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Jeremy Unmuzzled: Strick’s Candid Account of the LA MOCA Saga

Jeremy Strick, taking his place in the “Bronze Crowd,” 1990-91, by Magdalena Abakanowicz, at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

When LA MOCA’s financial survival was looking doubtful, I placed a call to the office of director Jeremy Strick, requesting comment. I had pleasant memories of a far-ranging conversation we had over lunch during a group press visit to MOCA, arranged at the time of last February’s opening festivities for the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Jeremy had then told me:

Michael [Govan, LACMA’s director] has raised the bar for philanthropy in the arts in a way that’s been beneficial to all of us.

Not beneficial enough, apparently. Upping his trustees’ annual price of admission to $75,000 did not begin to stanch the hemorrhaging of endowment money that ultimately led to Strick’s flight from the prestigious but impecunious Los Angeles institution to a financially secure, if less artistically venturesome, haven—the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas.

Unsurprisingly, my call last fall to Strick was not returned.

So I was happy when Jeremy, on his own initiative, contacted me a couple of weeks ago for another far-ranging conversation. I was particularly pleased that he was willing to expound not only on his characteristically grandiose ambitions for the Nasher (where he has just assumed the director’s post this week), but also on what had gone amok at MOCA.

Since I promised you something “juicy,” I’ll tackle Strick’s MOCA musings first. I should preface this by saying that the following reflects The World According to Jeremy. MOCA trustees, patrons, staffers and interested observers may see things differently (and are invited to say so in BlogBacks). But it’s useful and instructive to hear the former director’s account of the financial crisis that spiraled out of control on his watch.

Q: In his article in the Dallas Morning News, Michael Granberry described you has having “lofty artistic credentials but also a clouded legacy of financial management.” Can you address that? How did you let what happened at MOCA happen, and to what extent was it the result of your own management?

A: I think that the situation at MOCA was, at one level, fairly simple: It always substantially underfunded. We never enjoyed the resources of government funding. And there was a very small endowment. We had to rely to an excessive degree upon contributed income, which always has a significant degree of risk. When you rely on that for 70% to 80% of your income, you’re gambling. In some years, it worked and in other years, it didn’t.

I think if you look at the kind of programming we did, the quality of the exhibitions and their impact, we ran a tight ship. The budget was always quite low compared to other institutions in Los Angeles that had a program of similar scope and quality. It was always a struggle. I feel as a director, I have to be responsible for the fact that there were things I just was not able to fix.

Q: Did you try and how did you try?

A: [I tried] every day. I can’t take exclusive credit for the triumphs, but if I’m going to take some credit for what we achieved, I also have to admit that I wasn’t able to fix the problems.

Q: Is there anything you feel you could have done better, if you could rewrite that period in your life?

A: I think about that constantly. There are things, going back, that I would have done differently. That said, the basic choices I made were the correct ones. The decision was to focus on quality and make this one of the great museums in the world.

Q: You say there are things that you would have done differently. What are they?

A: I don’t know if there’s any one thing—a decision here, a decision there. But I think the structural challenge was such that I don’t think those decisions would have made a big difference.

Q: But was there a point when you saw that you were hemorrhaging money?

A: The endowment went down over the years through a combination of spending and investment loss. The endowment at its height was $38 million. That was in 1999-2000.

Q: And what was it at the time of your departure?

A: It was $6-7 million.

Q: That speaks for itself, in a way. Was there a time when you really should have put on the brakes or made sure that this hemorrhaging didn’t continue? Were fiscal controls necessary at some point?

A: If you look at the history, there were cyclical elements: There were a couple of economic downturns. Spending had been ramped up prior to those and when they came, there were commitments that we had and that we kept. There were really key moments when we had big losses and we cut back. There were moments when we cut back very dramatically. The budgets went up and down. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to adjust quickly enough when there was a downturn.

Q: So you’re blaming it on the economic cycles?

A: I would say that’s one element. There are multiple reasons, but truly if you look at the numbers, they followed the cycles.

Q: The LA Times said that you spent $7.5 million in restricted funds, and suggested that you diverted them from purposes for which they were intended. Is that true?

A: The funds that were restricted were spent according to the purpose for which they were described. But we were spending principal [not just income]. It’s not as though the funds designated for educational programs were diverted to pay for acquisitions or exhibitions.

Q: Every museum has a percentage that they give themselves [for expenses] from endowment each year, but you were going beyond that percentage?

A: That’s exactly right.

Q: You had been talking to the Nasher before the crisis at MOCA came to a head. Would you have left MOCA regardless of how that situation played out? Were you really intent on going to the Nasher or was that your fallback position?

A: I was really intrigued by the Nasher. I was looking toward my 10th anniversary at MOCA and was very proud of what the museum had done. I loved so much of it. At the same time, there were things that I hadn’t solved. And if your relying on income for 80% of your budget, you’re spending most of your time doing fundraising. At the Nasher, it’s about 10%.

Q: When you left MOCA, were you told to leave?

A: It was a mutual understanding—mutual and amicable.

Q: Do you think the board wasn’t doing its job in providing sufficient funds?

A: I think that the board wanted the museum to do what it was doing and to be at the level it was at. The board had to find a way to make that happen.

Q: And it didn’t?

A: Evidently not. Some worked very hard and some were extremely generous.

Q: What would be your advice to the next director of MOCA?

A: Talk to me!

Q: What are the lessons that you feel are to be learned from this episode?

A: I think that directors and boards have to take a hard look at what their ambitions are and what the resources are to achieve those ambitions, and make sure that those are aligned.

Q: Should you have made sure they were more carefully aligned before going ahead with your ambitious programs?

A: Certainly I was always optimistic. But I think at the same time, one of the particular challenges we had is that it was the program that generated the income. The times that we cut back, it didn’t change the ratio of income to expense.

We were operating on a broken model. It was the programs and exhibition that we oriented our fundraising around. If you have a financial foundation, then you can cut back on programs. But if all your income is connected to those programs, you can’t cut back.

Q: How will MOCA be changed by all this?

A: It’s in a period of some retraction right how, which is necessary. What is important to recognize is that the museum now has a better financial foundation [thanks to Eli Broad‘s bailout] than it’s ever had in its history. Even if you take the $3 million a year for five years [part of Broad’s $30-million package], that would take an endowment of $60 million to generate [assuming a customary spending rate of about 5% of the endowment, annually]. An additional $15 million is to be matched by another $15 million from the board.

So truly, for the first time in its history, MOCA has a financial foundation on which it can operate. It never had that before. Reductions are unfortunately necessary. But my hope is that out of this period of retraction, it will rebuild.

You’ve got the core there: You’ve got the collection; you’ve got great curators; and you’ve got a great education staff.

COMING SOON: Strick’s vision for the Nasher

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