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MOCA's board: Deep pockets aren't a cure-all

The wealthy group with five billionaires couldn't prevent the museum's budget from being cut or keep the forced resignation of Paul Schimmel from erupting in controversy.

September 14, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Museum of Contemporary Art offices, overlooking the museum.
Museum of Contemporary Art offices, overlooking the museum. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

The trustees of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art meet around portable tables inside its galleries, because 39 members plus a museum director are too many to fit in its boardroom.

Pooling their money, this eminent, lavishly wealthy group could easily afford to buy everything that's on the walls and in storage were it for sale — a 6,000-piece collection considered one of the world's finest troves of post-World War II art.

On the board are five men who made Forbes magazine's most recent list of the world's billionaires and the wife of a sixth. Their combined assets come to $24.1 billion, by Forbes' reckoning.

MOCA: Meet the Board | Meet the billionares | Museum donors' roll

But this summer, the MOCA board has made headlines with dissension rather than donations — at a time when donations are badly needed, because money to run the museum has become uncomfortably tight.

Eli Broad, the museum's leading donor, disclosed that MOCA reduced its budget to $14.3 million for the current fiscal year that began July 1.

That would be the museum's leanest spending since the 1990s, and it means that MOCA has been leapfrogged by UCLA's Hammer Museum, which is also devoted to contemporary art and plans to spend $17.2 million this fiscal year. Both spend much less than L.A.'s perennial Big Two, the Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Why is this happening at a museum whose board, if so inclined, could splash money into its coffers as exuberantly as Jackson Pollock splashed stringy swirls of paint onto the huge "Number 1, 1949" canvas that was bequeathed to MOCA in 1989?

The answers may be complex. Wealthy people have many options for their philanthropy, and, according to experts on nonprofit board behavior, they can quickly become skittish about giving when controversy breaks out.

MOCA: Meet the Board | Meet the billionares | Museum donors' roll

And MOCA has been swimming in controversy since late June, when its longtime chief curator, Paul Schimmel, was forced to resign — not by director Jeffrey Deitch but in a meeting at the Broad Foundation office suite in which the MOCA board's co-chairs, David Johnson and Maria Arena Bell, negotiated the terms of the curator's exit without informing the full board in advance.

The co-chairs' original public statement that the parting was "amicable" did not gain much traction. Soon, all four artists on MOCA's board had resigned — a blow for a museum that proudly distinguishes itself from most others by including artists as trustees.

Contention began to emerge among board members not only over Schimmel's ouster and Deitch's exhibition style, which often interweaves art with pop culture, but over broader issues of governance. Some trustees said that Broad and the board's 10-member executive committee were overstepping their authority and cutting the full board out of the information loop and the decision-making process.

Just after Labor Day, MOCA's trustees convened in a special board meeting aimed at restoring balance and unity. Several members who previously had voiced their displeasure over recent developments declined to comment afterward, saying everyone had agreed to keep deliberations private. Most of the board has avoided public comment during the upheaval.

Jane Nathanson, a longtime MOCA supporter who resigned from the board in March, said she was put off by how the board operates.

MOCA: Meet the Board | Meet the billionares | Museum donors' roll

"You don't have a cohesive board that feels engaged and included at MOCA anymore," she said. "It sort of became a one-man show there," with Broad in control. "It's difficult to maintain engagement on the part of the entire board when the decision-making is limited to a few."

Nathanson remains on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which she said she joined at Broad's behest in the mid-2000s, when he was funding construction of LACMA's Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

"The LACMA board meetings are totally engaged," Nathanson said. "Michael and Terry Semel [the LACMA board's co-chair] lead, I think, the best board meetings in the city, and I sit on a lot of boards. Everybody feels that their opinion counts."

Francie Ostrower, a University of Texas professor who studies how cultural organizations function, says her own research on nonprofit boards has shown that such a feeling matters a great deal.

"We found that … one of the strongest things boards can do is be very clear about what's expected [of members] and hold them to it but also to give opportunities to feel they can participate and make a difference. You can have a gamut — people so dedicated to an organization that they eat, live and breathe it, and others who aren't going to do that much."

MOCA: Meet the Board | Meet the billionares | Museum donors' roll

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