MOCA’s search for a director: Is museum experience still optional?
Will L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art hire a museum director who actually has experience in running a museum?
The last time it did, Jimmy Carter was president and MOCA was still three years away from opening its doors.
Whether MOCA goes for experience this time around could depend on the efforts of a 14-member search committee whose full membership the museum confirmed this week. The panel includes four prominent Los Angeles artists who’d been MOCA board members until July 2012, when they all resigned over the course of a few days.
Now John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie and Ed Ruscha are back, not as board members but as committee members helping with the search for a successor to Jeffrey Deitch, who was at the center of the tumult that led to their departure and remained museum director for an additional year until his resignation two months ago.
The last experienced museum leader hired by MOCA was Richard Koshalek, brought on as deputy director and chief curator in 1980 to help founding director Pontus Hulten build MOCA’s collection and donor pool and plan for the opening, which arrived in 1983.
Koshalek -- also the last MOCA director not to make a sudden exit -- came on board with six years’ experience leading museums in Fort Worth and Yonkers, N.Y. He succeeded Hulten as MOCA’s museum director in 1983. Before stepping down in 1999, Koshalek led a $25-million fundraising campaign that built the endowment to about $40 million.
After that, MOCA twice hired museum directors with curatorial credentials but no fundraising or substantial administrative experience.
Jeremy Strick arrived in 1999 as a respected senior curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, but fundraising and executive leadership and decision-making were skills he was going to need to acquire while on the job at MOCA.
The museum enjoyed consistent critical acclaim for its exhibitions and acquisitions during Strick’s nine years, but after a solid initial year financially (the tech-stock boom was still going then), MOCA ran budget deficits averaging nearly $3 million a year for the rest of his tenure.
To keep the exhibitions first-class, MOCA drastically spent down the endowment Koshalek had built, and when the general economy tanked in late 2008, the museum board accepted an emergency bailout donation from Eli Broad. The California attorney general’s office found in 2009 that MOCA’s endowment spending failed to meet standards set out under state law.
Charles E. Young, a former UCLA chancellor, was recruited by Broad to serve on an interim basis. With the title of chief executive rather than museum director, he worked for 17 months, downsizing the staff to fit the available funds and overseeing initial fundraising steps on the path toward long-term financial sustainability.
Then came Deitch, who began as museum director in June 2010, with a five-year contract he did not stay to fulfill. His only museum experience before MOCA had been a brief stretch as curator of a small art museum in Lincoln, Mass.
Instead, Deitch had made a name on the commercial side of the art world, first as an art-investment advisor and then as an art dealer. At his Deitch Projects galleries in New York City, he had organized a series of exhibitions that often explored how visual art intersects with fashion, alternative rock and other edgy pop culture forms.
At MOCA, Deitch eventually would confess publicly that fundraising had proven difficult. In his final fiscal year heading the museum, its budget fell to $14.3 million, the lowest since Koshalek’s last days on the job more than a decade earlier. Adjusting for inflation, MOCA’s budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30 was 28% less than its spending in the late 1990s.
The consequences have included a diminution of the curatorial staff from five when Deitch began to two when he left. The budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, has not been made public.
Meanwhile, MOCA’s board is trying to finish a campaign launched in March to swiftly boost the endowment from about $20 million to $100 million.
The last official tally was $75 million, revealed in July in conjunction with the announcement of Deitch’s resignation. Broad said last week that he’d heard the campaign recently had reached $80 million, with some in the till and some pledged but not yet received.
A $100-million endowment could give MOCA a solid financial cornerstone at last, but it’s unclear whether the results so far will provide much help with the immediate operating needs that would concern a new museum director.
Endowments are supposed to be invested, not spent. Though a $100-million endowment earning good financial returns could be expected to generate about $5 million a year in spending money, assuming annual investment gains averaging at least 5%, investment losses would delay its benefit until markets recovered.
For the endowment campaign to help MOCA meet immediate budget needs, the pledges would have to be paid quickly and the investments would have to reap gains from the start.
One fiscal fact facing MOCA is the loss of its most important source of operating funds. Broad said last week that he won’t continue giving the $3 million a year he’s been donating for exhibitions since 2009. The last installment on his five-year pledge is due in October, leaving the museum to find other donors or do without.
Broad’s focus now is his own contemporary art museum, the Broad, due to open late next year across the street from MOCA’s Grand Avenue headquarters. There, general admission will be free, compared with $12 at MOCA. Broad says the extensive advertising he plans for his museum will create a piggyback effect that will help MOCA’s attendance too, even with the wide price differential.
If MOCA were to make admission free, it would sacrifice about $1 million in annual box-office revenue and would have to find fresh incentives for people to take out $85 annual museum memberships that now include unlimited free admission as a perk.
Will MOCA ask prospective candidates for its top job how they would address these money issues? Or will the onus be on the museum and its search committee to reassure candidates that they need not fear being chronically hamstrung by financial limitations?
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