LACMA/MOCA: Who Wins, Who Loses?

LACMA has (again) proposed a takeover of MOCA (LA Times story; Michael Govan post). Preliminary reports say the deal would preserve the MOCA name (“brand”) and both downtown buildings. It’s contingent on LACMA raising $100 million—exactly for what isn’t clear. Supposing the takeover happens, who wins and who loses? (Above, Chris Burden’s Hell Gate, jointly owned by LACMA and MOCA.)

WINNER: Govan’s vision of LACMA, the most contemporary big museum in America. This agreeable concept suffered a setback when Eli Broad elected not to donate his collection but to build his own museum. A merger would give LACMA access to MOCA’s collection rather than Broad’s, and in some ways that’s better yet. MOCA’s Rothkos and Pollocks and Rauschenbergs could allow a seamless presentation of contemporary American art, postwar to right now.

LOSER: MOCA as an independent entity. Organization charts have consequences. However much the LACMA folks may swear that everything will be the same at MOCA, it won’t be. PS1 isn’t the same after MoMA took over. I’m not saying it’s worse, just that it reflects the MoMA worldview. (For what it’s worth, PS1 is probably the best-case scenario for a future MOCA as LACMA outpost.)

Fantastic as MOCA’s collection is, its history of ground-breaking exhibitions is even more impressive. MOCA did a lot to start the global “Museum of Contemporary Art” meme. Should the merger happen, Los Angeles would be virtually the only big American city lacking a dedicated museum of contemporary art, in those words or close to them and unencumbered by a a founder’s surname. San Diego, Scottsdale, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, Cleveland Detroit, and Atlanta have got their own MOCA’s. Hot Springs, Arkansas has a MOCA.

LOSER: Eli Broad, going by the stories that he’s been pushing for a U.S.C. takeover of MOCA. That’s not counting the “Broad conspiracy” legend that the billionaire philanthropist covets MOCA’s art for his own museum. Foiled!—if Govan gets it first.

What’s reasonably certain is that Broad hopes for a healthy, self-sustaining MOCA across the street from his new museum. The LACMA takeover is being pitched as a way to solve MOCA’s chronic financial problems. That would be good for Broad and everyone else (though a LACMA merger isn’t the only conceivable solution).

Incidentally, Broad’s 2008 MOCA bailout included a poison-pill saying that the museum couldn’t be acquired (through 2018) by a nearby institution unless it was university-affiliated. It’s hard to say whether the LACMA proposal could squeeze free of that.

BIGGEST LOSER: MOCA Pacific Design Center. It’s not been mentioned in the initial reports. The main rationale for MOCA’s third building was to give it an outpost on the near Westside. There would be less need for it after a LACMA takeover.

POSSIBLE LOSER: MOCA Grand Avenue. LACMA’s first overture, in 2008, emphasized the Geffen building. “Additional programs are planned for MOCA’s Grand Avenue site.” That sounded an awful lot like the Autry’s plans for the Southwest Museum. The new LACMA promises to support Arata Isozaki’s building, but a skeptic might wonder what its long, long-term prospects would be. I would think it’s easier for a cowboy museum to justify a Native American branch than it is to justify three large buildings for  contemporary art in the same city. In a future downturn, some bean-counter is sure to ask, why do we need Grand Avenue? (The Geffen building in Little Tokyo was MOCA’s first site and remains its best-loved and most influential.)

OPEN QUESTION: Jeffrey Deitch. (Also not mentioned in the initial reports.) And mainly, L.A.’s high net-worth museum supporters other than Eli Broad. MOCA came to this pass because it couldn’t raise operating funds or build an endowment. If the LACMA proposal has merit, it will have to be because it will be easier to raise funds for the combined institution.

UPDATE: In a new statement MOCA Mobilization, which staunchly opposed the 2008 merger, says that “The Board of Trustees has failed” and “MOCA is a diminished institution.” Pointedly it does not express an opinion about the new proposal.

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