LET me first note for the record, that it was I who spoke the question that, but for a handful of the blithe and benighted among the otherwise thoughtful souls in attendance at the MOCA "mobilization" on the afternoon of Sunday, November 23, 2008, seemed to be on everyone's mind. "Where is Jeremy Strick?" I inquired — apparently a bit too vocally for some of the milquetoasts muddled about me. The question was picked up by a few others along the sidelines, as Alexis Smith and sometime MOCA curator Julie Lazar offered what sounded like prayers for the rebirth or resurrection of a dying institution. But after one or two more thumbnail devotionals, the gathering moved on to the originally scheduled programming — UCLA professor George Baker's tour of Index, the wonderful show of mostly California-rooted conceptual art culled from MOCA's own collections (which by itself spoke volubly of what stood to be lost if MOCA's collections were to be either dispersed or deaccessioned, merged (I prefer to call it 'submerged') or otherwise mothballed in the wake of the institution's failure).
But was it a mobilization or a wake? I should have known something was amiss when, overhearing an artist's remarks on a telephone conversation he had had that morning with a MOCA trustee (striking in that the trustee came off as surprisingly lackadaisical about MOCA's financial crisis, and concerned only because there had been such vocal outrage among MOCA's membership and the general public), I turned and asked the artist if he could tell me who the trustee was. He refused to give a name. Although I assured him absolute anonymity, should I actually follow up by contacting the trustee for her/his story, he continued to demur. These were the artists "mobilizing" to support MOCA? I wondered. What exactly did they have in mind? And furthermore, why would anyone be inclined to let one or several or, indeed, any of the trustees off the hook since they — and the director, Jeremy Strick — ultimately bore responsibility for the debacle that had brought us down to the Geffen on this particular afternoon in the first place?
In a vaguely admonishing tone, Brian Butler, of 1301PE, told me this sort of questioning was not exactly the point of the gathering. If not then, I asked him, when? What exactly did they — the artists organizing the "mobilization" — expect to 'mobilize'? This, Butler offered, was simply to express support for the museum, its curators and staff. I wondered if he knew that only a year ago, one of its curators apparently had no problem cutting his own museum off from a potentially lucrative revenue stream.
Over the following days, as the true dimensions of MOCA's financial crisis were revealed in the wake of continued market turbulence and even larger scandals in the world of securitized debt, derivatives and hedge fund trading, MOCA's mobilized but still impecunious constituency began to confront the implications of a decade-long party in the art world (that owed not a little to the phenomenon of explosively rich hedge fund managers) finally coming to an end. Minds soon concentrated on the possibility that within the ecology of Los Angeles cultural life, MOCA might be on the verge of extinction. Unfortunately, there is no Environmental Protection Agency for the American art world. Rich patrons and richer endowment funds, the theory goes, will cushion against precipitous falls, offset imbalances and steady tides suddenly erratic amid market disturbances. But with the exception of a handful of its founding benefactors and trustees, MOCA has never had either of these. Jeremy-come-lately later disclosed that his staff had been planning a $75 million drive to boost the endowment, but that events had overtaken planning as MOCA's operating deficits threatened to bring operations to a screeching halt.
But — let's face it — hadn't 'events overtaken planning' the first time the museum had dipped into 'restricted' funds or begun to draw down the endowment? Also — why $75M? Why not $100 or $200M? — which is what is really required, given the museum's chronic inability to keep within its budget. Speaking of which — architecture and design departments to one side — why had the staff mushroomed to the extent it had? It could be argued that at least they, at least, were doing something interesting — unlike the Board of Trustees whose idea of serving a contemporary art institution was apparently to behave like Charley Ray mannequins. That may be taking a broad brush, but we have to ask what half of them (not including the artists — although a few of them are quite rich) are doing there besides using the connections and leverage afforded them simply by being there to enhance their own art collections?
The day before the 'mobilization' (how ironic that term would become over the following two weeks), one of the still functional trustees — Eli Broad — stepped up and offered $30 million — yes, yes, with a few conditions attached, but far fewer than one might have expected, given his reputation. In fact, it was exactly the right thing at almost exactly the right figure. Another far less functional trustee (Rosette Delug) gave a dinner a few nights later for her fellow board members, at which it was presumed a few million might be pried from their checkbooks if the drinks were strong enough and she didn't run out of wine and liquor. But maybe she did — or maybe deadwood and fiberglass don't respond the way we expect flesh-and-blood trustees to behave.
Over the following days, as we waited for the trustees to find their wind-up keys, we learned that the endowment had fallen not to $16 million, but $6 million. Is that why no one said (or did) anything about this problem for the full nine years of Strick's tenure? This was the unanswered and unasked question on par with the questions that were finally being asked and answered in New York and Washington about the housing, credit and securities markets only two or three months earlier. Who did they — MOCA's board and administration — think they were? The SEC? This was about as transparent as a solid black Jimmy Hayward. It was a question heard buzzing all around at the 'mobilization' rally: why it had taken so long for the facts to surface even among the museum's core constituencies; and how — even with endowments everywhere dropping precipitously — had the museum's finances and operations reached such a precarious state?
Although it was amusing to finally see these questions being asked — mostly on the blogs — amid a groundswell of cynicism about the functioning of the art world, well timed between the November contemporary auctions and Art Basel Miami Beach — it was dismaying to see the MOCA board drift inertially, shamelessly, towards merger with LACMA, an arrangement they clearly craved to save face while clinging to their pennies, and which, over the long term, could never have been sustained. I never thought I would be on the same page with Broad, who, commenting on Michael Govan's bail-out proposal, quoted a stock line from the movies (Jerry Maguire) — "Show me the money." But not only did I share his skepticism (Broad, a former accountant, would have recognized immediately it was administratively not feasible), I have myself used this hackneyed quote once or twice over the last couple of weeks in criticizing MOCA's feckless board of trustees.
Another cliché was painfully in evidence as we began to see the best and worst — but mostly the worst — from the trustees and others in L.A.'s arts 'establishment'. Two of the trustees (Tom Unterman — the board co-chair, and Jane Nathanson — Marc's wife) actually publicly entertained the notion of selling off pieces of MOCA's collection — managing to be financially as well as culturally irresponsible at the same time. They should step down immediately. (For someone who runs a venture capital firm, Unterman's judgment hardly inspires confidence.)
Finally, the storm cloud broke. It's hard to say what factor might have been pivotal: embarrassment, shame, the realization they might have lost whatever credibility they had in the business and financial worlds as well as the art world, the prospect of sacking an irreplaceable cultural resource, essentially writing off a now priceless investment, and forever depleting the cultural life of Los Angeles — that would be about the order of their priorities. It was interesting to see how cagily the trustees spread out their commitment and hedged their endowment 'bets.' "To date, the MOCA Trustees have made commitments in excess of $20 million for operational and endowment support over the next five years. These gifts and MOCA NOW — a broad-based fundraising initiative — are elements of a general fundraising campaign targeted at raising an aggregate of $75 million for endowment and operating expenses." The most important commitment came at the end of the second paragraph of the announcement: "MOCA will remain the artists' museum." Now — I'll say it again — show me the money. ■