A call for cultural passion

Barbara Isenberg is the author of "Conversations with Frank Gehry," due to be published in April 2009.

With the Museum of Contemporary Art on the brink of disaster, I keep wishing that Marcia Weisman was still around. Sister of industrialist/collector Norton Simon, first wife of businessman/collector Frederick Weisman, Marcia Weisman had a lust for art that rivaled that of the men in her family. Equally important, she never gave up.

Starting in the 1960s, Weisman was determined to create in Los Angeles what generations of similarly passionate art collectors had achieved already in a host of other cities: launch a credible public home for contemporary art. But success eluded her until 1979, when the Weismans and five other key local collectors signed an agreement whereby they would pledge chunks of their private collections, worth up to $6 million, “to create a museum of standing and repute.”

About the same time, Mayor Tom Bradley set up a museum committee chaired by attorney (and later, federal judge) William Norris, and by the second meeting of that committee, the indomitable Marcia Weisman, its vice chairman, had amassed pledges of support from nearly 40 artists, politicians and art patrons.

It seems to me that as Angelenos consider MOCA’s fiscal errors, its board and leadership, not to mention its possible disappearance entirely as a separate institution, we also should reflect on that original effort and especially the way it snowballed. Why not a campaign to save MOCA rivaling the one that began it?

Then an arts reporter at the Los Angeles Times, I vividly recall Weisman, at an interview, filling a restaurant table with the letters and telegrams she’d requested and gathered. There was a handwritten note of support from Jane Fonda, then on the California Arts Council; a telegram from then-Gov. Jerry Brown; and encouraging words from local artists and dealers, out-of-town museum officials, university executives, restaurateurs and Hollywood folk.


Weisman’s spark caught fire. The mayor’s committee came to the attention of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which went on to require that the developers of the $1.2-billion California Plaza include MOCA’s Grand Avenue building in the project and pay for its construction.

Yet long before the museum’s home, designed by Arata Isozaki, opened in late 1986, MOCA was already a viable institution with internationally known leadership, programming and aspirations. As early as 1980, with just a few paintings and no physical home, the museum had snared as its director Swedish-born Pontus Hulten, founding director of Paris’ Musee National d’Art Moderne of the Centre Georges Pompidou, and lured Richard Koshalek, innovative director of the Hudson River Museum in upstate New York, as his deputy director (and, later, successor).

Million-dollar checks came in from businessman Eli Broad (MOCA’s first board chairman), venture capitalist Max Palevsky and the Atlantic Richfield Foundation, headquartered downtown. An artists advisory council was involved early on, and scores of art lovers responded to an early MOCA direct-mail appeal urging recipients to join “the most exciting new cultural adventure in the world.”

Fundraisers acknowledged success with the fervor of evangelists and the astonishment of lottery winners. Many of MOCA’s initial donors were young and supporting the arts for the first time; a substantial number joined up at the $10,000 “founder” minimum. One of those founders, a 31-year-old mortgage banker, told me at the time that what was unique about MOCA was that “someone like me is so involved.”

By July 1981, two years after those initial meetings, MOCA’s endowment was already more than $12 million. Plans were underway for the Temporary Contemporary -- today the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA -- a cavernous former warehouse originally renovated by Frank Gehry to house the museum until its Grand Avenue site opened.

The time was right, of course. Los Angeles had for too long been a place without enough institutional support to keep artists, collectors and dealers from decamping for New York or other more promising places. In the 1970s, the loss of the groundbreaking Pasadena Museum of Modern Art was a crystallizing wake-up call for serious art patrons. (Not unlike MOCA, the Pasadena museum’s ambitions outpaced its endowment.) Los Angeles had again become one of the few American urban centers with no significant museum devoted solely to 20th century art.

The time is right again, although for very different reasons. Internationally recognized art schools in Los Angeles today produce artists who no longer have to go elsewhere to launch their careers. Dealers have multiplied, and art leadership has flourished. MOCA Director Jeremy Strick wasn’t the only museum executive to head west recently -- consider LACMA Director Michael Govan, Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin, Getty Museum Director Michael Brand and Getty Trust President James Wood, among others. All surely believed that the cultural passion that launched an institution like MOCA was still here for the tapping.

As MOCA rethinks its future, its board and its leadership, Broad’s $30 million should not be the only offer of help on the table. It is time to reengage with the community. MOCA must reacquaint L.A. with a museum that is probably better known and appreciated in New York and Paris than in Downey and Sherman Oaks.

The process has already begun. With a nod to President-elect Barack Obama’s organizational model, an online version of MOCA’s early direct-mail campaign is underway. More than 400 people showed up at a recent rally to save the museum, and the MOCA Mobilization effort, begun by artists and others on Facebook, has accumulated nearly 2,700 signatures of support on petitions.

With the more accessible Geffen Contemporary about to be shuttered for six months, MOCA leaders should make the Grand Avenue museum more user-friendly, starting with cheaper parking. Philanthropists should be found to help launch art buses to bring more people downtown, extend weekend hours and perhaps add inexpensive lunchtime talks, films and performances. What about some joint planning with the Los Angeles Philharmonic to exploit the luster of Music Director-designate Gustavo Dudamel?

Rekindle the passion, populism and pioneer spirit that imbued so many people at the museum’s start. Make MOCA again the place to be.