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MOCA board has to ante up

After overseeing the art museum's financial meltdown, its trustees should write checks.

November 20, 2008|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | ART CRITIC

To: MOCA trustees

Re: Rescue plans for MOCA's fiscal crisis

I read with interest in Wednesday's paper about the fiscal calamity plaguing the Museum of Contemporary Art, which seems to suggest that the nation's premier institution for art of the past 50 years is just about broke. I also read about the possible rescue plans you are prepared to pursue, in a desperate scramble to save your sinking ship. I've been hearing about others.

And if what I've been hearing is true, I have just one question: Are you freakin' kidding me? What on Earth do you think you're doing?

OK, that's two questions. Forgive me, but I'm steamed.

We are talking here about an irreplaceable cultural asset, one that has been instrumental in establishing the primacy of Los Angeles on the world's cultural stage. The proposals I've been told about are not solutions to MOCA's real but avoidable crisis. No, they are weak-kneed examples of exactly the kind of thinking with which you got yourselves into this mess.

Yes, you.

Times are tough, and every indication is that they are going to get tougher. But don't you dare blame MOCA's plight on a recent economic downturn beyond your control. The meltdown in the markets is not the cause of the crisis, only of your panic.

Lots of art museums are tightening belts and getting by. The fact that you are not speaks volumes.

Ten years ago, in the spring of 1998, The Times reported that MOCA was operating on a $10-million annual budget with a nearly $50-million endowment. A ratio of 1 to 5 -- or even 1 to 4, if you were exaggerating numbers then -- for budget to endowment is pretty good for a nonprofit.

Last year, by grim contrast, MOCA was reportedly operating on close to a $20-million annual budget with a $20-million endowment. That's a ratio of 1 to 1 -- the technical term for which is "suicide."

With ballooning expenses and a shrinking endowment rumored to be about $7 million -- at most -- you have gone from covering between 20% and 25% of your annual budget in 1998 to covering as little as 2%. You steadily pushed the museum further and further out onto a ledge, so that when the global economy finally tanked, MOCA went into free-fall.

Now that's a scenario the California attorney general, whose office oversees nonprofits such as yours, could use as a cautionary case study. As trustees your first responsibility is fiduciary, and in that you have been a flop.

Spending down your endowment is the equivalent of a farmer eating the seed corn. The first time you dipped in, sirens should have sounded. The museum's director and the board's finance chairman should have put an immediate stop to it, but didn't. That is dereliction.

This is trusteeship?

The rescue plans being talked about illustrate the problem. Two of them are frankly shameful.

One would rent your incomparable painting and sculpture collection to a local foundation -- controlled by one of your own trustees! -- in exchange for some sort of multimillion-dollar annuity. The other would be a flat-out sale of it to another museum, so that you might shift the fundraising burden elsewhere, take the revenue and continue as an exhibition-only venue.

Yes, we live in a market economy, where art is bought and sold; but one of the glories of an art museum is that it provides refuge from the crude commercial world. When art enters a museum's permanent collection, it leaves the marketplace behind. That your first instinct is apparently scheming to monetize your extraordinary collection shows that you are not trustees, you are art dealers in disguise.

The third plan I've been told about is even worse -- total Armageddon. A merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which the collection and selected staff would move to the Mid-Wilshire campus and the downtown facilities would close, would mean MOCA would cease to exist. You seem to be willing to allow your own institution, one whose remarkable program and astounding collection are the envy of cities around the world, to simply disappear. Dumbfounding.

Forgotten in this ridiculous saga are the Three Gs of trusteeship. Your job is to give art and money, get art and money, and guard the art and money you have gotten. So, here is what you need to do to actually rescue MOCA. It is not complicated, but it will require work.

You must call an urgent board meeting, gather round the table, pull out your checkbooks and calculators and stay in that room until you have cobbled together at least $25 million. That will buy you a little time -- 18 to 24 months -- during which you must do two things.

First, you cut MOCA's unaffordable budget. Second, you craft a strategic plan.

Proper endowment

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