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MOCA Edges Closer to Broad Bailout

by Trevor Thomas
Contributor
Saturday Dec 20, 2008
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Following a week of fast paced developments concerning the near bankrupt Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), trustees edged closer to accepting philanthropist Eli Broad’s offer of thirty million no-string dollars if the local philanthropic community will raise $15 million in matching funds.

The no-strings pledge by Broad likely contains one string, though: the resignation of MOCA director Jeremy Strick. Following the first of two emergency Board of Trustee meetings this week, one board member declared off-the-record that Strick had tendered his resignation in a "tearful" session.

Nonsense, said the museum’s paid hack. "MOCA’s official position is that Strick did not resign as the director of MOCA," spokeswoman Elizabeth Hinckley commented. (For readers too young to recall the Nixon era, that kind of statement is called a "non-denial denial." Expect the moving vans to pull up in front Strick’s Westwood mansion in the near future.)

While almost everyone agrees the $470,000-a-year former Chicago Institute of Art curator vastly increased the scope of MOCA’s collection and heightened its stature in the art world, he did so by profligate spending and inattention to the museum’s dwindling capital endowment. Under Strick’s tenure, MOCA’s operating expenses grew so exponentially that $20 million worth of the $35 million endowment Strick inherited is gone, thought some of it vanished as a result of the financial market collapse. More troubling, an additional $7.5 million in "restricted" funds - donations made to MOCA for specific purposes - has been raided to provide money for day to day operations. The practice is dicey enough that the California Attorney General’s office has launched a forensic investigation into MOCA’s financial practices.

On Tuesday, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) formally offered a merger arrangement with MOCA that would permit MOCA to remain in its current location and keep its collection intact, one of the primary concerns regarding MOCA’s ongoing viability. Briskly rejecting the offer, which many view as the death of the downtown museum as an independent institution, the trustees’ actions indicated they are moving ever closer to accepting Broad’s proposal. However, Broad spokeswoman Karen Denne said late Thursday that "there is not a deal yet."

On Thursday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sent a letter in to the ongoing trustees’ meeting addressed to board co-chairmen Tom Unterman and David Johnson asking that the board allow for a 30-day public comment period before making any decision. MOCA Mobilization, a grass roots group of MOCA supporters outside the power grid of museum operations, agreed: "In his letter the Mayor stated that he intends to convene a panel of experts with public oversight. We support the Mayor’s position requesting participation of the Board of Trustees in a public review process. It is vital that the public remain informed and vigilant during the difficult process of restructuring," the group’s official statement read.

Many remain suspicious of Eli Broad’s involvement in the MOCA bailout given his seemingly conflicting interests. Broad is also a life trustee of LACMA and the founder and director of the Broad Foundation, whose own collection of contemporary art rivals that of MOCA. Broad recently cemented his ties to LACMA by donating $56 million to build the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at LACMA’s Wilshire Blvd. complex. It was believed he intended to populate the new museum space with his vast private art collection but at the last moment, he surprised all by declaring his intention to turn it into a sort of permament traveling exhibition, with BCAM only a whistle stop on the tour. Broad also plans to build yet another contemporary art museum on the Westside which will be under the control of the Broad Foundation exclusively. Suspicious types still wonder if he doesn’t have his eyes on Strick’s magnificent collection at MOCA. Broad flatly denies it.

Though Broad’s promises of a no-strings bailout is a lifeline to the dying MOCA, the confluence of big art and big money will enter a new era if MOCA accepts his offer, and the resulting mishmash of provenance over Los Angeles’ contemporary art heritage will be interesting to watch develop. Whatever the result MOCA General Director Jeremy Strick will not likely be a part of it; that much is clear.

Edge writer David De Bacco contributed to this story.

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