The troubled Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is in talks for a possible partnership with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a development that could cloud MOCA’s acquisition by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The talks were initiated by billionaire Eli Broad, the MOCA board member and leading donor who opposed a 2008 attempt by the county museum to absorb MOCA.
According to National Gallery board chairman John Wilmerding, the talks have focused on ways in which the federally funded museum might help MOCA create fresh exhibitions.
“The hope is that our name, our programming, our expertise gives them a sense of backbone and stability,” Wilmerding said Tuesday. “Eli Broad is confident about this, that their trustees can raise the money, rebuild the endowment and bring it back to a place of fullness.”
He added that the terms might include a five-year agreement but no financial support. “We’re not going to be providing a financial underpinning, or raise their endowment,” he said.
The development was first reported by the New York Times.
Broad declined comment, and MOCA officials did not return calls.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has proposed acquiring MOCA, and raising $100 million as part of the union. LACMA Director Michael Govan has said his museum on Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile would preserve the MOCA name and keep its two downtown buildings in operation.
Govan said LACMA made its proposal at the invitation of MOCA board members, but has yet to receive a formal response.
Asked about the prospect of an alliance between MOCA and the National Gallery, Govan said: “If that partnership makes MOCA strong and independent, we’d all be for it. But of course I don’t know all the details yet of exactly what it entails.”
USC has confirmed that it too is in discussions with MOCA about a possible partnership.
Wilmerding said discussions have involved National Gallery director Earl “Rusty” Powell and “a couple of” MOCA trustees besides Broad, and that the details could be firm enough within a week to be formally presented to each museum’s board.
Powell was the director of LACMA for 12 years before leaving for his current job in 1992.
Wilmerding said the partnership under discussion would call for an infusion of National Gallery brainpower and art loans to MOCA, which has seen its curatorial staff whittled from five to two over the last 10 months. Chief curator Paul Schimmel was forced to resign after clashing with MOCA’s director, Jeffrey Deitch.
“National Gallery curators may have ideas for exhibitions to show at MOCA that may come to the Gallery later,” Wilmerding said. “They can do something creative on the West Coast with the collection. The hope is we can generate exhibitions and excitement and programming, new research projects that bring the place to life.”
He said now is a good time to share with MOCA, because upcoming renovations at the National Gallery will limit what it can display for the coming two years.
The aim of a partnership with MOCA would be “to stabilize MOCA as an independent institution,” Wilmerding said. “It’s conversations about what we can do to help it get back on its feet.”
Wilmerding said he would not rule out a deeper partnership later on, perhaps giving the National Gallery a more formal governance role at MOCA, or perhaps even making MOCA a West Coast affiliate of the National Gallery, whose recent annual operating budgets have been about $125 million.
“It’s a nice speculation, but I don’t believe that would come up for at least five years,” he said. “It’s certainly not on the table now. Either they’ll raise the money to save themselves or they won’t. The sole purpose is to see what we can accomplish, and it may be a different ballgame in five years.”
The National Gallery of Art has a collection of more than 124,000 works, and its endowment totaled $389 million in 2011, according to its most recent public tax return.
Wilmerding said the federal government covers basic maintenance and security expenses, and some salaries; most exhibition costs are covered with private donations. Last year the National Gallery’s federal funding dropped from $167 million to $128 million for operations and capital costs, according to budget information on its website.
Times staff writer Jori Finkel contributed to this report.