What's next: LA County Museum of Art offers to merge with Museum of Contemporary Art

Transmission MOCA

Ashley Myers-Turner/KPCC

The Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles features works from many of the top modern artists. In an exhibit by Jim Drain & Ara Peterson, MOCA visitors walked through spinning spirals.

A medium size earthquake hit the Los Angeles art world Thursday.

The L.A. County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard is moving to acquire and run the much smaller Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown L.A.

The news is the latest episode in a drama for MOCA that saw the museum teeter on the verge of bankruptcy five years ago.

There are few details of the merger. After the Los Angeles Times broke the story about the proposed merger, LACMA director Michael Govan released a letter that said MOCA’s board recently approached LACMA about merging and that LACMA has submitted a proposal that would benefit both institutions.

“MOCA’s downtown location, extraordinary collection and devoted constituency, combined with LACMA’s modern art masterpieces, large audiences and broad educational outreach (especially in schools near downtown L.A.) would create a cultural institution that is much more than the sum of its parts," Govan said in the letter. "LACMA’s strong leadership, its history of fundraising, and its support from Los Angeles County and other donors will provide MOCA with the stability it deserves.”

It would be up to the boards of the two museums to approve the merger. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors may be involved since it provides a significant amount of LACMA’s funding.

MOCA's troubles now and before

MOCA collects and displays contemporary art produced after World War II. Think of painters Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Jean Michel Basquiat.

But despite the quality of the collections and his impressive knowledgeable of contemporary art, former director MOCA director Jeremy Strick could not make up for a dip in philanthropic money linked to the souring economy.

By 2008, the museum was in trouble. The administration had dipped into MOCA's endowment funds, and by the end of that year the museum was about to run out of money to keep its doors open.

LACMA talked to MOCA about merging, but before those talks matured, philanthropist and art collector Eli Broad stepped in with a $30 million long term gift to keep MOCA open and to support exhibits. Strick resigned, and a 20 percent cut in staff followed.

MOCA’s board hired Jeffrey Deitch, a flashy New York City art gallery director who had no museum administration experience. Deitch made more cuts and broadened MOCA’s reach through fundraisers that included one featuring Lady Gaga.

Deitch’s approach reportedly created a rift with long-time chief curator Paul Schimmel. Last year Schimmel was fired or resigned, depending on whom you ask. In protest, artists John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha and others resigned from MOCA’s board.

Could LACMA merger bring stability to MOCA?

Supporters say MOCA’s strength — until the cuts and Schimmel’s resignation — was the curatorial department's skill at assembling well-researched exhibits that traveled and influenced global discussions about contemporary art. The museum had a strong following among Southern California’s art schools and its growing ranks of working artists.

LACMA is L.A. County’s encyclopedic museum. Its 120,000-piece collection spans the history of art from ancient times to contemporary, from dress and costume collections to the Levitated Mass giant boulder that made its way to the Wilshire Boulevard museum.

In 2011, LACMA spent $102 million dollars to run the museum. MOCA, by comparison, spent $17 million to run its programs that same year. LACMA's  Govan is promising what MOCA and its longtime followers desperately want for the museum: stability.

Cindy Bernard, who helped start MOCA-Mobilization after its 2008 financial troubles, blames MOCA’s new predicament on a lack of big funders.

“It’s about the inability of Los Angeles and the philanthropic culture of Los Angeles to support MOCA — except for Eli Broad — and the inability of the board to pull this together,” said Bernard.

What do you think of the proposed merger? Good or bad for the L.A. art world? Let us know in the comments.

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