Is Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art all-in when it comes to its own independence?
The question arises from a recent comment by museum director Jeffrey Deitch in the New York Post.
MOCA this week announced the launch of “MOCA Independence,” a campaign to ensure its autonomy and financial security by boosting its endowment to $100 million.
The Post reported that it asked Deitch whether that meant MOCA “was basically telling [the Los Angeles County Museum of Art] to take their merger offer and shove it.”
Deitch’s quoted answer: “The option is still open, but the MOCA trustees are committed to trying to stay independent.”
The quote didn’t play well with expert fundraisers consulted by The Times, who felt it could make potential donors question MOCA’s resolve, and its confidence about reaching its campaign’s goal.
Deitch, a MOCA spokeswoman and the co-chairs of the “MOCA Independence” campaign didn’t respond Thursday to requests for comment.
LACMA had proposed absorbing MOCA but keeping its name and its two downtown buildings, while raising $100 million as part of the takeover; over the past week, MOCA, without specifically saying it had rejected LACMA’s offer, announced it aimed to stay independent and had launched the “MOCA Independence” campaign, with new commitments that will lift the endowment past $60 million.
The Times asked LACMA whether it had received an answer from MOCA, and whether its offer still stands.
In response, the Wilshire Boulevard museum issued a prepared statement on Thursday: “The principle is the same as it always was -- MOCA came to us as a possible partner if they chose to have a partner. We are aware that they’re raising funds to explore all their options, and that their first choice is to remain an entirely independent institution.”
Charles Young, the former UCLA chancellor and University of Florida president who served as MOCA’s interim chief executive for 17 months before Deitch’s June 2010 arrival, said it concerned him that Deitch had publicly acknowledged a LACMA takeover was still an option.
“I found it shocking,” said Young, who estimated he’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars during his university career. “I can’t see how that does anything but muddy the waters. What MOCA needs right now is a strong commitment to a course. I guess it means [Deitch] has some question about whether the stated priority can be achieved.”
James Hackney, who heads the cultural division of Alexander Haas, an Atlanta-based fundraising consultancy, also said he’d be concerned if he were advising MOCA’s campaign.
“I think it’s a real problem for the director of the museum to give a wishy-washy hedge that there might be some other option” besides a successful campaign, he said. “If I’m an outsider [considering a donation], that does not give me the confidence to want to give. Your leadership has to go, ‘Wow, this is going to work, and we’re going to keep working,’” with no course besides success. “My advice if it were my client would be to not make statements like that.”
Sherry Wagner-Henry, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, a master’s degree program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s business school, said Deitch’s comment about LACMA remaining an option “certainly seems counter-intuitive if you’re trying to raise money around the idea of trying to remain independent, unless it’s a strategy to provoke people to step up and make sure that doesn’t happen -- to basically say, ‘we’re not out of the woods yet, that’s still an option unless we can close this campaign.’”
Cindy Bernard, co-founder of MOCA Mobilization, a support and watchdog group launched during the museum’s 2008 financial crisis, said Deitch was simply stating what appears to be a reality: If MOCA’s board can’t gather the wherewithal to remain independent, LACMA could step in.
“They know they have a backup plan,” she said, but “the practicalities are complicated” from a fundraising standpoint, because “obviously if people believe that MOCA is eventually going to end up in LACMA’s hands, it’s going to be very hard to raise the money to keep the museum independent.”
Perhaps donors will give conditionally to the endowment campaign, Bernard said, with the understanding that their pledges would be nullified if MOCA failed to stay independent. “They have to have some legitimate fundraising tool, because they certainly don’t have the upcoming programming -- there isn’t much listed on their website. Floating out the threat of LACMA could be a fundraising tool: ‘This will happen if you don’t give us the money.’”
The official statement MOCA issued this week to announce the “MOCA Independence” campaign and the commitments received so far quoted the campaign’s co-chair, museum president Jeffrey Soros, as saying its initial progress after two weeks “demonstrates the commitment of the board to ensuring that MOCA remains a world-class independent contemporary art museum, and we call on others to join in this campaign.”
That announcement seemed to answer questions arising from MOCA’s previous brief statement last week. Amid intense speculation about LACMA’s takeover offer and MOCA’s talks with two other institutions, USC and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., MOCA said that “the board is in agreement that the best future for MOCA would be as an independent institution,” but the museum was “exploring all strategic options.”
Apart from the two prepared statements and Deitch’s quote in the New York Post, MOCA has kept an official silence recently on its finances and its future. Neither of the two official MOCA statements had mentioned LACMA or its takeover proposal.
If MOCA does decide it can’t survive on its own, it is not free simply to accept LACMA’s offer, should Eli Broad object.
Conditions in the billionaire philanthropist’s 2008 bailout agreement with MOCA include a provision that MOCA can’t be taken over by another museum within 100 miles of downtown Los Angeles before 2019, unless certain “exigent circumstances” exist and a three-member independent review panel decides a takeover would be in MOCA’s best interests. The Broad Foundation would have the right to make a counter-proposal if a takeover offer were being seriously entertained.
Broad’s prohibition against takeovers by nearby museums doesn’t apply to educational institutions such as USC, which acknowledged last December that it had been in unspecified partnership discussions with MOCA.