MOCA’s cautious optimism

One of the great American songs about trying to bear up under hard times is Merle Haggard’s forlorn “If We Make It Through December.” The Museum of Contemporary Art nearly didn’t: Its fractious board of trustees spent the final six weeks of 2008 trying to agree on an emergency plan to escape impending fiscal disaster.

Now, Charles E. Young, the former UCLA chancellor who signed on in late December to help rebuild confidence at the shaken institution while carrying out a financial retrofit, is singing a variation on Haggard’s refrain. When it makes it to November, he says, the downtown L.A. museum will throw a celebration to “make it clear that MOCA is back.”

In the near term, the pain continues. Young said the Geffen Contemporary, the 55,000-square-foot converted warehouse closed since January to save money, could open in time for the celebration, but more likely it will remain closed until February. That leaves MOCA with a diminished exhibition schedule, limited to its 28,500-square-foot headquarters on Grand Avenue near Disney Concert Hall, and its small satellite gallery at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.


Also, there will be another round of layoffs, deepening the cuts Young instituted in January when he pared the staff from 152 to 108 full- and part-time employees -- including the loss of a curator.

But the belt-tightening should lead to a solid MOCA, Young said.

With a planned Nov. 14 celebration and a fanfare proclaiming a “MOCA renaissance,” he said, the museum will open a new exhibition of its permanent collection and, he hopes, announce “a number of very substantial” new donations of art. “We’ve made it a big date for us, and we’ve got to do something to justify that.

“At that time, hopefully, we’ll be able to say MOCA has gotten through its problems. . . . MOCA is back full bore,” Young said during a wide-ranging discussion with The Times’ arts staff Wednesday afternoon.

Young became MOCA’s chief executive at the behest of Eli Broad, the philanthropist who is underwriting MOCA’s $30-million bailout, which the board implemented rather than accept a competing merger offer from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He did not specify how many more jobs must be sacrificed to produce a balanced budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year. Reductions in pay and benefits are also under consideration.

Spending will total $13.5 million to $15 million, he said, yielding MOCA’s most austere budget in more than a decade. It’s a severe retreat from the $20 million-plus in yearly spending that had been the norm since 2005-06.

As he works on a budget to present to the trustees May 21, Young said, he’s trying to “make cuts that are not going to knock out quality. We’ll do a little less but do it very well.”

If hoped-for revenues don’t come through and the budget has to be pared nearer to $13 million, Young fears the museum will “begin to look like something other than the MOCA people have known, and which it ought to be.” At $15 million, he said, “we can probably do very well.”

MOCA got in trouble by doing better than it could afford. Under deposed director Jeremy Strick, it typically spent $19 million or more annually, reaping acclaim for its exhibitions but spending down its endowment in the process.

The trustees and Strick, who now runs the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, had hoped to save the museum’s fiscal bacon by rallying donors around a renovation and expansion of the Geffen Contemporary, which lacks the museum-quality climate control needed for long-term display of delicate works. Their hopes died last fall when the global financial markets failed.

The endowment, which had peaked at $38 million in 2000, plummeted to $5 million last December, Young said. Thanks largely to Broad’s funding and two other million-dollar-plus matching donations, he expects it to have grown to $16 million to $18 million by July, when the new fiscal year begins.

Broad’s bailout required a 20% reduction in expenses as a condition for his help. He pledged $3 million a year over five years to pay exhibition costs plus an additional $15 million in matching grants to help replenish the endowment.

MOCA’s task is to earn and raise the balance of its operating budgets -- with a fundraising target of about $10 million per year, Young said -- while also raising money to restore the endowment. Benefactors, primarily board members, have come through, the chief executive said, including an individual donation of $1 million for the endowment and a $5-million gift divided between operations and endowment. Future progress toward rebuilding the endowment figures to be slower, he said, as the museum tries to find new donors.

That means rebuilding a board that went through nine resignations, nearly a quarter of its 35 members, from September through January. A 10th member has taken a leave of absence.

The board “was very dysfunctional,” Young said. “There was so much antagonism, resentment, feelings of betrayal. . . . It no longer is in that state. People are working together and contributing.” He said he is devoting “every moment I can spare” to recruit trustees and persuade valued former ones to reconsider their resignations.

At its June meeting, the board will choose its new slate of officers; investment executive Tom Unterman and film producer David Johnson have been the co-chairs since last summer.

Young, 77, plans to serve for the rest of this year, perhaps extending that to 18 months, which would take him through mid-2010. Maybe, he said, MOCA will be sufficiently “back” by November to announce that the search for a director is underway.

The planned November celebration will mark 30 years since MOCA began to take shape in 1979, when then-Mayor Tom Bradley threw his support behind a founding core of art lovers and gave them a City Hall office from which to work. By 1986 their planning had borne fruit with a museum comprising two downtown buildings and the foundation pieces of a collection of post-World War II art that, along with MOCA’s exhibition program, is now considered one of the world’s best.