The most revealing phrase in Eli Broad’s L.A. Times op-ed about Paul Schimmel’s dismissal is “$100 a visitor.” Broad is looking at exhibition costs in a way few museum visitors do, by taking a show’s cost and dividing it by the number of people who see it. His point is that some Schimmel-style scholarly shows—on which MOCA’s reputation is, or was, based—are costly in per capita terms because relatively few people see them. For Broad, and for unnamed “new trustees,” $100 per visitor is sticker shock territory. Should we feel the same? (At top, Warhol’s 200 One-Dollar Bills)
First of all, a baseline. Sounding like a deficit hawk, Broad contrasts the profligate MOCA of the 2000s, when expenses “spiraled out control,” to Deitch’s budget for next year of $14.3 million, and to 2011’s attendance of over 400,000. Using those figures, the average cost per visitor is $36.
I suppose a lot of people would be shocked at how high that figure is, being three times MOCA’s admission charge. But the admission is usually a modest fraction of a museum’s per-visitor cost. Needless to say, the $36 figure is an average. Half of last year’s attendance was due to “Art in Streets,” which must have fared well by Broad’s metric. But other shows were less attended and may have approached $100 a visitor territory. How many saw “Rebel” or “Theaster Gates,” and what did they cost? In any case, it’s far from clear that Deitch, or anyone, can turn out an endless succession of shows with the appeal of “Art in the Streets.”
Yes, but isn’t $100 a visitor just totally outrageous? Not really. L.A. Opera has a budget of about $54 million, and an attendance of about 200,000. That comes to $250 per seat. Broad has been a generous patron of L.A. Opera. (Left, Achim Freyer’s kooky Ring Cycle, funded by a $6 million gift from the Broads.)
One argument against the bean-counting is that ground-breaking exhibitions have influence far beyond those who attend in person. MOCA’s revisionist histories have catalogs that will influence thought for decades to come. Another is that collectors tend to donate art to institutions with strong and respected exhibition programs. Should someone, someday, donate a half-billion-dollar collection to MOCA because of its exhibition program, that would more than make up for MOCA’s entire budget during the 22 years Schimmel was employed there.
Come to think of it, it may have already happened. The Rita and Taft Schreiber collection, donated on Schimmel’s watch, is probably worth that much at today’s prices for Pollocks and Giacomettis. (Right, Mondrian’s Composition of Red, Blue, Yellow, and White: Nom II, a gift of the Schreibers.)
Agreed, the money is irrelevant—except to some MOCA trustees. The risk is being penny wise and pound foolish. About the only bargain in the museum business is talented curators, when you can get them. Schimmel’s salary ($235,414, less than half of Deitch’s) came to 59 cents per MOCA visitor.