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A recent dust-up at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles raises questions about what makes a museum successful. What should we measure and count? (AP File Photo)

For the past few weeks, art museum aficionados and the art press have been apoplectic about changes at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Three weeks ago, longtime MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, one of the nation’s leading curators, was summoned to the office of LA philanthropist and MOCA life trustee Eli Broad; there Schimmel was told he was out of a job. It seems that the renowned curator’s scholarly approach to contemporary art clashed with new director Jeffrey Deitch’s populist direction.

Why is this a national story? Is it simply a case of what Tolstoy described when he wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”? Or is it closer to Jenny Holzer’s artwork, “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise”? As a museum director, I see the issue as all about values: What is the definition of success in a museum and who defines it?

For many of us, MOCA was the standard-bearer of success. They excelled at groundbreaking exhibitions and collection building of historical sweep, meticulous research and the engagement of artists in the LA community. Critics from Christopher Knight of the LA Times and Roberta Smith of The New York Times to Tyler Green, author of the widely read blog Modern Art Notes, all recognize the curatorial leadership that MOCA defined and exerted under Schimmel and the position held by MOCA as the museum that treated contemporary art as a subject for rigorous scholarship.

Significant exhibitions like these are expensive, labor-intensive endeavors. After several years of budget deficits led to the drawdown of MOCA’s endowment – and a $30 million bailout by Eli Broad’s foundation — Jeffrey Deitch, the accomplished NYC gallery owner, business whiz and street-art impresario, was appointed director in 2010 with a charge to fix the finances. Deitch’s hire raised lots of questions about commercialism, scholarship and undue influence by one donor, but they were deferred with a wait-and-see attitude.

Since then, MOCA’s program has moved in a new direction. Under Deitch, it has been dominated by celebrities and youth culture, including a retrospective of artwork by the late actor Dennis Hopper, the exhibition “Art in Streets” and a show about James Dean staged by actor James Franco. To be fair, MOCA has also initiated projects with artists such as Amanda Ross-Ho, Mark Bradford and Shepard Fairey, balancing the more Hollywood-driven program. With this combination of exhibitions, performances, stars and celebrities, Deitch has effectively increased the museum’s attendance from a low of almost 150,000 to 400,000 visitors; clearly, he can deliver audience.

But this firestorm is not really about Jeffrey Deitch. He is doing a bang-up job of exactly what he was hired to do. Rather, this raises important questions about museums today and what values they embody. This was clearly expressed by the widely respected artists John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie — all of whom share a concern about the mission of MOCA; all have been trustees at the museum, and all just resigned from its board. In a letter printed in the Los Angeles Times, Kruger and Opie connect the erosion of the museum’s core purpose with the pervasiveness of speculation and power plays in today’s art market.

“This is not about a particular cast of characters,” they wrote. “It’s about the role of museums in a culture where visual art is marginalized except for the buzz around secondary market sales, it’s about the not so subtle recalibration of the meaning of ‘philanthropy,’ and it’s about the morphing of the so-called ‘art world’ into the only speculative bubble still left floating … Parties and galas are OK, but sometimes these things called ‘museums’ have to have things called ‘exhibitions.’”

Like many sectors today, museums, too, are struggling to demonstrate long-term value in a world of short-term gain. What should we measure and count? Here again, MOCA offers one answer. Eli Broad, in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, cites exhibition cost per visitor as part of MOCA’s problem, with exhibitions often exceeding $100 a visitor to present. And Deitch’s popular exhibitions are building audience.

But, as Dallas Art Museum director Max Anderson points out, the “gate,” or the revenue museums receive from admissions, accounts for only 5 percent of the total revenue of museums nationally. With the gate such a small percentage of overall revenue, museum financials are mainly about philanthropy. Admissions, and more important attendance, do matter — but more in terms of getting people to see good art than getting people to pay the bills.

Managing costs, growing contributions and endowments, and balancing budgets is, indeed, critical to overall success, but only in service to the ultimate goal of advancing a museum’s artistic, educational and civic mission. Bailouts, outsourcing and cost-per-visitor sounds more like the financial industry than a discussion of how best to present, support and understand the insights of the great artists of our time and ensure an audience who is engaged, not just showing up. Was MOCA’s problem one of too many costs, too little philanthropy, lack of museum experience, weak governance or a strategic shift in the fundamental mission of the museum?

Today’s tempest is no surprise. Museums need philanthropy and audience to be successful; they need artists and ideas to have purpose and meaning; and they need knowledge and caring so that future generations can look and learn. “Curate,” after all, comes from the Latin cura, to care. MOCA raises important issues for a new generation — of audiences best reached by social media, philanthropists whose wealth is vast and unbridled, and new directors whose combination of skills and backgrounds is an opportunity to reimagine, and maybe to reassert, the profound and lofty ambition of museums: to serve and educate the public through collection, research, preservation, exhibition, and the advancement of knowledge about works of art.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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