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For LACMA, the chance to snap up MOCA is a deal too good to shelve

The county museum stands to gain a sorely needed trove of contemporary art at a relative bargain if its designs on MOCA succeed. But that's still a big 'if.'

March 09, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • LACMA director Michael Govan, left, and artist Michael Heizer near Heizer's piece, "Levitated Mass."
LACMA director Michael Govan, left, and artist Michael Heizer near Heizer's… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Everybody loves a bargain. Here's a big one.

If you were a wealthy major art collector, and for the price of one classic Jackson Pollock drip-painting or Andy Warhol's 1963 silk-screen "Eight Elvises" you could acquire a few billion dollars worth of art, including scores of incomparable and irreplaceable masterpieces, would you work to make the deal happen?

Of course you would. And so would the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

GRAPHIC: LACMA and MOCA at a glance

The county museum — LACMA — has offered to take over the Museum of Contemporary Art, rescuing the downtown museum from perennial money troubles. People familiar with the proposal say LACMA is promising to raise $100 million as part of the deal.

That's a lot of money, but these days it's roughly the cost of one or two first-rank masterworks of post-1945 art. LACMA would be getting an entire museum's-worth of great art at relatively modest cost.

LACMA has been aggressively re-branding itself as a general interest art museum that features a stellar program in Modern and contemporary art. No other encyclopedic museum has managed that.

For the re-branding to succeed, however, one big hurdle remains to overcome. LACMA's permanent collection is weak in art made since 1945.

MOCA's is strong. Since a permanent collection finally determines a museum's stature, absorbing MOCA's collection would vault the hurdle.

Usually it's MOCA's needs, not LACMA's, on which attention focuses like a laser beam — and not without good reason. Those problems are serious.

Late in 2008, when MOCA was mulling rival rescue plans to pull it back from the brink of financial collapse, two issues were paramount. More than four years later, they still are.

One issue was the need to vastly increase the museum's paltry endowment. It has never come close to being adequate for a 30-year-old institution whose ambitious mission — and achievement — was international leadership as "the defining museum of contemporary art."

The other was autonomy. In a world where a surge in mergers and consolidation marked many spheres of American life, the potential loss of a vibrant, independent cultural voice through affiliation with — or absorption by — another art museum was too much to ask for.

Now it might not be, with LACMA joining USC as an avowed MOCA suitor.

LACMA has been at the altar before. The Wilshire Boulevard museum advanced one of two rescue plans considered in 2008, while the Broad Foundation proposed the other. The Broad's ultimately prevailed — in part because of those two nettlesome issues.

The Broad Foundation, helmed by billionaire tycoon Eli Broad, pledged a modest $15-million matching grant toward building the museum's endowment. The foundation also offered $3 million per year for five years toward exhibition funding, which removed some immediate financial pressures while maintaining MOCA's potential for program excellence.

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Just how far LACMA could go back then in securing MOCA's finances wasn't known. What was known is that autonomy would inevitably be lost in a LACMA merger.

Speculation was certainly rampant that the Broad Foundation had designs on MOCA's exceptional 6,000-piece art collection, and some of that conjecture lingers today. (I tend to doubt the takeover rumors, and Broad has always denied it.) The foundation is currently erecting glamorous offices plus exhibition and storage facilities for its own sizable art collection directly across Grand Avenue from one of MOCA's two buildings. It's scheduled to open in mid-2014, and synergistic sharing between the neighbors is expected.

But hardly anyone today believes that the Broad rescue plan for MOCA has worked out. Fundraising lags, staff has been depleted.

Given the museum's stellar history, there's no problem that a hefty infusion of endowment cash could not solve. For whatever reason, though, it hasn't been forthcoming — either from Broad or the many other very deep pockets on MOCA's board of trustees.

And that has created a difficulty for Broad. With his own museum opening across the street in about 18 months, time is running out for MOCA's long-term stabilization.

Various published reports have Broad involved in rescue talks for MOCA with USC, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. No doubt those efforts spurred LACMA's sudden reentry into the field.

The terms of a proposed LACMA takeover of MOCA remain sketchy, and we are no doubt quite a ways off from any conclusive action. (On Thursday, LACMA executive director Michael Govan posted a rationale for the plan on Unframed, the museum's blog.) A chess match between rivals Broad and Govan, with MOCA as the stunning if hapless prize, is also distasteful to watch. But one benefit now is that, unlike the dire days of 2008, the matter is pressing though not urgent.

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