deal by the private developers of California Plaza, who in return received the use of an 11-acre, publicly owned parcel of land. MOCA’s best and most popular exhibition space -- the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo -- is leased from the city for $1 a year. For those reasons, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council President Eric Garcetti sit as ex-officio members on the museum’s board of trustees.


They are there as ultimate guarantors of the public’s substantial interest in this critical cultural institution -- and the time has come for them to act on the public’s behalf. God knows, somebody needs to, and it won’t be MOCA’s trustees.

In fact, what Villaraigosa and Garcetti need to demand is that Thomas Unterman and David G. Johnson, the co-chairmen of MOCA’s board, resign immediately, along with their fellow trustees. Once that’s accomplished, the rescue of the museum can begin, a process that probably will require the replacement of its senior professional executives, starting with Director Jeremy Strick.

If this sounds draconian, consider the fact that it’s hard to recall another major nonprofit cultural institution whose trustees and staff have behaved with quite the arrogant irresponsibility we have seen at MOCA.

Since news of MOCA’s crisis first broke in The Times last month, trustees and staff have refused to be specific about the precise contours of its financial situation. But a confidential document generated by Diana Allan, the museum’s chief financial officer, and provided to The Times by a board member who asked to remain anonymous, pretty well tells the tale.

Ten years ago, it says, MOCA had an endowment of just under $40 million; today, it’s $13 million. Unlike other nonprofits, the museum’s losses aren’t a consequence of the current economic downturn. In 2006, the endowment totaled $19 million. In other words, MOCA burned through 50% of its endowment during a period in which a chimp could have made money in the stock market by throwing darts at the Wall Street Journal.

How did that happen?

Well, while the curatorial staff was busy putting on exhibitions that won acclaim around the world, nobody bothered about the cost. Year after year, as expenses outstripped revenue, the board let the professional managers dip into capital -- the endowment -- to cover the shortfall in operating expenses. More recently, they’ve also been borrowing from restricted gifts to the museum, including those for new acquisitions. While other institutions were pinching pennies and cutting back, Strick actually increased the size of MOCA’s professional staff by at least 50 people.

As one trustee, who also asked to remain anonymous, said this week, “All this happened without anybody on the board screaming -- and somebody should have screamed.”

A key problem, according to several board members, was the way Unterman handled the finances of the institution during his years on the board. These board members say that Unterman, who headed MOCA’s finance committee, was the leader of a small faction of trustees who argued that the museum’s problems would be solved, if only it could grow. It’s true that MOCA needs more space to display its significant permanent collection of postwar art, but the notion of growing its way out of these difficulties is frankly ludicrous.

According to several trustees, Unterman, a longtime advisor to the Chandler family, which used to own this newspaper, has also been the major force on the board pushing for a merger between MOCA and the County Museum of Art. The city’s indispensable showcase for contemporary art would be obliterated in such a deal, the sources say.

It’s the old story familiar to anyone who’s following the current Wall Street debacle. Everybody wins but the public -- and, in this case, art, which is what the fight really is all about.

Villaraigosa and Garcetti need to step up and do the right thing. The Museum of Contemporary Art needs a new and responsible board of trustees, the sort of people who can emulate the success up the street at Disney Hall.