Will LA lead the way?

lamocaThe future of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is being decided as we speak. Two scenarios have been preoccupying the press — a LACMA-MOCA merger or a “bailout” by Eli Broad — and the final outcome may be a mix of the two, or something different. This is LA, a city of white knights and twisting plots. Events don’t always follow the predictable screenplay. (I have long been a fan of a Getty-MOCA combo, but that, apparently, is not in the cards.)

Whatever happens, the art world is watching because MOCA’s problems won’t be the last. Museum finances across the country (and the world) are shaky, and some institutions are stretched to the limit. As Warren Buffett likes to say, “It’s only after the tide goes out that you see who’s swimming naked.” But curiously, while much talk in the boom years centered on Faustian bargains that museums make to survive, it is only now, with the protective cover of philanthropic and endowment revenues suddenly removed, that the truly tough choices must be made.

Here might be the silver lining. In a world where Merrill Lynch can be sold in a day, we have yet to read about a single proactive arts merger in the papers. Cities across the nation are dotted with cultural institutions that cannot pay their way and are going after the same benefactors. But mergers and combinations remain options of last resort. That has to change.

The news from LA may also make future benefactors more cautious about building new infrastructure where institutions already exist. The museum landscape of LA is the ultimate example of the principle of “to each patron his own edifice.” Last but not least, if things get worse, we may yet witness a reassessment of government’s role in the arts, as happened on Wall Street.

What do you see as the larger lessons of Los Angeles?

One thought on “Will LA lead the way?

  1. It is shocking to see a museum like MOCA being in such a situation. While from an artistic and curatorial perspective MOCA has lead the way for many years within the sphere of larger museums in the US, the management seems to have seriously fucked up. I am surprised that all of this is only taking place now, according to MOCA employees and artists working with the museum financial difficulties have been part of the museums daily business for many years. No one seems to have heard the alarm bells ringing.

    Mergers would be a possibility but only if the merging institutions can remain independent form one another and continue their distinctive approaches to the presentation and preservation of art. MOCA and LACMA have clearly very different functions within the cultural landscape of LA and it would be more than sad to see one of the most forward thinking museums in the country disappear within the colossus that LACMA is.

    From talking to other curators and museum directors in the country, MOCA is just the tip of the iceberg. Many other museums are facing serious economical problems, some just as bad as MOCA, and I am wondering how that will effect the programs of these institutions. US museums have never been particularly adventurous and one worry is that exhibitions in mayor museums will become even more traditional in order to cozy up with patrons, sponsors and general audiences.

    The board of MOCA is meeting again today and hopefully a solution will be found to safe this exceptional museum. Merger, bailout or something else, it does not matter. It would be a serious disaster if this museum would not continue to exist and be able to continue to give us some of the most outstanding exhibition produced in any museum in the US today.

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