Bruce Karatz and his wife, Lilly Tartikoff Karatz, seen at MOCA's… (Jeff Vespa )
Bruce Karatz, one of three new members elected this week to the board of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, said in an interview Wednesday that he’s taken an interest in MOCA since the late 1970s, when it didn’t even exist.
During an art event in the south of France – Karatz was then head of homebuilder KB Home’s French division – he listened to his boss and mentor, Eli Broad, discuss the need for a contemporary art museum in Los Angeles with Marcia Simon Weisman, another key figure in MOCA’s launch.
Soon after Broad and Weisman returned to L.A., Karatz said, he received word that they had enlisted Mayor Tom Bradley’s help in launching the museum. Planning for MOCA began in earnest in 1979, from an office at City Hall.
His wife, Lily Tartikoff Karatz, who was widowed by the 1997 death of her first husband, NBC television executive Brandon Tartikoff, has been on the MOCA board since fall 2009, so Karatz has been able to follow the museum’s recent bumpy ride closely.
“I’ve always loved MOCA,” Karatz said, and despite its recent struggles, “it seemed like a time where I think I can help, and for me it’s worth spending the time and the effort to make this economically viable for the long term.”
He said it was important to be on the board to maximize his effectiveness in approaching donors: “It’s difficult to go out and actively help raise funds and help the museum without being formally part of it.”
Having yet to attend his first board meeting, Karatz said he isn’t sure whether there’s a timetable for hitting fundraising benchmarks in the recently announced campaign to lift MOCA’s endowment from about $20 million to $100 million. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently offered to take over the downtown museum, but MOCA’s board decided instead to remain independent and raise the needed money on its own.
MOCA announced in late March that unnamed board members had made unspecified initial commitments that would lift the endowment past $60 million, but gave no other details, and no timetable for reaching the campaign’s goal. Also unclear is what MOCA intends to do about funding its regular operations – a separate challenge from building an endowment, because endowments normally can’t be spent, but are supposed to be invested, with only the earnings funneled into regular operations.
“I think you want to work as hard as you can, as fast as you can,” Karatz said of the campaign’s timing. “I think we can look back a year from now” and the signs of success will be evident.
He said he’s aware there might be reason for skepticism, given MOCA’s recent history. His wife joined the board in September 2009, less than a year after Broad had stepped in with a $30-million bailout pledge when the museum was nearly broke. Years of overspending had caught up with MOCA when the global financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008. Budget cuts early in 2009 reduced staff and spending by a third, then a major fundraising campaign called “MOCA New” was launched. That fall the museum began to change the conversation, staging a successful comeback gala starring Lady Gaga.
But momentum stalled after MOCA made a controversial move with the 2010 hiring of museum director Jeffrey Deitch, who was an accomplished New York City art dealer but had little fundraising experience. By early 2012 signs of financial difficulty again had emerged.
MOCA’s previous husband-wife trustee team, Gary and Kathi Cypres, were among nine board members who left during 2012 (he resigned; she didn’t renew her membership when her term expired), and last summer the museum laid off seven staff members and slashed its budget to $14.3 million for the current fiscal year that ends June 30, an 18% reduction that represents MOCA’s leanest spending since 1998-99.
Karatz, one of seven board members who’ve joined since the beginning of 2012, senses that things are different now.
“I believe the momentum has shifted, and is shifting as we speak, to the positive. People who care about contemporary art care about MOCA and those who are closest are prepared to make the kinds of sacrifices needed to make it a viable, vibrant institution. Maybe I can help along with others to finally stabilize the institution financially and get it set for a new period of excitement in the contemporary art world.”
There’s a comeback element in his own life. Karatz stepped down after 20 years as chief executive of KB Home in 2006, amid a federal investigation into his handling of stock options used to compensate executives. A jury found him guilty in 2010 of four counts of failing to disclose that options had been backdated to increase their value. Backdating the options was legal in itself, but it needed to be publicly reported. Karatz was found not guilty of 16 other counts related to intentionally defrauding shareholders, and was sentenced to five years’ probation, including eight months of home detention, as well as community service and a $1-million fine.
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