MOCA bets on festival’s star power

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Tight money and an investment in pop culture — two factors shaping Jeffrey Deitch’s leadership of the Museum of Contemporary Art — have come together in a decision this month to delay a scholarly exhibition and substitute a revenue-generating, corporate-funded festival curated by rapper Mike D of the Beastie Boys.

The delayed show, “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” is one of the sweeping examinations of movements and themes in contemporary art that have given MOCA a reputation as one of the world’s leading museums of post-World War II art. By pushing back its long-planned opening from April 8 to May 27, MOCA freed its Geffen Contemporary building for “Transmission LA: AV Club,” an 18-day festival beginning April 19 that’s a confluence of art, commerce and pop culture.

Deitch said he helped plan the festival for its sponsor, Mercedes-Benz, including recruiting Mike D as the curator who will oversee its offerings of art, music and food. Admission is free. With Mercedes covering the cost and making a contribution to the museum, Deitch expects it to generate several hundred thousand dollars for MOCA’s more conventional activities, while continuing his populist push.


“We need to build the museum as a social space,” Deitch said in an interview Tuesday at MOCA.

“Transmission: LA” dovetails with Deitch’s long-standing embrace of celebrity, fashion and youth culture, which was a key reason he was hired in 2010, the first career art dealer in memory to lead a major nonprofit American museum.

He established his knack for hip populism at his Deitch Projects gallery in New York City, drawing creative energy and fans from the street art, skate culture and independent music scenes as well as traditional art circles.

His Deitch Project days helped shape “Transmission LA.” Long a champion of New York artistJean-Michel Basquiat, Deitch got to know Mike D, whose real name is Mike Diamond, while serving as a source for “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” a 2010 documentary by the rapper’s wife, filmmaker Tamra Davis.

“I’m a fan of the Beastie Boys, and I got to understand that he has a wide understanding of contemporary art,” Deitch said.

Deitch’s connections and impresario’s touch paid off for MOCA last year with “Art in the Streets,” a show documenting the graffiti art movement that drew more than 201,000 visitors, ranking it with a 2002 Andy Warhol retrospective as the two best-attended shows in MOCA’s history.


But the sudden delay of “Ends of the Earth,” which was having fundraising difficulties, to make way for the revenue-injection of “Transmission LA” is a reminder that, despite its hipness factor, the nonprofit MOCA operates with almost no financial cushion.

The audited financial statement for 2010-11 that the museum released Tuesday provides a financial picture of Deitch’s first year on the job, and it shows that so far under him MOCA has failed to sustain the fundraising boost achieved in the 18 months before he took over — a period when MOCA leaders were spurred by the fiscal near-death experience the museum endured at the end of 2008.

While MOCA more or less broke even for the year ending last June 30, its fundraising declined by $4.5 million, more than offsetting an $800,000 revenue gain from attendance-driven admissions and museum store sales. The $1.9 million from admissions and sales, plus an additional $1 million from memberships that count as donations but are partly driven by how attractive the shows are, represented only 17% of MOCA’s revenue for the year.

MOCA had either a $504,000 surplus or a $302,000 deficit in its first year under Deitch, depending on whether one includes an $804,000 depreciation expense. That’s down from a $4.8-million surplus — depreciation included — in the year before he began as director.

Michael Harrison, the museum’s chief financial officer, said that for the current 2011-12 fiscal year, which ends June 30, he expects, not counting depreciation, “very close to a balanced budget, if not there,” with revenue comparable to the $17.2 million in 2010-11.

The fundraising gap between Deitch’s first year and the previous year was due partly to MOCA’s failure to qualify for another special endowment gift from Eli Broad. The philanthropist has promised to match


any contributions to the endowment, in hopes of rebuilding it to $38.2 million — where it stood in the early 2000s before a binge of overspending began, funded largely by raiding endowment funds that donors had stipulated were to remain untouched.

Broad gave a $2-million endowment match in 2009-10, but MOCA didn’t qualify for another in 2010-11. The board has resolved to gradually make the endowment whole again, but as of mid-2011 it remained $18.4 million short of the goal.

While there’s no deadline on Broad’s offer to match all new contributions to the endowment, $8.75 million of his $15-million pledge remains untapped. Meanwhile, the $3 million a year he has pledged for exhibitions accounted for nearly a quarter of all the museum’s fundraising in 2010-11; Broad will stop paying at the end of 2013, when his $15-million exhibition pledge will have been fulfilled.

Instead of continuing to rebuild the endowment, MOCA opted to build its cash reserves — a move that Deitch and David Johnson, the board’s co-chair, characterized as an ultra-conservative approach intended to create a rainy-day fund that can keep exhibitions going in case the economy tanks and fundraising becomes even harder.

Meanwhile, MOCA will see its curatorial staff pared from five to four when Philipp Kaiser, curator of “Ends of the Earth,” leaves after the exhibition opens. His departure has been known since last summer, when Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, tapped him as its next director, starting in November.

Deitch said that Kaiser will not be replaced. Guest curators will help fill the gap — among them Jessica Morgan, a curator at the Tate Modern in London who’ll oversee a show on Swiss artist Urs Fischer scheduled for fall 2013.


MOCA also won’t replace two recent high-level departures, Chief Operating Officer David Galligan and head fundraiser Sarah Sullivan, both of whom left without explanation after less than a year on the job. Deitch and Johnson declined to comment on their exits, saying it was a confidential personnel matter. Harrison and two fundraising staffers, Veridiana Pontes-Ring and Jill Haynie, have taken over their duties.

One of MOCA’s biggest challenges, Deitch said, is raising money for shows like “Ends of the Earth,” which documents an important development in art but lacks star power. It’s much easier, he said, to raise money for shows by popular figures, “where collectors are excited about the artists and brands want to be connected to the artists’ image. Fundraising for historical shows with great artists who don’t include today’s art-world stars is a great challenge.”

It’s important to meet that challenge, he said, because “this is at the heart of what we do at MOCA: historical exhibitions that take a lot of effort and years to put together, and that are expensive because works come from all over the world.”

MOCA has built its board in recent years, including the arrival of billionaires Wallis Annenberg, the Ukrainian magnate Victor Pinchuk and New York hedge fund boss Steven Cohen — who is a finalist in the bidding to buy the Dodgers. But annual board member dues are just $75,000, plus entry fees of $250,000 or $150,000 for new members (out-of-towners pay less).

“The first step is to get people inside our museum family, then get them excited and enthusiastic,” Deitch said — with passion for an institution a key to the seven-figure donations that MOCA has historically had difficulty in clinching.

Exhibition funding is more tangible and immediate, and with “Ends of the Earth,” Deitch said, “we didn’t want to give up, and we found a way to do it.”


“Ends of the Earth,” which chronicles the formative years of a movement whose signature works are etched into landscapes in remote places, had been in the works for about four years. It will feature about 250 works by about 90 artists, including three installations from the 1970s that will be re-created at MOCA by the original artists.

About a month ago, he said, the show’s lead funder, Los Angeles conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, a member of MOCA’s board, volunteered to create a new work on vinyl, and sell it with the proceeds — likely six figures — going entirely toward the land art exhibition’s $1-million budget.

Kaiser, who is curating “Ends of the Earth,” with Miwon Kwon, a UCLA art historian, said artists and lenders didn’t object to the postponement.

“I was concerned that the artists were concerned, but they weren’t,” he said. “It’s unfortunate when you have to postpone an exhibition that late, but it won’t be a huge issue, and we can realize the project as planned.”