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Anti-Broad Bromide: Roberta Smith’s Muddled LA MOCA Analysis

Roberta Smith

Roberta Smith

In her Critic’s Notebook piece about the LA MOCA mess that hit the NY Times‘ website this morning (and presumably will appear in tomorrow’s paper), Roberta Smith once again demonstrates that her brilliance as an art critic is not matched by equal acumen in analyzing museum-management issues.

Setting the scene for her muddled analysis, Roberta proclaims this in her first sentence:

The news out of Los Angeles may have some people pinching themselves in disbelief.

I, too, was “pinching myself in disbelief” as I read Smith’s misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the facts surrounding MOCA’s precarious state. The thrust of her piece is that MOCA needs to make itself “Broad-free.” She lays most of the blame for MOCA’s downward slide on the museum’s 2008 rescuer, Eli Broad,

In her previous piece regarding the MOCA Mess, which appeared last July, Smith had continued her dogged defense of MOCA’s embattled director, Jeffrey Deitch, and supplied him with a list of actions he should take to right the ship (none of which, as I wrote here, he had shown himself capable of). She acknowledged that while Deitch had “certainly hurt its [MOCA’s] image” and had “failed to make much of a dent in its more urgent financial problems,” this could be excused on the grounds that he had been given “a kind of mission impossible.”

Extricating MOCA from Eli Broad’s influence, as Roberta recommends, would be no easy matter, unless he agreed to walk away. He holds positions as founding chairman and life trustee of the museum. What’s more, his 2008 bailout agreement with MOCA (a copy of which I recently obtained) requires the museum for 10 years (to 2018) to “permit a representative of the Broad Foundation or the Broad Art Foundation to attend all formal meetings of the MOCA board of trustees, executive committee and finance committee as a non-voting visitor.”

The only heresy committed by the philanthropist whom Smith wants to excommunicate was tying his $30-million bailout offer to the condition that this once vibrant, highly respected museum remain independent and that its trustees rise to the challenge of his $15-million matching pledge. Most artworld observers would agree that those are desirable ends.

Other unobjectionable requirements in the Broad/MOCA bailout agreement include these:

—The museum must not use sale proceeds for deaccessioned artworks “in a manner that is prohibited by or conflicts with the then-current guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Association of Museums [i.e., no use of proceeds to fund operations or debts].

—Over the five years of Broad’s $15-million exhibition pledge, MOCA must “mount three or more exhibitons during each of MOCA’s fiscal years of a quality consistent with or greater than MOCA’s exhibitions since its inception.” [That’s a highly subjective “test”; I’ll leave it to Roberta and the LA Times‘ estimable art critic, Christopher Knight, to judge whether that stricture has been complied with.]

In one of Smith’s distortions of the MOCA saga, she seems to hold Broad responsible for the departure of “valuable members” of the board after he “returned [to the board] in 2008.”

The board that had allowed MOCA to financially implode was demonstrably deficient—so much so that the Attorney General’s office mounted an investigation, found that the museum had broken state laws and, in 2009, ordered corrective action. [CORRECTION: A previous version of this post had said that the action was ordered in 2010. UPDATE: More on the state law question, here.] In such a scenario, the departure of some trustees under whose watch this occurred is not only reasonable but essential, as was the departure of MOCA’s creatively (but not financially) resourceful director, Jeremy Strick. (The departures last July of four artist-members of the board seemed directly related to Deitch’s stewardship but also perhaps were tied indirectly to Broad’s influence over directions the museum was taking.)

As I wrote here, I do hold Broad responsible for one major mistake—supporting (and, in July 2012, continuing to endorse) the appointment to MOCA’s directorship of someone who, by experience and temperament, was ill suited to the task of solving the museum’s chronic financial predicament.

Roberta obliquely refers to a possible Deitch departure by observing this:

Only with him [Broad] gone will the museum be able to attract the serious money, dedicated board members, professional staff and—most important—strong, visionary director that it needs [emphasis added].

Roberta seems to blame Broad for offering the museum “just enough money…to keep it from closing, but not nearly enough to stabilize it.” But no one regarded Broad’s $30 million as a “relative pittance” (as Roberta called it) when it was offered. Even the exiled Strick graciously acknowledged the importance of Broad’s generosity. He said this in his interview with me after he moved from MOCA to the Nasher Sculpture Center:

What is important to recognize is that the museum now has a better financial foundation [thanks to Broad’s bailout] than it’s ever had in its history. Even if you take the [exhibition support of] $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.

Roberta may get her wish: Broad may decide to wash his hands of the whole mess and focus his attention on his own museum for his personal collection, which is rising across the street from MOCA’s Grand Avenue flagship. This wouldn’t be the first time that MOCA and Broad had a falling out and parted company: As he recounts in his memoir, The Art of Being Unreasonable, he left the board in the 1980s “when it became clear that our clashing methods were getting in the way of our shared goal….Sometimes circumstances dictate that you get up and walk away.”

If is walks away this time, he may (if he chooses to enforce the terms of his bailout agreement) take at least $6.25 million along with him.

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