Is MOCA in trouble?

UPDATE 7/7/12: Eli Broad, billionaire philanthropist and founding chairman of the MOCA board of trustees, tries to answer the question posed in our headline. He wrote an op-ed in today’s LA Times defending museum director Jeffrey Deitch and the decision to part with longtime curator Paul Schimmel.

Broad argues that MOCA needs to be more thrifty and populist with its exhibitions:

In today’s economic environment, museums must be fiscally prudent and creative in presenting cost-effective, visually stimulating exhibitions that attract a broad audience. …

I applaud the decision of MOCA’s director, board leadership and board in right-sizing the staff and adopting a budget that they expect will be balanced in the coming year and in future years.

I am confident that with Deitch’s leadership and with the board and its leadership, MOCA will thrive and will avoid the problems that are plaguing other institutions while increasing attendance and membership, continuing to offer world-class exhibitions, and exhibiting its collection.

Lee Rosenbaum of Art Journal was unnerved by Broad’s business-first approach to curating – and his assuming the position of “spokesperson” for the museum in “a time of crisis”:

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.

Mike Boehm, the LA Times’ “culture monster,” writes of a museum undergoing serious cultural upheaval internally and, at the same time, facing growing financial insecurity. In the story, Broad describes Schimmel as being of “the old culture.” Artist Paul McCarthy tells Boehm that the shift under Broad and Deitch is troubling: “I see it as placating the populace. It’s not really what art’s about, but a ratings game.”

Across town, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art successfully turned the journey of a giant boulder into a media spectacle. Is this what McCarthy means?

Boehm did find a supporter for Deitch in artist Shephard Fairey. Fairey said of Deitch, “He also recognizes unique voices in areas the more conservative art world might not see as potentially sophisticated. I see Jeffrey as an early adopter, a translator and facilitator for new and sometimes challenging things.”

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From shaky finances to staff turnover, what’s behind the upheaval at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art? MOCA is missing out on $8.75 million from billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad because the Museum didn’t raise any matching funds of its own last fiscal year. Last week, curator Paul Schimmel either resigned or was fired. What does all this portend for LA’s world-class modern art museum? LA Times art critic Christopher Knight, Lee Rosenbaum of the Art Journal’s CultureGrrl blog and Yale School of Art Dean Robert Storr discuss the seemingly bad state of the museum.

Knight said MOCA will suffer without Schimmel:

“I think the … spotty exhibition record we’ve seen in the last year and a half is only going to continue.”

Storr had a bleaker take:

“Watching [MOCA] crater in this way is really heartbreaking, even for people at a great distance.”

The full conversation is here:

Schimmel’s departure opened a flood of criticism from those who believe MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch and the board of trustees are taking the museum in the wrong direction, away from scholarly exhibitions to a “slap-dash, flim-flammery-first approach,” as Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes put it. Here’s how the Los Angeles Times described the split:

Schimmel and Deitch had competing visions for the museum. Although Schimmel is known for staging popular shows like a 2007 retrospective of the artist Takashi Murakami, he also developed serious, research-driven exhibitions that took on entire art movements.

Deitch was hired as MOCA’s director two years ago, shortly after the museum emerged from a financial crisis. His gallery Deitch Projects in New York City was known for exhibitions and special events that brought together visual art, the underground music scene and other facets of youth culture, which the MOCA board members who chose him hoped he could bring to the museum.

The Times also reported it was Broad who first told Schimmel that the board had voted to fire him; MOCA contends Schimmel resigned. Broad and MOCA declined requests to be interviewed. Schimmel did not respond to a call for comment. Last week, MOCA officials issued a press release about Schimmel’s departure.

Broad, who is building a museum across the street from MOCA, talked to WWLA a few weeks ago about his role as a philanthropist in Los Angeles. That interview can be found here.

For more on MOCA: KCRW’s Steve Chiotakis spoke on Tuesday to art critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, and Mat Gleason, editor of the Coagula Arts Journal, about the tensions between Schimmel and Deitch. For that interview, click here.