USC and L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art broach partnership

Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and USC 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 this week 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 spokeswoman Lyn Winter echoed Garrett when asked for comment and provided no additional details.

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The talks so far appear to have taken place within a narrow circle. Gayle Garner Roski, after whom USC's Gayle Garner Roski School of Fine Arts was named following a $23-million endowment gift she and her husband, developer Ed Roski, gave in 2006, said Wednesday that she had no knowledge of the discussions. Ed Roski, chairman of USC's board of trustees, could not be reached for comment.

"I'm certainly hoping there is something going on, because it would be great for the university and great for MOCA," Gayle Garner Roski said.

Longtime MOCA trustee Audrey Irmas said she found out only recently — and secondhand — that talks had taken place. "My first reaction was disbelief, and then it was a sadness — sadness that the museum cannot be a more separate entity, taking care of itself," she said.

Artist and former MOCA board member John Baldessari was surprised by news of the talks but said a USC-MOCA partnership could make sense.

"After thinking about it a minute, I said, 'Yeah, there's a connection between UCLA and the Hammer [Museum], and it's a good working relationship,'" Baldessari said, so a comparable arrangement with USC could work for MOCA.

Ed Roski and MOCA's leading financial supporter, Eli Broad, have teamed previously on an initiative aimed at boosting L.A.'s prestige: an unsuccessful late 1990s bid to acquire a new NFL franchise to play at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Jeffrey Deitch, the art dealer and gallery owner who was the unconventional choice as MOCA director in 2010, could not be reached for comment. A lot of the controversy about MOCA has surrounded Deitch's programming approach. But regardless of programming, MOCA faces serious financial challenges.

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It was not immediately clear if giving the university a substantial economic stake in the museum's operation or a major say in how it is run are part of the discussions.

UCLA has partnerships with two leading L.A. museums — the Hammer Museum on the university's Westwood doorstep, and the J. Paul Getty Trust. The partnership with the Hammer is extensive — UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture provides about $2 million a year in operating support, amounting to about 13% of its budget — and takes a strong role in the museum's governance.

The partnership with the Getty is limited — a master's degree program in antiquities conservation, based mainly at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades and overseen jointly by the Getty Conservation Institute and UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

Former UCLA chancellor Charles E. Young, who Broad enlisted at the end of 2008 to stabilize MOCA when it was on the verge of financial collapse after years of overspending followed by the global economic meltdown, said that a deal would make sense if USC "were really committed" to putting MOCA on a secure economic footing.

Young said he would be wary unless USC leaders make it clear that " 'this is something we really want to do and see that MOCA remains one of the premiere contemporary art museums in the world and grows farther, and we're prepared to put money into it.' Then MOCA has a chance," Young said.

Young said that discussions about some USC involvement in MOCA had predated his own arrival at the museum.

In 2009, Young said, he had a meeting with Roski in which one of the topics was whether USC would be interested in helping to program MOCA's Geffen Contemporary Building, which remained closed most of that year to save costs. But Young said nothing came of it.

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.

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But the museum has struggled financially the last 10 years and its problems have overshadowed its achievements in the news since last summer, when longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel resigned under pressure and all four artists on the MOCA board soon resigned as trustees.

Baldessari was one of them. "The real problem [at MOCA] is it's a dysfunctional board. USC has deep pockets, but how much money they would give would be [an important] thing, and how much influence they would have on the direction of MOCA because of that money would be another thing," Baldessari said.

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. The museum "has had a kind of minimal presence in L.A., and [an affiliation with MOCA] would enhance their status," Baldessari said.

Baldessari added that USC's Roski School of Fine Arts "is beginning to raise its profile, but it's still not on the level" in art-world prestige as fine arts departments at UCLA, California Institute of the Arts, Otis College of Art and Design, Pasadena's Art Center College of Design and UC San Diego.

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 Broad wrote in July for The Times' opinion pages: Broad said the budget for 2012-13 was $14.3 million, which would be MOCA's lowest 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. His 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.

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. Its annual operating budget has risen to $17.2 million, surpassing MOCA's.

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

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.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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