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Seeing past the storm at MOCA

Charles E. Young's goal is to get the troubled museum into a position to hire a 'top-flight director.'

December 30, 2008|Diane Haithman

In late November, not long after Eli Broad made his very public offer of a $30-million bailout to the cash-strapped Museum of Contemporary Art, the billionaire philanthropist also extended a behind-the-scenes offer to Charles E. Young, chancellor emeritus of UCLA, to act as the museum's first chief executive.

"It must be about three weeks ago or four weeks ago that Eli called me at home -- I had just come back from New York -- and asked me if I'd heard about what was going on at MOCA," Young said in an interview the day after Christmas. "He said, 'If MOCA accepts my offer, I think you're the person they need to do this.'

"I thought, 'This is kind of strange . . . .' "

MOCA agreed to Broad's offer early last week, ending weeks of speculation that it might instead opt for a merger proposed by the larger, wealthier Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

At the same time, it announced that Young, 77, had accepted Broad's "kind of strange" offer to head an effort to stabilize its management and finances as it looks for a new director to replace Jeremy Strick, who resigned last week.

Although the museum has not called Young's position an interim job, it plans to return to the traditional structure of having a director/chief executive rather than retaining a chief executive to oversee finances. Young expects his post to last for nine to 18 months.

Young will also oversee the museum's cooperation with the California attorney general's office, which is looking into the museum's finances following news reports that MOCA had used restricted funds to cover general operating expenses.

Seeking background

"I talked to some of the members of the board about the situation, and it appears that they sought approval of the donors of the restricted gifts to do this before they did it. . . . I really don't know enough about the facts to say more than that," Young said. "The fact that they are looking into it doesn't mean any wrong has been done."

The former chancellor, who taught an undergraduate course in politics at UCLA in the fall, said it took him until mid-December to decide to accept the MOCA post. "I started having some conversations with Tom and Dave Johnson," he said, referring to MOCA Co-Chairmen Tom Unterman and David Johnson. "And I obviously talked to a number of people in between and got their views, including [County Supervisor] Zev Yaroslavsky and other people in the art world. . . . On Dec. 16, I told them I would do it if I were asked."

Among other interested parties Young spoke with was Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had written a letter to MOCA's trustees urging them to take 30 days to weigh their options before making a decision on the institution's future.

Quick action

Young, however, believes MOCA did the right thing in its prompt acceptance of Broad's offer. "When you get into a situation like that, you can't let it go on very long. You have to come to a conclusion or all kinds of unintended fallout is going to flow from the process.

"The mayor's main concern was that the members of the board take time to do due diligence and that they not get into a situation where they were turning over this asset of the city and the community to an individual, that individual of course being Eli Broad," Young said.

"And I told him I certainly shared that view. He said he was very much heartened by my position on this and he felt a lot better about it."

Young said he has known Broad, whose funds are behind UCLA's Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center as well as a center for stem cell research at the university, for more than 30 years -- "before he was a donor of any consequence to UCLA." Young added that he had worked with Broad during Broad's former tenure as a board member of UCLA's Hammer Museum.

He said he does not consider himself an "arts person," but he cited his arts management experience with the Hammer Museum and UCLA's Museum of Cultural History, as well as involvement with an arts program during his presidency at the University of Florida (1999-2003), as solid background for his new post.

Setting a goal

His own tastes, he said, run to modern art and early contemporary art: "I'm not as familiar with the stuff that's going on in contemporary art today."

His goal at MOCA, he said, is to set about correcting financial and management problems that have plagued the museum.

"We need to get it back into a position where you can go out and recruit a really top-flight director," he said.

"My intention is to bring that person in, get them going and get out."

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diane.haithman@latimes.com

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