The Museum of Contemporary Art has announced that it will make admission free — a switch made possible by $10-million gift from MOCA Board of Trustees President Carolyn Powers.
Powers made the announcement during dinner at the museum’s annual benefit Saturday night. The event, inside MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary satellite space in Little Tokyo, was something of a 40th birthday party for the museum. About 700 guests, 300 or so of them artists, leaped to their feet and applauded when Powers announced the news.
Removing financial barriers and making the museum more accessible is part of MOCA Director Klaus Biesenbach’s “civic-minded” vision for the museum, he has said.
“We are not aiming at having more visitors or larger attendance, but we’re aiming at being more accessible, at having open doors,” he said in an interview. “As a civic institution, we should be like a library, where you can just walk in.”
MOCA general admission for adults has been $8 to $15. The museum is free on Thursday evenings.
The change is a major moment for the museum, board chairwoman Maria Seferian told The Times at the benefit. “This is a game changer, one of the greatest gifts our museum has had in a while,” she said. “We’ve thought for a long time how we could go free and make the museum more inclusive, and now we have the opportunity to, so we’re so excited.”
Biesenbach aimed to turn the museum’s annual “gala” into a decidedly more democratic, inclusive “benefit” where artists attended for free. MOCA trustee Marina Kellen French underwrote the evening, and dinner was served not in a lavish party tent but inside the museum, where everyone sat at “Table 1.”
“My goal is that this is a humble, joyful celebration celebrating the artists, because without the artists, we wouldn’t have a museum,” Biesenbach said.
MOCA said it raised more than $3 million that will go toward operations.
Guests were a mix of Hollywood figures such as Keanu Reeves, Katy Perry and Sharon Stone along with notable artists such as Ed Ruscha, Betye Saar, Paul McCarthy, Mark Bradford and Mary Weatherford.
“Thirty was a tough year, and I just love that 40 years is down here at the Geffen, with such a celebration of the future,” former MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel said.
The evening marked the opening of “The Foundation of the Museum: MOCA’s Collection,” an exhibition of more than 100 works in the permanent collection. Many artists featured in the show streamed through it, taking in the re-staged, re-contextualized works.
Liz Larner descended into Chris Burden’s earthy, site-specific excavation from 1986, “Exposing the Foundation of the Museum.” Her 1991 green and fuchsia sculptural corridor hung beside it, providing a stark contrast.
“I’ve always loved this piece,” Larner said of “Exposing the Foundation.” “It’s so Chris Burden. Not very direct but exposing the building. It was a police car storage facility.”
Lita Albuquerque said seeing the Burden was “like seeing it as if it were yesterday.”
“And looking around, it’s all the same faces but different energy. The energy feels really solid now,” she added.
Passing through the multicolored corridor that is Mike Kelley’s 1988 “Pay for Your Pleasure,” Barbara Kruger remarked, “I remember when this was installed.”
Kruger added that the night served as a reminder of what the museum and the city means to artists. “There are problems in the city, obviously. It’s more expensive, more difficult to live here, gentrification. But this is also a place that artists have chosen to live and make meaning — and to affirm and to resist.”
The call for free admission has been sounded for years by various people, including Times art critic Christopher Knight. Powers' announcement came on the heels of Rufus Wainwright’s performance of “Hallelujah.”
“I’m committed to MOCA’s continued success being at the forefront of diversity, inclusiveness and openness of spirit,” Powers said in her speech. “So it gives me great joy to announce my birthday gift to MOCA with a gift of $10 million. And with this gift I challenge the museum to open its doors to free general admission for all.”
Powers’ gift will cover the cost of a free admission policy for the next five years, the museum said. Revenue from general admission is typically low at museums. For the 2018 fiscal year, box-office revenue totaled $1.3 million at MOCA, less than 7% of the museum’s annual budget.
The gift buys MOCA time to raise money or find new revenue streams to fill the gap. A museum representative said MOCA has “every intention that this is a permanent change.”
MOCA didn’t say when free admission will kick in. Museums that make the change generally experience a surge in attendance. In November, as part of the Grand Avenue Arts All Access program, admission to MOCA’s main site on Grand Avenue was free all day and visitorship reached 2,315 people — one of the year’s highest counts. Having more visitors requires additional security and other infrastructural changes, and MOCA said it may take months to execute the transition.
The Broad museum, across the street from MOCA, is free. So is the Getty Center in Brentwood and the Fowler Museum at UCLA. In 2014, the Hammer Museum switched to free admission.
The growing abundance of free museums contrasts with LACMA, which raised prices in late 2017. General admission for adult nonmembers is $16 to $25, but L.A. County residents can get in for free after 3 p.m. on weekdays.
MOCA currently offers ticketed and free events, such as lectures and screenings; that fee structure is still being worked out. MOCA likely will charge for select special exhibitions.
Patti Smith closed out the night with one of her most recognizable tunes: “Because the night was made for lovers,” she crooned onstage, as guests swayed joyfully.