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Don’t forget MOCA

Tyler Green writes and edits Modern Art Notes, a blog about art at artsjournal.com/man.

The redevelopment of downtown L.A.'s Grand Avenue is finally set to begin next month, but so far no one has brought up one of the project’s glaring flaws: The developers mention the Museum of Contemporary Art in their marketing materials, but they don’t treat it as an asset to be maximized. Any plan for redeveloping Grand Avenue should include expanding MOCA. No American contemporary art museum is more in need of additional gallery space, and none is better positioned to benefit from the kindness of strangers. And there are reasons why the Grand Avenue team should be interested in MOCA too.

Unfortunately, as Bunker Hill is set to grow up all around the museum, MOCA is stuck with the status quo: the same building and gallery space it has had since 1986. The failure of the city, the county, developers, philanthropists and MOCA’s board to make sure that the museum grows with its neighborhood is unfortunate.

First, it’s important to understand why MOCA deserves to expand. It is America’s top museum of contemporary art, the period that runs from roughly 1965 forward. No museum creates better or more scholarly contemporary exhibitions. MOCA also has a strong permanent collection, but because of the limited gallery space, it’s rarely on view.

If MOCA had more than 40,000 square feet of exhibition space like Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center or 60,000 square feet like Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, it could not only present great shows, it could show off its world-class collection. MOCA’s Grand Avenue outpost has just 24,500 square feet of gallery space. (Its temporary exhibition outpost in Little Tokyo, the Geffen Contemporary, isn’t climate-controlled, a requirement for collection installations.)

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An expanded MOCA ought to appeal to everyone involved. What the city, county and developers need are reasons for people to visit MOCA’s stretch of downtown and to commit to living in a new billion-dollar development. (So far, the plan seems to be to place something like the Grove across from Disney Hall and hope that will attract “upscale” visitors. Yawn.)

The best reason to visit MOCA’s neighborhood is MOCA. Currently, about 1,000 people visit MOCA each day, a figure that includes those who visit the museum’s blockbuster exhibitions at the Geffen. MOCA’s better-developed peers, though, do bigger numbers: The Walker and the Hirshhorn both draw more than 2,000 visitors a day. A symbiotic relationship between an expanded, destination museum and a redeveloped Grand Avenue would attract visitors to both. So why hasn’t anyone done anything about it?

MOCA itself is partly to blame. In recent years, MOCA has had so much trouble meeting its expenses that it has begun to spend its endowment principal, a major nonprofit no-no. At its peak, MOCA’s endowment was worth $37 million; it’s down to $20 million. By comparison, the UC Berkeley Art Museum, which is a good museum but not quite in MOCA’s league, has built its endowment from $21 million to $61 million in the last four years.

It’s hard to think about growing when you’re in deficit spending, and MOCA’s trustees haven’t figured a way to reverse course. Often, MOCA trustees have outgrown MOCA and have left to sit on the boards of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or the Hammer Museum, two institutions that aspire to the contemporary programming that MOCA already offers.

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All of that brings us to Eli Broad, a MOCA founding trustee who long ago migrated to the LACMA board. As luck would have it, Broad is the co-chairman of the Grand Avenue Committee, the civic pooh-bahs pushing this latest downtown redevelopment scheme. Even though Broad left MOCA years ago, it’s natural that civic leaders and arts-minded potential donors look to him for leadership regarding MOCA’s future. Alas, there is no evidence that a MOCA expansion is even on Broad’s radar.

Worse, MOCA has managed to become completely shut out from the process going on around it. The Grand Avenue Committee’s new chairman, developer Nelson Rising, sits on the Hammer’s board. So, oddly, MOCA has no representation on the body that is determining the future of its neighborhood, but its crosstown peers do.

It is still possible for MOCA to get into the mix. The Grand Avenue Committee has time to realize that an expanded MOCA would be a boon to its project; it would be a stable, cost-effective, long-term way of attracting both residents and other visitors. Art collecting businessmen-philanthropists such as Broad and Rising should understand what they’re missing: A chance to enhance their personal legacies, but more important, an opportunity to further Los Angeles as the capital of contemporary art.

A third party with the right connections could even step into the role of cultural protagonist. The most likely candidate is the J. Paul Getty Trust, whose president and chief executive, James N. Wood, worked with MOCA Director Jeremy Strick when both were at the Art Institute of Chicago.

But somebody better think of MOCA -- and soon.


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