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MOCA Poker: Will Eli Broad Attempt to Stop LACMA’s Proposed Takeover? Can LACMA Afford MOCA?

In his Saturday NY Times article about the possible Los Angeles museum merger, Adam Nagourney noted that “there is one person now in a position to block it: Eli Broad.”

Eli Broad at the 2008 press preview of LACMA's Broad Contemporary Art Museum Photo: Lee Rosenbaum

Eli Broad at the 2008 press preview of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That’s because a condition of MOCA’s acceptance of the Broad Bailout (scroll to last page), as Eli stated in 2008, was “to keep MOCA independent. 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.”

Broad was right about that then. But four years later, the “fabric” of MOCA has been shredded and its “independent vision” has been compromised by the defections of key staffers and trustees. As Nagourney and the LA TimesJori Finkel and Mike Boehm reported, some of the cultural, philanthropic and civic leaders who once championed an independent MOCA are now open to the notion that a takeover by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art may be the best solution to MOCA’s seemingly intractable problems.

In this latest round of MOCA Poker, billionaire Broad may hold the royal flush. There’s been speculation (about which LA TimesChristopher Knight has strong doubts) that Broad would like nothing better than to get his hands on MOCA and its collection, to boost the importance of his own personal-collection museum that’s rising across the street.

Screen capture from The Broad's live construction webcam

Screen capture from The Broad’s live construction webcam

Like Knight, I’ve never believed the theory that a scheming Broad is poised to pounce on MOCA’s holdings (although I’m reasonably certain that he’d be receptive to loaned works crossing both ways on Grand Avenue.)

But as I began perusing the past press coverage of MOCA’s travails, Edward Wyatt‘s December 2008 NY Times report gave me pause:

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 [emphasis added] if the museum is not able to complete its fundraising efforts.

I have queries in to both MOCA’s and Broad’s press spokespersons, to find out whether the final Broad Bailout agreement contained a no-merger penalty clause (and, if so, what its exact provisions are). If I learn more, you’ll learn more.

Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, but having once interviewed Broad at length, read his self-revelatory (and self-congratulatory) memoir, and followed cryptic tweets, I don’t think he’s going to exploit MOCA’s misfortunes for his own museum’s advantage. His oversized ego is matched by a supersized sense of civic commitment. Despite the supposed bad blood between him and LACMA director Michael Govan, there’s an exhibition at LACMA right now of Contemporary Art from the Collections of LACMA and the Broad Art Foundation. In the MOCA matter, I suspect that Eli’s going to cash in his remaining chips (declining to give further financial support) and walk away from that table.

Whatever his future MOCA involvement (or lack thereof), Broad bears substantial responsibility for what has become the Deitch Debacle. By 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, Broad was part of the problem.

An indisputably savvy businessman, Broad should have seen this coming. My CultureGrrl commentary—Dealer-to-Director: Why Jeffrey Deitch is Wrong for LA MOCA (posted in January 2010, after Deitch was named to the museum’s directorship, but before he assumed that post on June 1, 2010)—now seems prescient. At a time when art writers were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about this appointment, I wrote:

MOCA can’t afford to take another flyer [after the artistically distinguished but financially ruinous directorship of Jeremy Strick]. It needed a serious, seasoned museum professional, without commercial baggage and with a proven track record of keeping the proper balance between exciting programming and a balanced budget. The risks to its operations and reputation from its eccentric choice are too high [emphasis added].

There will be high risks, too, in LACMA’s taking on MOCA’s problems and operating costs. Michael Govan will need to up the ante over the $100 million that LACMA has thus far said it would raise to help bankroll this vast, ambitious enterprise—a far-flung, tripartite museum, consisting of MOCA’s Grand Avenue flagship, its cavernous Geffen Contemporary, and LACMA’s current sprawling campus, which is expected eventually to be overhauled and unified by architect Peter Zumthor.

Notwithstanding Govan’s can-do charisma, even LACMA is not immune from financial setbacks and losses, including, in fiscal 2012, an unrealized $52.2-million loss on interest-rate swaps. (See P. 4 of the 2012 financial statement on LACMA’s website.)

NOTE: A previous version of this post said that the unrealized $52.2-million loss “may ultimately turn out better.” In fact, if all goes as expected, that liability will completely “self-liquidate over the term of the bonds to which the swap is tied,” as LACMA has informed me. More details on the financials are at the end of my follow-up post on MOCA’s situation.

As LA Times art critic Knight rightly observed, $100 million is a small price to pay for MOCA’s incalculably valuable collection of postwar and contemporary masterpieces. But if the takeover compromises LACMA’s own sustainability, $100 million (plus the sizable additional expenditures that will inevitably follow) could turn out to be a bad bargain.

We can only hope that Govan will soon release more detailed information about his vision and plans for the long-term sustainability of LACMOCA, demonstrating that the confidence he now enjoys from Los Angeles’ cultural and civic leaders is indeed well placed.

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