The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has proposed acquiring the troubled Museum of Contemporary Art — a move that would combine the biggest art collection west of the Mississippi with one of the world's most prestigious troves of contemporary art.
The acquisition could put to rest long-standing concerns over the financial viability of the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA. But it also faces potential opposition from the region's most influential art patron, billionaire Eli Broad.
In funding a 2008 MOCA bailout valued at up to $30 million, Broad won a stipulation that MOCA could not be acquired for 10 years by "any museum located within 100 miles of MOCA's Grand Avenue facility," excluding "educational institutions or museums affiliated with educational institutions." Broad declined immediate comment Thursday.
The acquisition offer was made in a letter from the leaders of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, to the co-chairs of the MOCA board.
LACMA would preserve MOCA's two downtown locations and operate them under the MOCA name. With money an obvious issue for MOCA's future, the letter guaranteed that LACMA would raise $100 million for the combined museums as a condition of the deal.
"MOCA has a great brand, a great history and its art collection is known and loved internationally," Michael Govan, LACMA's executive director, said. "Combining the two museums would create one of the largest and most significant art museums in the U.S."
MOCA officials did not respond to requests for comment.
MOCA has seen the departure of three of its five curators since last June — starting with the forced-resignation of Paul Schimmel, the museum's longtime chief curator. Schimmel had clashed with Jeffrey Deitch, who became director in 2010. Schimmel's departure was soon followed by the resignation of all four artists who sat on MOCA's board.
Deitch was from the start a controversial hire: Museum directors usually come up through the nonprofit curatorial ranks, but he had made his reputation as a successful and adventurous art dealer in New York. But Deitch had little or no background in running a large organization or fundraising for a nonprofit museum.
At a public forum during an art fair last June, Deitch conceded that he had a "rude awakening" when it came to fundraising, a crucial and time-consuming task for museum directors. He did not return calls for comment Thursday.
John Baldessari, one of the artists who resigned from the board of MOCA last year, supported the possible combination of the two institutions.
"LACMA is an encyclopedic museum, but they are weak when it comes to contemporary art, and this would make their holdings in contemporary art better than the Metropolitan [Museum of Art in New York] in some ways," he said. "So that's pretty exciting."
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he expected MOCA to explore all options.
"The art is the principle thing here, and the people who want to see the art," he said. "The trustees should maximize opportunities for the public to see the art under knowledgeable and competent stewardship, no matter who that might be. LACMA is capable of this, but they're not the only ones capable of doing this."
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement, "I am excited there is a serious desire to merge two signature L.A. institutions that help form the core of the vibrant and rich arts culture" of Los Angeles. "I stand ready to assist in whatever way may be most helpful."
LACMA is a public-private partnership, receiving about 40% of its annual budget from the county. If LACMA were to run and fund MOCA as well, Yaroslavsky said, those added expenses would be shouldered by private donors, so "it will have no impact on the county's financial relationship with LACMA."
The museum's attendance last year reached an all time-high of 1.3 million, compared with MOCA numbers that are typically below 400,000 annually. LACMA has 344 full-time employees, including 34 curators.
In the 2011-12 fiscal year, LACMA had cash expenses of $87.3 million according to the financial statement published on its website. The only public indication of MOCA's current budget came in an opinion piece by Broad last summer in The Times, in which he said the museum was being prudently managed and had a $14-million budget for 2012-13. That would be MOCA's lowest spending level since the 1990s.
This is not LACMA's first effort to take over MOCA. Nor is it the only possible salvation for MOCA. The museum is in ongoing talks about somehow teaming up with USC.
When MOCA lurched to the brink of financial disaster in late 2008, LACMA trustees offered to help run the museum. MOCA trustees trying to preserve an independent organization decided instead to accept the bailout from Broad, who had a falling out with Govan after years of actively supporting LACMA. He gave MOCA $15 million for exhibitions over five years, which will expire at the end of 2013, and offered another $15 million in matching funds.
Broad is one of the MOCA trustees believed to be interested in some sort of partnership with USC.
USC officials said in December that the university was in "very preliminary" discussions with MOCA over "a possible partnership that would enhance the missions of both institutions," but gave no details about the scope of what was being discussed. A university spokesman said Thursday that the status of the talks remained the same.
Govan declined to discuss specific terms of his proposal, which was dated Feb. 24, signed by him and LACMA's board chairs and sent to MOCA's board chairs. But he described it as "friendly and cooperative — not aggressive," explaining that it was made in response to a request from MOCA board members.
"Yes, MOCA leadership initiated a request for a proposal. But back and forth people have been talking for years, so it's a blurry line," Govan said.
He spoke of MOCA and LACMA's collections as "especially complementary" with very little redundancy.
"After it was founded [in 1979], MOCA took the lead by far in acquiring contemporary art, while recently we've done really well," he said "Plus LACMA has the modern collection, all the Picassos and Matisses, so together you can really tell the story of 20th century art."
Govan declined to identify particular sources of funding for the $100 million promised in the letter to MOCA, noting instead: "LACMA has in the last 10 years raised $640 million in private money and that doesn't include art acquisitions. We have an anniversary coming up and intend to raise hundreds of millions more."
"The premise of this," he said, "is that it's easier to raise more money if there is a joint organization."
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