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Raider of the Lost Museum: Takeover Bid by Govan for MOCA UPDATED

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Michael Govan

[Michael Govan gives CultureGrrl his side of the story here.]

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art calls its proposal for rescuing the financially moribund MOCA a “merger” and “partnership.”

It’s more like a takeover bid, and not a particularly friendly one.

MOCA’s crisis received its first public airing almost a month ago, but LACMA dropped its bomb into yesterday’s meeting of MOCA’s board, where it was to decide on the contemporary museum’s future course. Although previous discussions had occurred, his was the first time that the board had been presented with a formal proposal, as LACMA’s spokesperson, Barbara Pflaumer, yesterday confirmed to me.

While the board was still deliberating, LACMA alerted the media to publicize its offer, wresting control of the story from MOCA, just as it will soon wrest control of the dynamic, feisty but fiscally fizzled institution itself, if Govan has his way.

This takeover should not be allowed to happen.

You need only compare the agility, acuity and even prescience of institutions devoted solely to contemporary art (MOCA, above all) with the conservative me-tooism in the contemporary galleries of large encyclopedic museums to know that a merger would not just pose pitfalls; it would be the abyss.

Instead of being a perpetrator of pernicious takeover mischief, Michael Govan should have been a collaborative colleague, offering to provide space and support for MOCA’s insufficiently exhibited, superb permanent collection, without insisting on assuming control over it (as would happen under a single-board, single-director merger).

This cooperative relationship could have been a win-win: MOCA could have been relieved of storage and conservation costs and would have benefited from major-museum exposure; LACMA would have gotten display rights over a world-class contemporary collection—something that, for all its grand new and planned new spaces, it conspicuously lacks.

Speaking of mischief, Jeremy Strick, director of MOCA, did a very mischievous thing when artworld luminaries were assembled in town last February for the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA (which I covered for the Wall Street Journal). Not only was the fabulous Murakami show in residence at the Geffen Contemporary, but the highlights of MOCA’s permanent collection emerged from storage for a beautifully installed, brilliantly elucidated (with lots of comments by the artists on the labels) contemporary survey show at MOCA’s Grand Avenue building.

For those of us who made it to MOCA’s press showings, the contrast between the sedate, sometimes stultifying BCAM display and the engaging, engrossing MOCA enterprise was impossible to miss.

Still, when I sat next to him at MOCA’s press lunch, Strick tipped his hat to his counterpart at LACMA:

Michael has raised the bar for philanthropy in the arts in a way that’s been beneficial to all of us.

Not beneficial enough, apparently. And now Michael has cornered some philanthropists who are willing to contribute to MOCA, but only under Govan governance: Pflaumer told me that her institution has donors already committed to supporting the proposed LACMA-MOCA, “but we are not at liberty to go into detail at this juncture.” These unnamed angels should deal directly with an independent MOCA, instead of backing a takeover.

MOCA’s board, meeting again tomorrow, is between a rock (Govan) and a hard place (Eli Broad). According to Edward Wyatt‘s report in today’s NY Times, “some museum board members have grown wary of Mr. Broad’s offer in recent days as he has outlined its conditions, some of which, opponents say, put him in the position to control the museum or its collections if the museum is not able to complete its fundraising efforts.”

Wyatt also indicated that Strick’s departure, which many (but not CultureGrrl) have called for, may be almost a done deal:

Jeremy Strick…is negotiating the terms of his resignation with members of the board of directors, two people close to the board said on Tuesday.

And in other MOCA rescue news, an updated article on the LACMA proposal by Diane Haithman and Mike Boehm reports the following:

Aiming to discourage the [LACMA-MOCA] merger, [City Council President Eric] Garcetti and Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes MOCA’s downtown venues, introduced a council motion Tuesday asking the city Community Redevelopment Agency to give MOCA $2.8 million in rent money derived from the neighboring California Plaza development.

The council members are particularly focused on the important role of MOCA’s Grand Avenue headquarters as a linchpin in downtown redevelopment efforts—something that Broad too has stressed. What the LA Times didn’t say, but the council members did (on KCRW‘s The Politics of Culture radio program yesterday) is that their proposal is predicated on MOCA’s installing new leadership, accepting Eli Broad’s offer and renewing its commitment to remain in downtown Los Angeles.

UPDATE
: I just received a copy of the LA Council motion. Although Perry specifically mentioned on the radio that MOCA’s acceptance of Broad’s offer was one of the conditions for municipal support, the language actual introduced says that MOCA must accept “offers of financial assistance from private individuals to increase its sustainability.”

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