USC and MOCA are in talks about ‘a possible partnership’

The Museum of Contemporary Art building, with the new Broad Museum, which is under construction across Grand Street, reflected in the MOCA sign.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art and the University of Southern California are in talks about a possible partnership that would link the ambitious private university with the fiscally struggling downtown museum.

Responding to Los Angeles Times inquiries, USC provost Elizabeth Garrett said Tuesday that discussions are underway “about a possible partnership that would enhance the missions of both institutions.” Talks “are very preliminary at this time,” she added, providing no further details.

MOCA spokesman Lyn Winter echoed Garrett when asked for comment, providing no additional details.


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MOCA is rich in art -- its 6,000-piece collection is considered one of the best in the world when it comes to post-World War II art, and its exhibitions program has long been highly respected. But the museum has struggled financially over the past 10 years and its problems, rather than its achievements, have been paramount in the art world discussion since last summer, when longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel resigned under pressure and all four artists on the MOCA board soon resigned as trustees.

The museum’s programming approach in 2 1/2 years under director Jeffrey Deitch has been debated, with critics questioning whether there’s been too much emphasis on the intersection of art and celebrity-driven pop culture.

But funding has become an issue as well, regardless of the curatorial direction.

MOCA officials have refused since the summer to provide updates on its finances for the 2011-12 fiscal year that ended June 30, or for the projected budget in the current fiscal year. The only public statement on MOCA’s funding came in a commentary that its leading donor, Eli Broad, wrote for The Times’ opinion pages: Broad said the budget for 2012-13 was $14.3 million, which would be MOCA’s lowest spending since the 1990s. MOCA laid off seven staff members in July.

Another potential area of financial concern is the expiration, after 2013, of Broad’s pledge to provide $3 million a year for five years to support its exhibitions. Broad’s own Broad Collection museum is scheduled to open in 2014 across the street from MOCA’s Grand Avenue headquarters.

MOCA is the only major museum in Los Angeles that doesn’t have a substantial safety net.

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The J. Paul Getty Trust, the Norton Simon Museum and the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens all began with big endowments from extremely wealthy founders. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art receives guaranteed funding from county taxpayers -- currently nearly $29 million annually. And the Hammer Museum, founded by an oil baron who died without ensuring its finances, has been affiliated since 1994 with UCLA. The university provides about $2 million annually toward the Hammer’s operating expenses -- about 13% of its projected $17.2-million current budget.

USC, meanwhile, is in aggressive expansion mode. About a year ago it announced what is billed as the most ambitious fundraising campaign in the history of higher education, with a goal of $6 billion by 2018.

The USC Fisher Museum of Art opened in 1939 and has a collection of about 1,800 works; it offers contemporary art exhibitions and shows focused on the Old Master paintings that are a hallmark of its collection. USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts is named in honor of a $23-million endowment gift from Los Angeles developer Ed Roski and his artist wife, Gayle Garner Roski, who met as USC undergraduates.

Wallis Annenberg, head of the L.A.-based Annenberg Foundation, is on both the USC and MOCA boards. The foundation and the Annenberg family, have given at least $350-million to USC since 1971. Suzanne Nora Johnson, wife of MOCA board co-chair David Johnson, serves on USC’s board.


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