Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Chapter 1 (Part 3): MOCA’s White Knight

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“I had no intention of getting involved in MOCA, until it got into trouble[i]
– Eli Broad

In fall 2008, a long-term beneficiary of Eli Broad’s largesse was in alarming financial trouble; the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) could no longer hide its vertiginous financial mess.  In an article titled “L.a.’s Moca In Deep Financial Trouble,” the Los Angeles Times reported MOCA had mismanaged its finances for more than a decade.[ii]  The board of trustees had almost completely drained the $200 million endowment by regularly dipping into it to cover costs of expensive exhibitions and operating overhead; overspending an average $1 million a year since 2000.[iii]  The public was shocked and enraged; consequently, there was a rapid exodus of board members.[iv] MOCA needed a hero with a rescue plan.

LACMA’s Michael Govan proposed one rescue plan: a partnership in which MOCA would maintain its independence and retain at least one of its venues (the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo) and in exchange MOCA would share its collection with LACMA.[v]  Details of the offer were never fully disclosed, but it seemed to be Govan’s attempt to secure a large and well-regarded contemporary art collection for LACMA, and a way to reduce (if not eliminate) LACMA’s need of the Broad collections.

Govan’s offer seemed to be the final straw in the already strained relationship between him and Broad.  Broad openly chastised Govan in the Los Angeles Times for his proposed merger plan, and curiously quoted the film Jerry McGuire to demand, “Show me the money.”[vi] Broad had proposed his own rescue plan and was offering a $30 million lifeline to MOCA.  Govan was meddling in his plans.

Eli Broad in the first museum he founded on Grand Avenue.

Eli Broad in the first museum he founded on Grand Avenue.

Broad had been instrumental in the founding of MOCA in the late 70s.  He devised an ingenious use of tax revenue from the construction of skyscrapers on Bunker Hill to build MOCA Grand Avenue.  Broad explains the founding and funding of MOCA in the catalogue published for the first exhibition of his collections at LACMA:

The city required real estate developers to spend 1½ percent of their costs for art.  My thought was, ‘Why don’t we aggregate that and create and institution with that money, rather than letting them spend it on individual sculptures of paintings for lobbies[…] The mayor, Tom Bradley, promised to get funds from the developers for the building.[vii]

Broad served as MOCA’s founding chairman from 1979 until 1984, after which he was made a life trustee (a non-voting member). Since then he had become more involved with other L.A. art organizations, mostly LACMA.  His preference of LACMA had obviously reversed during 2008.

MOCA’s financial crisis was the preoccupation of press and prattle the final three months of 2008.  The exodus of board members, some speaking on and some off-the-record, and MOCA’s staff threatening to unionize in the event of a LACMA merger were all fodder for the press.[viii]  The story was so long-lived because of the MOCA board’s inability to make a timely decision. One board member, speaking off-the-record, told the Los Angeles Times the board had been unable to decide on Broad’s offer because it came with too many strings (as Broad’s philanthropy tends to).[ix]  Some of these “strings” may or may not have included a provision that would have put the Broad Art Foundation in control of MOCA in exchange for the bailout.[x]

These overly domineering strings, if they ever existed, were eventually removed from the negotiation table.  Before the end of the year, the MOCA board announced it would accept Broad’s lifeline of $30 million.  The $30 million was not a cash infusion:  Half of this was a challenge grant, Broad would donate up to $15 million and MOCA was expected to raise a matching sum from board members and/or the public.[xi] The other $15 million would directly support exhibitions over the next three years.  Broad’s bailout gave him considerable clout at MOCA, even if he was technically a non-voting member.

With MOCA’s director, Jeremy Strick, having been ousted during the debacle,[xii] MOCA was in need of new leadership.  With the announcement of the acceptance of Broad’s financial rescue plan also came the news that Charles E. Young, UCLA Chairman Emeritus, had been named MOCA’s first CEO. [xiii]  Broad had asked Young, his personal friend, to come on board.  The position was temporary and Young was brought in to fix the immediate problems, prior to a search for a new director.  One of Young’s first goals was to reduce annual spending from $23 to $15.5 million.[xiv] This was achieved through a temporary closure of the Geffen Contemporary exhibition space, and a staff reduction of 20% (16 full-time and 16 part-time jobs).[xv]  Several large and hotly anticipated shows (read expensive) were cancelled or postponed as an immediate cost-cutting maneuver.  The first show to open following Broad’s bailout was Collection: MOCA’s First Thirty Years, a title that hopefully anticipating another 30 years.  The show was drawn from the museum’s permanent collection as a reminder of what had been worth saving.

A year later at the beginning of 2010, it was announced that New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch would be MOCA’s new director. The art world was flabbergasted. New Yorkers lamented the loss of such an influential player to, of all places, Los Angeles.  The non-profit world was outraged a member of the for-profit world had been deemed an appropriate choice to helm MOCA.[xvi]  Broad championed Deitch,[xvii] drawing a parallel to the famous and well-respected curator Walter Hopps who had been the director of the Ferus Gallery before becoming the director Pasadena Art Museum and later of the Menil Collection.

MOCA’s director and a non-voting board member…

MOCA’s director and a non-voting board member…

Besides initiating the change of power and leadership, Broad also had an un-ignorable opinion about MOCA’s recent exhibitions. He openly criticized the museum’s exhibition program of being elitist, too focused on academic reception, and lacking in public interest. “The exhibition programme is going to have to be more populist than esoteric shows that simply advance scholarship.”[xviii]

During MOCA’s first 30 years it was admired for its scholarship and for being what the New York Times’ Roberta Smith called a “feeder museum,”[xix] organizing shows, which would then travel the country and world.  Many of these well-regarded shows were developed by long-time MOCA curator Paul Schimmel including an impressive list of major retrospectives including Willem De Kooning (2002), Sigmar Polke (1996), Charles Ray (1999), and Robert Rauschenberg combines (2006).  Schimmel was also responsible for challenging thematic shows including The Interpretive Link: Abstract Surrealism into Abstract Expressionism, Works on Paper, 1938-1948 (1987), The Figurative Fifties: New York Figurative Expressionism (1988), Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition 1955–62 (1992), and Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s (1992).  MOCA does have some history of populist shows predating Deitch, including shows like © Murakami (2007), and Ecstasy (2005) that were organized by Schimmel.  Schimmel, who has been chief curator since 1990, continued to organize scholarly-driven shows under Deitch’s leadership including a recent Arshile Gorky retrospective and MOCA’s contribution to the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative, Under the Big Black California Sun.  Rumors abounded about tensions in Schimmel and Deitch’s relationship.

Whatever peoples’ opinions of Deitch, no one can deny he has implemented programs that have realized Broad’s imposed goal of increasing attendance.  Deitch has been responsible for several exhibitions with wide pubic appeal in the limited time he has been director.  Fashion and film-obsessed visitors swarmed MOCA’s Pacific Design Center location to see the timely Rodarte: States of Matter, which showcased the fashion house’s designs for the must-see film of 2010, Black Swan. Deitch’s first show at MOCA was Dennis Hopper: Double Standard, a retrospective of the artist/actor/filmmaker painting, sculpture and photography.  The show opened less than a month after Hopper’s death…

A street artist’s rendition of Broad and Deitch.

A street artist’s rendition of Broad and Deitch.

The most successful exhibition in terms of turnstile numbers MOCA has seen under Deitch is the summer of 2011’s Art in the Streets.  The show of graffiti and other street art was organized by Deitch seemingly overnight, and drew a grand total of 201,352 visitors surpassing a previous record held by MOCA’s 2002 Andy Warhol retrospective.  Critics of Deitch were quick to point out that Art in the Streets had run significantly longer than the Warhol retrospective and so while more visitors saw it, it had not been the most well-attended show.[xx] Another contributing factor to the high attendance included free admission on Mondays sponsored by the infamous Banksy. The fact that Banksy was featured prominently in the show and was having a huge moment following Exit Through the Gift Shop’s Oscar nomination and the film’s subsequent popularity may also have helped.  One day I was walking downtown, and was asked erroneously by a passing motorist which way the “Banksy show” was.  It is also important to mention that Art in the Streets drew many repeat visitors.  I myself saw the show five times; a colleague went six times, three of those times just to visit the exhibition gift shop.

In Deitch, Broad had succeeded in finding a director who could achieve his goals to increase MOCA’s attendance. But is this goal really such an important one?  When The Art Newspaper released its Top 100 Survey of Museum Attendance Worldwide that year, the Los Angeles Times took the opportunity to interview several local museum leaders.[xxi]  Director Ann Philbin of the Hammer Museum at UCLA had a refreshing response to the Hammer not being in the Top 100 List:

When attendance figures are overvalued in museums, it can lead to mediocrity in programming. The focus becomes the tried-and-true blockbusters. We always say we’ll do a show that 12 people want to see if we think it’s important to do.[xxii]

Deitch’s response to the same topic: “We would like to bring our attendance to the 500,000 level, and we’d like to do it quickly.”[xxiii] Priorities…

As with LACMA, Broad’s involvement at MOCA has lasting effects beyond the construction of a building or a much-need cash donation. Broad’s actions had shifted MOCA’s very mission.  He does not literally decide the exhibition programming, but his $15 million for exhibition costs means his opinions matter in the planning of shows (at least for the period of three years).  Evidence of this influence is the new course of decidedly populist exhibitions like Rodarte and Art in the Streets. I haven’t even mentioned MOCA’s hosting of a traveling exhibition organized by Christie’s auction house of the late Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels—I did not have the opportunity to see it, but I sure wanted to—for its academic rigor of course.[xxiv]  Exhibitions motivated by scholarly reception (arguably problematic as well) have been replaced with exhibitions custom-built and curated by the Beastie Boys or James Franco to achieving turnstile numbers.  Others shows aim to bring in a certain amount of Latinos, or blacks, or first time visitors into MOCA.  This is Broad’s goal (the literal mission of the Broad Art Foundation): to make contemporary art accessible to the widest possible audience.  But should Broad’s goal also become MOCA’s goal just because it accepted Broad’s rescue plan?  Regardless, people now flock to MOCA to see things like graffiti, fashion, celebrity and jewels.

(Rebel at MOCA, by James Franco.)

If at LACMA Broad was concerned with the visibility of his own collection; then at MOCA he was concerned with the greater visibility for MOCA’s collection.  Broad’s influence (and money) have ushered noticeable programmatic shifts at the two museums: at LACMA, a new focus on contemporary art; and at MOCA, a refocus on the museum’s own collection and a new focus on popular programming.  Both institutions will suffer or stomach the effects of Broad’s involvement long into the future.  Neither of these changes in focus has been absolutely adverse, and both are arguably positive improvements.  What is problematic is that these shifts have not been identified and initiated by the organizations themselves or even by their boards.  One man with his own vision has instigated them.

Broad latest endeavor, however, takes venture philanthropy into another magnitude; involving not millions, but billions of dollars, years of development, and undeniably enduring effects.

[i] Bob Colacello, “The City of Warring Angels,” Vanity Fair, August 2010.
[ii] Mike Boehm, “L.a.’s Moca in deep financial trouble,” Los Angeles Times, November 19, 2008.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Mike Boehm, “MOCA’s board exodus: Nine member have left,” Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2009.
[v] Diane Haithman and Mike Boehm, “LACMA proposes a merger with MOCA,” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2008.
[vi] Mike Boehm, “Eli Broad fires back at LACMA’s rival plan to rescue MOCA,” Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2008.
[vii] Stephanie Baron, Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collections, LACMA, 2001, p. 22.
[viii] William Poundstone, “MOCA: a Minimal Future,” Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, November 30, 2008, blogs.artinfo.com/lacmonfire/2008/11/30/moca-a-minimal-future.
[ix] Mike Boehm, “Eli broad says there are no strings on his $30-million MOCA bailout offer,” Los Angeles Times, December 3, 2008.
[x] Mike Boehm, “Eli broad fires back.”
[xi] Mike Boehm, “Eli broad says there are no strings.”
[xii] Diane Haithman. “Director Strick said to be latest casualty of MOCA,” Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2008.
[xiii] Diane Haithman, “New CEO Young: Seeing past the storm at MOCA,” Los Angeles Times, December 29, 2008.
[xiv] Mike Boehm, “MOCA ordered to revamp its budget practices,” Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2010.
[xv] Diane Haithman, “MOCA CEO reveals details of museum layoffs, cutbacks,” Los Angeles Times, January 30, 2009.
[xvi] Christopher Knight, “MOCA’s complicated choice of a new director,” Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2010.
[xvii] Sarah Douglas, “Deitch, Broadly Speaking,” ARTINFO, January 13, 2010, http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/33618/deitch-broadly-speaking.
[xviii] David D’Arcy, “…And pull in the crowds, says Broad,” The Art Newspaper, July-August 2010.
[xix] Roberta Smith, “Here’s How to Rescue a Museum at the Brink,” New York Times, December 7, 2008.
[xx] David Ng, “‘Art in the Streets’ sets record for MOCA, sort of,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2011.
[xxi] Jori Finkel, “Attendance at L.A. museums lags behind,” Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2011.
[xxii] Ibid.
[xxiii] Ibid.
[xxiv] Christopher Knight, “MOCA shills for Christie’s,” Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2011

4 Responses

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  1. […] reached previously unknown extents with these complicated dealings.  Comparatively, LACMA and MOCA’s arrangements with Broad were simple, though they will feel the effects of his philanthropy on their missions for years to […]

  2. […] others don’t step up because they expect Broad to.  When something goes wrong in Los Angeles, as it did with MOCA, everyone expects Broad to ride in on a white horse and save the damsel regardless of the attached […]

  3. […] one of the founders/designers of Guess?, jumped the MOCA ship during the 2008 financial disaster, but rejoined the board in October 2012.  He and his brother Paul just purchased of the […]

  4. […] rest. It is speculated that Broad will engage in the same strategies that enabled the creation of MOCA on Grand Avenue in the 1980s. Back then Broad cleverly consolidated the tax revenue generated in the massive […]

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