Eli Broad’s recent defense of LA MoCA’s decision to part ways with Paul Schimmel contains an interesting narrative. Obviously, the famously controlling Broad is giving us his version of what happened at MoCA then and now.
Broad’s tale begins with the museum’s legacy of success when the small museum punched above its weight and great curators and directors like Richard Koshalek and Pontus Hulten were able to set a benchmark of attendance at a quarter of a million people.
Why is attendance important? Another commentator has criticized Broad’s dollar per visitor metric (below) as an unseemly measure of a museum show’s value. But a museum is an institution that fulfills its own mission primarily by bringing persons in direct contact with art and putting that art in an appropriate and valuable context.
All the scholarship and conservation work that a museum does is important but secondary to that mission. A ground-breaking show that is poorly attended and later experienced only through the catalogue may be valuable too but it cannot be judged a success. Just as a critically-acclaimed play that closes after a short run, even if the Playbill becomes a treasured document, cannot be a success:
- MOCA’s annual expenses spiraled out of control, rising to an annual budget of $24 million. Its staff swelled to twice the size of its peer institutions. Attendance dropped to a low of 148,000, and MOCA dipped into its endowment to fund its operating expenses, drawing down the endowment to $5 million. Had MOCA’s endowment been properly invested, and had it not been raided, it could have amounted to about $100 million today. […] MOCA’s endowment is now pushing $20 million; next year its budget is $14.3 million, and in 2011, attendance was more than 400,000 — 2 1/2 times what it was when the budget was $24 million.
- Over the years, MOCA has mounted many great exhibitions. However, the museum has also curated a number of exhibitions that were costly and poorly attended, often exceeding $100 per visitor.
- They also look forward to MOCA showing more of its permanent collection — 80% of which has not been seen in the last 10 years.