Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In Search of a More Nuanced Discussion about the Changes at MOCA | Open Thread

In case you missed it, super collector and philanthropist Eli Broad penned an op-ed in Sunday's Los Angeles Times, discussing the recent firing* of MOCA's chief curator Paul Schimmel and MOCA's future. You can count me among the people surprised that Mr. Broad (who not only has his own museum/s and is no longer a voting member of MOCA's board, but rather a "life trustee") became the voice of "putting the record straight" about the changes, rather than Jeffrey Deitch, who Broad claims "[the museum's] new beginning is now firmly in the hands of." But then again, perhaps it's an act of charity on Broad's part, as his op-ed has widely made him a target of scorn, and, well, Mr. Deitch has had more than his fair share of that since taking over as director at MOCA.
Now I suspect I may need to enter the Witness Relocation Program for pointing this out, but Mr. Broad does raise a few points that I've felt were missing in most of the online chatter I've read about the firing. Don't get me wrong; I think MOCA is a lesser museum for having lost Mr. Schimmel, but I do strongly feel that any rational assessment of the firing must take into account the practical financial issues in play here.
An attempt at a rational assessment has been offered by the Los Angeles Times' excellent arts journalist and critic Christopher Knight, who rightly (in my humble opinion) points out that "A museum is not a company. Corporate policy doesn't function well there." Mr. Knight begins with a very helpful summary:
If you're confused by the convulsive goings-on at the internationally admired Museum of Contemporary Art, which culminated in the June 25 firing of the illustrious chief curator instrumental in putting the museum on the map, don't be. It's not that complicated.

In fact it's quite simple — as easy as one, two, three:
  1. In 2008, MOCA was operating a stellar art program on a dysfunctional business plan. When the U.S. economy tanked, the museum careened into a ditch.
  2. In 2010, MOCA announced the unprecedented decision to put an accomplished businessman, one who built his career in art, in the director's chair, charged with fixing the broken business side. The reins were handed to a successful New York gallery owner with virtually no experience running a large nonprofit.
  3. By 2012, the new director had made little progress in repairing the museum's dysfunctional business plan, but he was far along in dismantling the once-stellar art program. Dumping the chief curator ignited an explosion.
But Mr. Knight leaves his readers assuming the solution to the dysfunctional business plan is for the museum's trustees to donate more money. In fact, he offers the somewhat misleading calculation that, because MOCA's "board of trustees has a combined net worth far in excess of $21 billion," the museum shouldn't have any financial troubles.
This gets to the heart of what, from the beginning of the online response to this story, has been bugging me though. It's not as if all $21 billion of their trustees' net worth should be at MOCA's disposal (that would bankrupt all its trustees). Indeed, what each trustee can or should put toward financing the museum, any museum, will vary per trustee and the other philanthropic commitments they have. Moreover, trustees donate according to a shared sense of purpose but also according to personal satisfaction that their money is doing "good." And "good" is so subjective it not only varies trustee to trustee, but I suspect (and no one is discussing this either) city to city. Indeed, different metropolises have very different cultural values and as such can support (or not support) very different types of museums. Despite the heroic efforts of Mr. Schimmel and his like-minded colleagues, it's  possible that LA simply can't sustain a museum with the program they envisioned. (Yes, I know, that sounds like New York snobbery, and perhaps it is, but it's also simply possible, so can we at least get the notion out there and talk about it?)
Indeed, a museum that can't produce their envisioned program on just the money they collect from ticket sales and/or other sources needs to either get more trustees or encourage the ones they have to donate more. The museum can't just ignore reality when that isn't happening. Mr. Knight rightly notes that MOCA's business plan was dysfunctional, but doesn't offer suggestions on how MOCA could get out of that situation other than to imply the current trustees should put up ever more money. I suspect that if that were ever going to be easy in Los Angeles, it would have happened before, or at least after Eli Broad rescued the museum with his $30 million hail Mary pass in 2008 (and did anyone really expect Broad to not want some influence in how that much money got spent?).
So what am I saying? That MOCA is now right to shift directions, having given the internationally admired program a good shot, but having not found the local funding to sustain it? Well, that's obviously not my call. I'm just tired of cringing when I read that a museum should not have to operate according to a corporate mind-set, as if that declaration in and of itself can produce operating funds. If the trustees were not chipping in enough to fund it and the series of past and present directors (let's not lay all the blame at Deitch's feet) were not able to get more trustees or wring more money out of the current ones, well, I'm sorry, but simply saying that a non-profit should get to play by different rules isn't going to pay the electric bills. A workable, practical solution is needed. And no one seems to be offering one. Well, Broad and Deitch think they are, but...ick.
Consider this an open thread on, yes I'll go there, whether LA can sustain a world-class curatorially innovative museum, and if so how? And by "how" I mean what are the practical specifics? Where will the money come from?
*Although the museum has insisted, and Mr. Broad also wrote, that Schimmel "resigned," the very argument that Broad puts forward in his op-ed all but confirms he was fired,  imo.


Blogger Tracey said...

I'm glad to hear this aspect of the discussion. I feel the same "ick" about what's happened but have the very same questions about whether or not LA can sustain a museum like MOCA as it has been. The culture of LA is very different from NY; everyone is interested Hollywoood and the museum going public seems to only be interested when there is either an element of Hollywood or something to do with Impressionists. This is the point I have been wondering about all along; do you continue to make MOCA a museum that is excellent in international approval but the local community isn't that interested in? Hope they will eventually get it? Or do you change the institution, give the people what they want?

7/10/2012 10:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People you need to run a going concern in the art world.

Top notch bean counter money person.

Super salesman bullshit Artist pretty person to bring in the whales.

a Curator who knows what the fuck they are doing.

everyone has to mesh and see the big picture. TEAM TEAM TEAM.

Deitch is a Fascinating character he is a short man , short men in life have the deck stacked against them. Was his Gallery realy that succsessful?

Vladimir Putin is the ultimate short guy.

7/10/2012 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger bgfa said...

I lived in Los Angeles for 13 years (until recently), ran a gallery there, and have to take serious issue with Tracey's statement that "everyone is interested in Hollywood." Not only is that false, it only serves to reinforce what people outside of Los Angeles believe about LA, and has no bearing whatsoever on the cultural life of the art world there.

Remember that Deitch came to LA from New York and is the one with the fascination with Hollywood, which is proving to be a big part of the undoing of this museum. Hollywood is a huge distraction from the real business of culture in Los Angeles, it steals attention and gives very little back.

MOCA can only be as good as its curatorial strengths. Pull out that foundation and all the rest is meaningless. I for one agree that if financing has been perpetually an issue then maybe the powers that be in Los Angeles should look harder at themselves as to why their support is not forth coming, but leveling the intellectual foundations of the museum is likely the worst possible way to address that.

7/10/2012 12:30:00 PM  
Blogger Tracey said...

BGFA - For sure "Hollywood" is an over used word. What I should have said (and I am an LA native, father was a film editor, etc) is that people are mostly interested in the film business. Not celebrity the way Deitch and others are (as in the recent mailing from Ace Gallery, with drawings of Angelyne) but in the real creative possibilites of film. The film industry is huge in LA and there's no avoiding it, it influences everything. I'm talking about the general public and the problems institutions have in getting the public interested. Art viewing doesn't have a deep tradition here , but visiting a movie set does. I completely agree with your last paragraph.

7/10/2012 04:03:00 PM  
Anonymous CultureShockArt said...

Can LA sustain a world class contemp museum? Of course it can. The question is can it sustain TWO or more? Ultimately I think it’s possible, but someone out there needs to connect the dots. A missing part of the dialog is the Broad Museum (opening across MOCA on Grand in 2014).

As far as this “Grand Contemporary” project is concerned, two important things stick out to me: 1.Broad wants to showcase more of MOCA’s permanent collection (80% has not been seen in 10 yrs?!), as well as his own (obviously), and 2.Deitch has been clear about his views on Contemporary art fusing media, music, entertainment and fashion (so the Hollywood angle is no surprise). The Geffen has been the venue for this synergy.

It appears as though the curator for the Broad Museum on Grand will need to become the intellectual magnet needed to sustain MOCA’s world class rep. Or MOCA is simply in preservation mode until the cream rises to the curatorial top. Ultimately, I see MOCA, the Geffen and the Broad Museum fusing into one (I’ve actually been saying this on my blog for a while). About Hollywood, I agree it’s a complete distraction, but a pervasive presence, so its influence on Contemporary Art simply needs to be harnessed more effectively.

7/10/2012 05:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about living within one's means? It's not rocket science that MOCA spent far beyond it's budget and that occured over a ten year period,I believe. So, it's time for the board, director and staff to get back to fiscal reality in tandem with excellent programming that will build on its curatorial integrity; garner critical acclaim thus drawing audiences and build membership, plus attracting more patrons$. Please, the world and L.A. have faced many a financial crisis before. Does anyone remember the early 90s? Change is inevitable. The good news is L.A. has many terrific cultural institutions to support. Go out and find the one(s) you like and stick with 'em through thick and thin. Just make sure the right people are in the positions of minding the store.

7/10/2012 10:08:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

So, it's time for the board, director and staff to get back to fiscal reality in tandem with excellent programming that will build on its curatorial integrity

I actually think this gets to the heart of why people are so dismayed about the changes, though. You can't "build upon your curatorial integrity" by simultaneously dismissing it. LAMOCA is respected worldwide because it produced smart, sometimes difficult exhibitions. The critical acclaim wasn't an accident and it certainly wasn't the museum's birthright. Without a sustained effort to not only produce exhibitions equally as smart and challenging, but even more so, that acclaim is a pipe dream.

7/11/2012 09:49:00 AM  
Blogger Eron Rauch said...

This is a bit off the cuff, so I'm not going to own everything here, but I don't think the question "Can Los Angeles sustain a museum like MOCA?" should be off the table, even if it's a bit painful to ask. The reason I say so is that the plight of MOCA is representative of the LA art world's fragmentation.

[I will say that laying it on some fixation with Hollywood (or the film industry) is actually the wrong tack to take though, even if it some bizzaro-world marketing version of that obsession has produced a couple of really bad shows at MOCA.]

The question should be more broadly: how do all of the pieces of LA's art world fit together?

From my experience living and working here as an art for almost 10 years, those pieces fit together in a very convoluted way; in ways that often combat each other.

For instance, LA and the surrounding area has a really large number of the top MFA programs in the country. CalArts, UC Irvine, UCLA, Otis, Calremont's painting program etc. These schools tend to produce very sophisticated artists with a deep interest in conceptual strategies (much like MOCAs previous shows often highlighted.)

This groundswell of high educated students and faculty of course gives us a wealth fascinating small galleries, underground space, magazines and non-profit spaces that highlight conceptual, performance, and installation flavored work. (Along with a couple of great small museums like RedCat, the Santa Monica Museum of Art and LACE.)

We jump straight from there to solid late-career galleries over which the Getty stands like a monolith.

We're at the same time the breeding ground to Shepherd Fairey and others of that hip cadre of pop-goth-surrealist-illustrators that follow in the highly commercial footsteps of Billy Shire, Murakami and Banksy.

The middle ground of art — the places that connect the audiences of these three poles of the art world seem to be mostly missing in the Los Angeles "art scene." I'm thinking of spaces like the Tate or shows like the Whitney Biennele or PS1.

To give them some credit, LACMA has worked very hard to fill that gap from a non-profit standpoint, but they often come across as schizophrenic, such as having "Tim Burton "and "Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972–1987" up at the same time!

MOCA very well could and should fill that roll of being the purveyors of culturally savvy, current and sophisticated art for the public & the art world — especially with the insanely fast re-development of downtown Los Angeles into the hippest, most happening place to live in the city. But being a leading voice in art that can command respect from all sides is lost, maybe for good, with all of the public shenanigans and silly shows like Dennis Hopper.

I mean, as a personal example I've just tuned it all out to the point that I didn't even know they had a tribute to Mike Kelly up right now. If they can't get people in the doors to that show, I don't know what to say about the state of art in Los Angeles.

[Again, I won't own everything here, but I've been listening to this debate for a while and I finally felt it was time to weigh in if only to clarify my opinions to myself.]

7/13/2012 04:57:00 PM  

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