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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.