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MOCA bets on festival's star power

'Transmission LA' will delay historical show's opening, signaling a push to go 'social.'

March 28, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch's embrace of celebrity, fashion and youth culture was a key reason he was hired in 2010.
MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch's embrace of celebrity, fashion and… (Christina House / For The…)

Tight money and an investment in pop culture — two factors shaping Jeffrey Deitch's leadership of the Museum of Contemporary Art — have come together in a decision this month to delay a scholarly exhibition and substitute a revenue-generating, corporate-funded festival curated by rapper Mike D of the Beastie Boys.

The delayed show, "Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974," is one of the sweeping examinations of movements and themes in contemporary art that have given MOCA a reputation as one of the world's leading museums of post-World War II art. By pushing back its long-planned opening from April 8 to May 27, MOCA freed its Geffen Contemporary building for "Transmission LA: AV Club," an 18-day festival beginning April 19 that's a confluence of art, commerce and pop culture.

Deitch said he helped plan the festival for its sponsor, Mercedes-Benz, including recruiting Mike D as the curator who will oversee its offerings of art, music and food. Admission is free. With Mercedes covering the cost and making a contribution to the museum, Deitch expects it to generate several hundred thousand dollars for MOCA's more conventional activities, while continuing his populist push.

"We need to build the museum as a social space," Deitch said in an interview Tuesday at MOCA.

"Transmission: LA" dovetails with Deitch's long-standing embrace of celebrity, fashion and youth culture, which was a key reason he was hired in 2010, the first career art dealer in memory to lead a major nonprofit American museum.

He established his knack for hip populism at his Deitch Projects gallery in New York City, drawing creative energy and fans from the street art, skate culture and independent music scenes as well as traditional art circles.

His Deitch Project days helped shape "Transmission LA." Long a champion of New York artistJean-Michel Basquiat, Deitch got to know Mike D, whose real name is Mike Diamond, while serving as a source for "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child," a 2010 documentary by the rapper's wife, filmmaker Tamra Davis.

"I'm a fan of the Beastie Boys, and I got to understand that he has a wide understanding of contemporary art," Deitch said.

Deitch's connections and impresario's touch paid off for MOCA last year with "Art in the Streets," a show documenting the graffiti art movement that drew more than 201,000 visitors, ranking it with a 2002 Andy Warhol retrospective as the two best-attended shows in MOCA's history.

But the sudden delay of "Ends of the Earth," which was having fundraising difficulties, to make way for the revenue-injection of "Transmission LA" is a reminder that, despite its hipness factor, the nonprofit MOCA operates with almost no financial cushion.

The audited financial statement for 2010-11 that the museum released Tuesday provides a financial picture of Deitch's first year on the job, and it shows that so far under him MOCA has failed to sustain the fundraising boost achieved in the 18 months before he took over — a period when MOCA leaders were spurred by the fiscal near-death experience the museum endured at the end of 2008.

While MOCA more or less broke even for the year ending last June 30, its fundraising declined by $4.5 million, more than offsetting an $800,000 revenue gain from attendance-driven admissions and museum store sales. The $1.9 million from admissions and sales, plus an additional $1 million from memberships that count as donations but are partly driven by how attractive the shows are, represented only 17% of MOCA's revenue for the year.

MOCA had either a $504,000 surplus or a $302,000 deficit in its first year under Deitch, depending on whether one includes an $804,000 depreciation expense. That's down from a $4.8-million surplus — depreciation included — in the year before he began as director.

Michael Harrison, the museum's chief financial officer, said that for the current 2011-12 fiscal year, which ends June 30, he expects, not counting depreciation, "very close to a balanced budget, if not there," with revenue comparable to the $17.2 million in 2010-11.

The fundraising gap between Deitch's first year and the previous year was due partly to MOCA's failure to qualify for another special endowment gift from Eli Broad. The philanthropist has promised to match

any contributions to the endowment, in hopes of rebuilding it to $38.2 million — where it stood in the early 2000s before a binge of overspending began, funded largely by raiding endowment funds that donors had stipulated were to remain untouched.

Broad gave a $2-million endowment match in 2009-10, but MOCA didn't qualify for another in 2010-11. The board has resolved to gradually make the endowment whole again, but as of mid-2011 it remained $18.4 million short of the goal.

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