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Eli Broad Becomes LA MOCA Spokesperson: Seeking “Cost-Effective” Exhibitions

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Eli Broad

In all my years covering museums, I’ve never heard the kind of rhetoric applied to museum practices that Eli Broad employs in his Op-Ed piece for tomorrow’s LA Times (online today). I’ve also never seen a “life trustee,” who is not even a voting member of the museum’s board, become the sole spokesperson for that institution during a time of crisis.

Today, the LA Times published Broad’s comments in an interview with Mike Boehm. Eli explained the “forced resignation” [as Boehm termed it] of chief curator Paul Schimmel this way:

They [MOCA’s board] knew that Paul was from the old culture [emphasis added] and was not getting along with the director. And although they had a lot of respect for his curatorial ability, they thought it was time to move on, especially some of the newer trustees [at least some of whom were appointed under new director Jeffrey Deitch].

Boehm himself observed:

Deitch’s buzz-driven vision of how to run a museum collided with that of Schimmel, who was known for sweeping, meticulously researched and often expensive [emphasis added] exhibitions that examined themes and movements in contemporary visual art. Those shows and Schimmel’s acquisitions were vital to MOCA’s standing as one of the world’s most respected showcases for post-World War II art.

But the most telling revelation that MOCA’s “new culture” has become corporate appears in Broad’s Op-Ed piece (linked above, first paragraph):

Over the years, MOCA has mounted many great exhibitions. However, the museum has also curated a number of exhibitions that were costly and poorly attended, often exceeding $100 per visitor [emphasis added]. In today’s economic environment, museums must be fiscally prudent and creative in presenting cost-effective, visually stimulating exhibitions that attract a broad audience.

There has been much confusion about Paul Schimmel’s departure….Paul is a brilliant curator, but the board members recognized the director’s right to put his own team together.

So we go from “great exhibitions” conceived by a “brilliant curator” to “cost-effective, visually stimulating” ones, with broad popular appeal. I have never heard a museum professional use the strange metric of cost-per-visitor to assess an exhibition’s merits. Prioritizing attendance and “cost-effectiveness” over curatorial brilliance is a very slippery slope.

In his new self-congratulatory book, The Art of Being Unreasonable (which I have read and enjoyed), Broad writes (p. 136):

When we make grants to arts organizations, we expect increases in their audiences and museum traffic.

But this successful businessman’s bias towards quantifiable results and number of customers misses the important difference between cultural institutions and corporations: The driver for museum programming should, first and foremost, be quality of exhibitions, acquisitions, education and scholarship, not how many people walk through the doors. The budget must always be in service to the mission, not the other way around.

The first responsibility of a museum director is to ensure that those priorities are kept straight, particularly among the members of the board of trustees. As a first-time museum director and former commercial dealer, at an institution that is beholden to Broad (scroll down) for its financial survival, Deitch is not well positioned to assert the needed authority.

an ArtsJournal blog