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MOCA meeting aims to generate unity among trustees

In advance of a special meeting of the board of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, several trustees talk to The Times about museum decision-making and the way ahead.

September 03, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Discord at MOCA has generated headlines since late June, when the longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel was forced to resign.
Discord at MOCA has generated headlines since late June, when the longtime… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)

After a summer of discontent, the board of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art has scheduled a special meeting Tuesday, aiming to unite trustees whose willingness to donate is vital to reversing recent budget cuts.

"I think it is going to be very candid and open," said Susan Gersh, one of the few trustees willing to speak publicly about MOCA's problems. "We've got to be unified in some way. Otherwise, it'll be a free-for-all."

Discord at MOCA has generated headlines since late June, when the longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel was forced to resign because he and museum director Jeffrey Deitch couldn't get along.

All four artists on the board — Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie — soon resigned, bringing to eight the number of trustees who have quit since February or not renewed expiring three-year terms.

The board's argument over MOCA's direction under Deitch spilled into the letters and opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times. Leading donor Eli Broad and Wallis Annenberg, whose Annenberg Foundation has given the museum about $3.5 million over the last five years, lined up behind the museum director.

But four of Broad's fellow "life trustees" — an honor conferring permanent nonvoting board membership, with no obligation to pay the $75,000 minimum dues expected of regular trustees — argued that Deitch's "celebrity-driven program … is not the answer."

Other grievances had been simmering on the board even before Schimmel's exit.

Some say that Broad has too much influence after his $30-million rescue of the museum in December 2008, when years of overspending and fundraising shortfalls had left it financially depleted.

There's also a perception that the 10 or so trustees who make up the MOCA board's executive committee have too much power and share too little information.

Broad played an important role in Deitch's 2010 hiring, an unorthodox and controversial pick because he was a prominent art dealer rather than coming from the usual pool of museum curators and arts administrators.

For this story, The Times approached all 39 MOCA trustees by email or phone. Only six agreed to be interviewed: Gersh, former Hard Rock Cafe operator Peter Morton and the four life trustees whose letter to The Times disputed an opinion piece by Broad that said MOCA was on the right course.

Lenore Greenberg, a life trustee and former board president with more than 30 years' service to MOCA, said board members were improperly cut out of the decision-making process while the museum contracted with Google to create a new YouTube channel called MOCA TV.

The deal was announced at the trustees' January meeting, Greenberg said, having already been decided by the board's executive committee, without a vote by the full membership.

Greenberg says the board's rules give the executive committee authority to act on its own only to accept artworks offered as gifts at year's end, when it would be hard to get a quorum, and the donors are rushing to qualify for tax deductions.

"It's very discouraging," she said. "The way board meetings have been run has not been one in which open discussion is encouraged." The museum announced in January that MOCA TV would debut in July, but it hasn't yet been launched.

Jane Nathanson, an organizer of many fundraising events since the 1980s, said a lack of discussion on the board figured in her March resignation.

"It's difficult to maintain engagement on the part of the entire board when the decision-making is limited to a few," she said. "Eli stepped in, and it sort of became a one-man show."

Distress over how the MOCA board operates surfaced in an exchange of emails in early August between trustee Lauren King and board president Jeffrey Soros, which was obtained by The Times.

King, who was co-chair of the committee that deals with fundraising, objected to a decision to take her and several others off the executive committee.

Soros — a documentary film producer and nephew of famed billionaire George Soros — replied that "the feeling was that the executive committee was overpopulated, inhibiting its true function, that is to move quickly in exigent circumstances."

King responded unhappily: "It's very strange to be voted off an executive committee and not even know about it. No self-appointed small elite group should be able to …reappoint themselves, change board rules to eliminate other executive board members, eliminate an education committee, fire a curator.... It's a wonder that any board member stays under the current regime.... We keep getting letters telling us that everything is fine. Just to let you know — it's not."

Soros did not respond to an email requesting comment; King said the email should have been kept internal, and declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the $130-million Broad Collection museum that's expected to open in 2014 across Grand Avenue from MOCA's headquarters is also causing worry among board members.

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