The art world is buzzing over a proposal by the massive LA County Museum of Art to take over the much smaller Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown L.A. The deal would help a museum with a world-class collection that has been struggling for years, but there could be a bug in the ointment.
At the center of discussions is homes and financial services billionaire Eli Broad, who's well known for his big museum gifts.
In 2008, Broad financed construction of a new art building that bears his name on the LACMA campus. The same year, he gave MOCA a $30 million gift to bail it out of financial troubles.
But as you’d expect from a man who authored a book entitled The Art of Being Unreasonable, Broad always retains some control.
"Eli is a very generous philanthropist. However, his philanthropy comes with strings. It’s never just a gift," said artist and MOCA activist Cindy Bernard.
A condition and a reputation
In the case of Broad’s gift to MOCA, the condition for the donation was that the museum couldn’t be acquired by another regional museum for 10 years. A spokeswoman said Broad won’t talk about whether he’ll waive that condition to allow a LACMA-MOCA merger. Broad is a life trustee on both boards.
"This is an industry that employs a lot of people, that attracts a lot of tourism," said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "It’s all an upside for us and Eli Broad understands that as well as anybody I know."
The discussion about MOCA’s future is more than academic. Since 1979, the museum has built a world-wide reputation as the "Artist’s Museum" and as a leader in scholarship about art created in the last half century.
That reputation brought Richard Adamson for a visit from London with his wife and three-year-old daughter. He said MOCA is one of the best museums he’s visited, and he's a big fan of one of the world's legendary galleries: Britain's Tate, the network of four museums that house the United Kingdom's vast collection of art.
"The Tate is incredibly busy," said Adamson. "Sometimes it’s very difficult to see work. It was nice for me to see the paintings (at MOCA) without five or six people in front of me. I was very surprised by how quiet it was."
LACMA isn’t MOCA’s only suitor. It’s also been in partnership talks with USC.
Artists want a say in MOCA's future
But no matter which institution might be MOCA's savior, Bernard said she and other artists should have a say. She co-founded MOCA Mobilization in 2008 to keep the museum independently run and she said MOCA’s future shouldn’t be left solely in the hands of LA’s most famous billionaire.
"Then all we can do is I think call for transparency, public discussion, and of course, that artists should be a part of any of these discussions since we were there when the museum was formed. We shouldn’t be cut out of this conversation," said Bernard.
Whether through this deal or another, MOCA is clearly looking for financial stability. Observers say whether Los Angeles can keep alive its most important contemporary arts institution will be an indicator, writ large on whether it can truly be the world class art center some hope it will be.