MOCA Independence Day

“MOCA Independence,” the new fund-raising drive, aims to raise the museum’s endowment to $100 million. In the press release MOCA says it has obtained recent commitments that would “nearly triple” the endowment to “more than $60 million.” The language disclaims overtures from LACMA and the National Gallery (“the board’s commitment to keep MOCA as a museum dedicated solely to contemporary art”), no matter that those overtures were reportedly solicited by MOCA’s own board members. Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. (Above, Barbara Kruger’s 1990 Untitled [Questions] on MOCA’s Temporary [Geffen] Contemporary.)

How much would it take for MOCA to declare financial independence?

The museum’s peak endowment value was $38.2 million, back in 2000. That’s about $51 million in today’s dollars. Even when you allow for inflation, the current commitments substantially surpass the record.

MOCA Independence has set a goal of $100 million. It’s a nice round number matching the amount that LACMA recently proposed to raise in a takeover deal. Were MOCA to reach that figure and draw off a typical 5 percent, it would generate $5 million a year.

MOCA’s latest reported budget, for fiscal 2011, was $14.3 million. But that’s a Paul Ryan austerity budget. In the Paul Schimmel glory days—back when MOCA had 2+ curators—annual spending had been as high as $24 million.

Split the difference. Take $20 million as a realistic guesstimate of what MOCA’s budget could and should be in the foreseeable future. It would take a $400 million endowment to throw off $20 million in income.

Don’t gasp. Museums almost never expect endowment drawdown to cover their expenses. They need to raise operating funds every year, and that’s okay. The role of the endowment is to provide stability. It permits long-term planning through tough times. When the stock market has a lost decade, the museum carries on.

Is $100 million enough for MOCA? I offer two comparatives.

Eli Broad has spoken of committing a $200 million endowment to his vanity museum, The Broad, and of drawing $12 million a year (an optimistic 6 percent) to run it. As far as I can surmise, the Broad’s programs will hew closely to its own collection. It will have no expensive loan exhibitions to research and organize, and one building to run, versus MOCA’s three. Broad properly projects that outside fund-raising will be difficult-to-impossible for a long, long time. The last thing L.A. needs is another contemporary museum on Grand Avenue with its hand out.

A more instructive parallel might be the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (above left). Globally renowned for its innovative shows, it’s practically MOCA’s Midwestern soulmate. The Walker’s endowment is about $165 million. Its 2012 cost of operations was $18.2 million. The Walker drew 5 percent of its endowment to cover about a third of the budget.

One difference is that the Walker’s annual attendance is 154,000, v. about 400,000 for MOCA.

That MOCA’s board has raised $40 million in a couple of weeks is the most delightfully unexpected museum news of the season. At the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth: MOCA merits a lot more than $100 million.

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