I say sell

Last week, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad offered $30 million to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which announced several days prior to that, that it was in financial crisis. LA MOCA’s endowment has withered to less than $10 million, from its high of about $40 million several years ago. The Museum has been forced to make cuts that include closing more than half its exhibition space, the Geffen Contemporary annex, for six months.

Broad was a founding chair of LA MOCA in 1979, and has long been one of Los Angeles’ biggest arts patrons, recently donating over $60 million to the Los Angeles County Museum. In an op-ed article published on Saturday, November 22nd, Broad stated that through his Broad Art Foundation, he would invest $30 million in LA MOCA “with the expectation that the museum’s board and others join in this effort to solve the institution’s financial problems.”

The gift is contingent on the Museum remaining independent. Broad’s op-ed stated: “Being merged into another institution would destroy the fabric of a great museum and would sacrifice the independent curatorial vision that has created an extraordinary collection and many unparalleled exhibitions.”

Furthermore, he warned that the museum should not sell any of its collection: “The greatest travesty to come out of MOCA’s current financial crisis would be for it to sell any of its artworks to cover operating deficits—an action that would be anathema for a museum.”

But, without merging with another institution, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or the University of Southern California, as officials at the museum had talked about, or selling pieces of the Museum’s permanent collection, how can LA MOCA raise money? The country is in economic crisis; many corporate arts patrons such as the Lehman Brothers have failed; it’s not that they are simply not giving money to the arts, it’s that there is no money to give, and sometimes even no company to give it! The Museum can only raise ticket prices so high before people, already cutting back on restaurants, movies, and other entertainment expenditures, stop coming.

I understand that it is important for LA MOCA to retain its own identity—remaining an independent institution is integral to its mission “to be the defining museum of contemporary art,” and if it’s able to weather this current economic recession, it should not come out married to another institution that might stifle its curatorial vision.

This is why the Museum must sell works from its permanent collection in order to raise revenue. The alternative is to put on vapid blockbuster shows—shows that will bring in the crowds and perhaps some memberships (which increase revenue), but are inexpensive, and not necessarily thought provoking. LA MOCA has had blockbuster shows in recent memory—Takashi Murakami comes to mind. But this could not have been an inexpensive show. Indeed, the museum is still dealing with some of the legal repercussions of the exhibition.

Instead, think: summer show. But in the fall, winter and spring too. Then it just becomes Guggenheim Vegas. And we all know how that went. In the summer, museums tend to give the public more eye candy than substantive art meal. It’s hot. It’s harder to think. We just want to see pretty things. I’ll admit, I’ve enjoyed some of these: Jackie O at the Met in 2000, Summer of Love at the Whitney in 2007. These are fun shows, they are shows that draw crowds, but they are not thought provoking or challenging. They are not introducing a new audience to an established but difficult artist’s work, or an emerging artist to the larger audience that a museum brings.

What’s more, this is a museum of Contemporary Art. Contemporary art by definition is always changing. While work of the 80’s or 70’s or 60’s is valuable and has a place in the art historical canon, and helps us to understand and put into perspective works made in the 21st century that we are now living in, it is almost three, four, or five decades old. Perhaps it now fits another museum or collector’s mission better. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has a long history of selling valuable works from its permanent collection in order to raise revenue for new works and exhibitions. It has not been, as Eli Broad warns, an anathema to that museum, and it won’t be for LA MOCA. Putting on a show about Harleys or Swatch watches or nostalgic television shows or some other inane thing to raise revenue would be an anathema. Selling off some of the permanent collection just might save this museum.

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