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Leaner Museum of Contemporary Art is flush with cash

The once-teetering Downtown Los Angeles facility finishes the fiscal year with a $5.5-million surplus. Most goes toward replenishing its drained endowment.

October 01, 2010|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times

The Museum of Contemporary Art announced Thursday that it finished its fiscal year with a $5.5-million surplus and has used most of it to continue replenishing the endowment it had illegally raided during nearly a decade of overspending.

Although dipping into its reserves helped MOCA mount acclaimed exhibitions, it left the downtown museum nearly broke at the end of 2008. A merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was considered before Eli Broad stepped in with $30 million in pledges that enabled it to maintain its independence.

The MOCA that now exists under Jeffrey Deitch, who took the reins as director June 1, has the challenge of remaining artistically vital while living within much-reduced means. Unaudited expenditures totaled $16 million for the year ending June 30, museum officials said — a drop of more than a third from the $25-million budgets of the previous two years. The museum projects another $16-million budget for 2010-11. MOCA laid off staff during the year after its meltdown and scaled back its exhibition schedule.

"We pulled the budget back to a very manageable number for us from a fiscal responsibility standpoint," said Maria Bell, the MOCA board's co-chair. "What we want to see happen is to continue the fantastic shows we've always done but do that in fiscally responsible way." That includes securing funding before announcing new exhibitions, Bell said, citing as an example the recently announced "Art in the Streets," which will open in April, billed by Deitch as "the first major museum survey of graffiti and street art presented in the United States."

The decision to put $4 million of the surplus into the endowment brings the fund to $18.5 million, less than two years after the museum's meltdown, coupled with the 2008 stock market collapse, had reduced it to $5 million. But MOCA still has along way to go. The board is committed to restoring the endowment to $38 million, which is where it stood a decade ago, before the borrowing to fund exhibitions began.

An investigation by the state attorney general's office found last year that those borrowings violated rules against spending endowment funds in ways the donors had not authorized.

Of the $4 million restored to the endowment, $2 million came from Broad, in keeping with his pledge to help rebuild the endowment by matching any other cash infusions until $30 million has been raised. Broad has kicked in $6.25 million of his $15-million endowment pledge. He also is providing $3 million a year — $15 million total — to underwrite exhibitions.

During its crisis, MOCA's board was torn by discord over how to proceed; it since has pulled together and added new members. Sixteen of the 34 voting members have joined since the crisis.

A fresh vote of confidence comes from Audrey Irmas, who recently rejoined the board as a life trustee, resuming the advisory but nonvoting role she had given up in discouragement after the museum's near-collapse.

"When I left I didn't have much hope," said Irmas, a noted art collector and MOCA board member since 1992. But Irmas said she has been pleasantly surprised. "I've been very impressed by what they've done, and I'd like to be part of that now. It's so energized and so viable. I spent a lot of years being really active at MOCA, and to tell you the truth, I really missed it."

MOCA also announced that Jamie Alexander Tisch of New York has joined the board. She is a philanthropist with a business marketing degree from the University of Alabama and is the ex-wife of former MOCA board member Steve Tisch.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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