Everybody’s got an opinion on how the fix the problems with Los Angeles’s MoCA. Roberta Smith offered hers on Sunday; the LA Times’s Tim Rutten offered his on Saturday. Rutten says the board was irresponsible and should go. Smith says the art world–especially the interested parties who’ve benefited from the museum’s profligate but influential shows–should step up and raise money. They’re probably both right. But they paint a picture of an institution too heedless of practicality to save itself.
Rutten starts us off with a plea to clean house:
Thomas Unterman and David G. Johnson, the co-chairmen of MOCA’s board, [must] resign immediately, along with their fellow trustees. Once that’s accomplished, the rescue of the museum can begin, a process that probably will require the replacement of its senior professional executives, starting with Director Jeremy Strick.
If this sounds draconian, consider the fact that it’s hard to recall another major nonprofit cultural institution whose trustees and staff have behaved with quite the arrogant irresponsibility we have seen at MOCA. [ . . . ] As one trustee, who also asked to remain anonymous, said this week, “All this happened without anybody on the board screaming — and somebody should have screamed.”
A key problem, according to several board members, was the way Unterman handled the finances of the institution during his years on the board. These board members say that Unterman, who headed MOCA’s finance committee, was the leader of a small faction of trustees who argued that the museum’s problems would be solved, if only it could grow. It’s true that MOCA needs more space to display its significant permanent collection of postwar art, but the notion of growing its way out of these difficulties is frankly ludicrous.
That’s especially true when the endowment was shrinking because it was being used to pay for operating expenses. One reason for that was the curator focused approach at MoCA that spared no expense in creating brilliant shows that bolstered careers and fed the rest of the museum-art industry complex. With that set up, here’s Smith:
Everyone needs to step up, including Los Angeles museum professionals, current and former trustees, artists and interested parties everywhere.
But let’s back up for a second. What did Los Angeles get from the Museum of Contemporary Art, despite its chronic mismanagement of money? Plenty. Mainly, the city’s first — and still only — world-class museum.
Brought into existence in 1979 by a contentious group of Los Angeles collectors and artists in a touch-and-go process, the museum is known for an exhibition record that many feel is the best in the country and even the world. Its sweeping thematic-survey exhibitions reshaped our thinking about postwar art by venturing beyond the canon of American and Western European artists, beyond the limits of painting and sculpture. [ . . . ]
Yet along the way the museum has accommodated a level of financial brinkmanship and organizational dysfunction that often seems deluded. Its founding director was Pontus Hulten, the European impresario who helped invent the notion of the star curator and the sprawling thematic survey and was often indifferent to matters financial. Richard Koshalek, who, after working beside Hulten, became director in 1982, was another visionary, known to operate by seat-of-the-pants improvisation. For better yet also worse, this museum always put curators first. [ . . . ]
But perhaps there is another way. What if everyone else stopped waiting for the rich people to write all the checks? Their support will be necessary, but the larger art world can also pitch in — not just with emotional support and excitement, but with money.
Here’s How to Rescue a Museum at the Brink (New York Times)
What MoCA Really Needs (LA Times)