Alarm meets MOCA news

Muchnic and Haithman are Times staff writers.

Amid news that the Museum of Contemporary Art is facing a financial disaster -- and unconfirmed reports that MOCA trustees are pursuing a merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- leaders of other Southern California cultural institutions have reacted with dismay.

“MOCA has to survive,” said Jay Belloli, director of gallery programs at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. “The people who care about it really have to rally to it. The city has to understand how important it is in terms of civic pride and culture.”

Hoping to avert a potential disaster, Elsa Longhauser, director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art, said: “This is a perfect opportunity for a major donor to step up and make sure that MOCA can prevail. If we don’t save this museum, we will lose something that is essential to the life and mind and spirit of the city.”


The Times reported this week that MOCA has run so short of operating funds that Director Jeremy Strick is seeking large donations of cash and that the trustees may be considering such options as merging the museum with another institution or sharing its collection. Federal tax returns show that well before the current national crisis, the museum had drained its reserves and dipped into restricted funds to keep up with routine expenses.

Although rumors of MOCA’s woes have traveled through art circles for weeks, the drastic measures under consideration came as a shock to many arts leaders.

But Steven D. Lavine, president of California Institute of the Arts, said MOCA’s money problems, challenging as they may be, are hardly unique.

“Being able to operate on hope is critical to nonprofit institutions,” he said. “Great institutions are formed by visionaries who are driven by ambition and a will to achieve a goal. It isn’t surprising that the vision sometimes gets out in front of finances. It’s most common in theater companies, which use next season’s ticket sales to pay last season’s expenses. They get caught in a treadmill that they can’t get off.”

Los Angeles has plenty of room for a contemporary art museum, Lavine said, even though LACMA includes contemporary material in its broad holdings. “You wouldn’t think it was right for Chicago to have only the Art Institute of Chicago and not its Museum of Contemporary Art,” he said. “In New York, the fact that the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art show contemporary work doesn’t mean you don’t need the Whitney, or because you have the Whitney, you don’t need the New Museum.”

Artist Barbara Kruger, a MOCA trustee, called the museum “the most important contemporary art museum in sight for decades now. It has been a model for institutions across America and Europe.”

“What is important to me is that MOCA continue to be MOCA, and that that logo continue to represent the most ambitious, the most powerful and spirited representation of art in America,” she said.

Of the programming at MOCA’s Little Tokyo exhibition space, the Geffen Contemporary, formerly the Temporary Contemporary, Kruger said “the level of curatorial ambition and furiousness, without the intrusion of demands from a museum bureaucracy, exists nowhere else.”

Kruger said the museum carries added import in the global arts community because of its role as a resource for top-flight Southern California arts schools, including CalArts and UCLA.

Among civic leaders who weighed in on the matter, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said: “More than two decades ago, MOCA emerged as an early and critical pioneer in a then-fledgling downtown renaissance. Today, the museum is more than an anchor of this arts corridor -- its unique point of view from Bunker Hill is essential to keeping Los Angeles at the cutting edge as our profile grows internationally.”

City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes MOCA, called the contemporary art museum “way ahead of the curve” in terms of serving the community with programs geared toward teens and families.

“That makes it a lot more complicated, because sometimes the people you serve are not the people who are giving the money,” Perry said. “It’s a conflicted mission.”

Music Center President Stephen D. Rountree said that he had been aware for several years of fundraising struggles at the museum, a neighbor of the Music Center on Grand Avenue, and said the survival of MOCA is crucial to the redevelopment of Grand Avenue as an arts corridor.

“In terms of the broader arts community, and specifically downtown, MOCA is an extremely important institution,” Rountree said. “It has really been at the center of both exhibition and intellectual activity around Los Angeles for artists and for scholars. We need it to succeed.”

The current economic climate has made life tough for many cultural institutions, said Samuel Hoi, president of Otis College of Art and Design, “but this is precisely the time when philanthropic leadership needs to be demonstrated. It’s a time not just to react to a crisis but to be proactive. If everyone admits defeat, it will be very hard for the cultural arena to thrive.”

For longtime participants in Southern California’s art scene, such as Belloli, MOCA’s troubles raise the specter of the Pasadena Art Museum. An avant-garde institution with national stature, it launched a new building it could not afford in 1969. Five years later -- after desperate attempts to gain public support and merge with LACMA -- it was absorbed into what became the Norton Simon Museum.

“For those of us old enough to remember the demise of the Pasadena Art Museum,” Belloli said, “it cannot happen again.”

Today, Los Angeles and its surrounding area sustain a much more vibrant and varied arts community. But a healthy MOCA is indispensable, arts leaders agreed.

“Anyone who cares about Los Angeles should care about MOCA,” said Dennis Szakacs, director of the Orange County Museum of Art. “It is the premier contemporary art museum in the world, not just the United States. No institution has played a larger role in Los Angeles’ rise as an artistic capital, alongside New York, London, Berlin and Shanghai. Los Angeles has become a cultural powerhouse. That is what we are risking in letting MOCA struggle. It has delivered for the city for decades. Now is the time for the city to deliver for it.”