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Adapt or Die: Museum of Contemporary Art LA - RowlandsModernArt.com : RowlandsModernArt.com
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Adapt or Die: internal problems at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles

| August 30, 2012 | Comments

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Adapt or Die: What We Can Learn About Museum Finances – internal problems at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles

We’ve all read media reports of internal problems at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles — exhibitions canceled, staff fired, and artist trustees resigning in protest. Reporters on the West Coast are having a field day. These problems can probably be laid in part at the door of bad management. There is no doubt the current museum director, Jeffrey Deitch, and his predecessor, Jeremy Strick, made foolish decisions: Strick spent down the museum’s endowment without attending to fund-raising, and Deitch appears to be willing to degrade the program to boost attendance.

Museum of Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles

But there are other reasons why MOCA is struggling — reasons that, it seems to me, have as much to do with the nature of museum financing in this country as they do with the limitations of the individuals managing that institution.

There is no denying that the costs of running museums are on the rise. Exhibition expenses have skyrocketed, making the mounting of major shows often a complex and risky financial transaction. For loan exhibitions, freight bills alone can be in the millions of dollars, and there is little chance such expenses can be recouped in ticket sales. Moreover, donors want to give money for building expansions but are reluctant to kick in for the increased operating costs — from air-conditioning to additional security staff — that come with that bigger space. In short, it is easy to see how a museum’s basic functions can lead to overspending that pushes it to the brink of bankruptcy: This is what happened at MOCA under Strick.

Perhaps it is not surprising in an era of leveraged buyouts and maxed-out mortgages that many museums have fallen into the habit of racking up annual deficits. But too many of them function on the reckless assumption that trustees will always be there to step in and pick up the tab at the end of year.

If nothing else, deficits add interest payments to the litany of other expenses museums must pay. More problematic, the need to turn to trustees, hat in hand, to replenish funds already spent leaves a director vulnerable to those who would seek to interfere in museum management, as Eli Broad has done at MOCA. In the worst case, deficits risk the very survival of the insitution. Look at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which announced plans this summer to sell its historic building, or the Folk Art Museum, which struggled for a decade under debt incurred on a grandiose building project before downsizing to a sort of itinerant status.

Amid all the bad news, there have been some beacons of hope. Faced with a decades-long history of declining revenue and contracting donor base that came with a shrinking population, the Detroit Institute of Arts asked residents in surrounding counties to support a property tax levy. Not only did the measure pass, but attendance shot up in the week after the vote, as people felt a new sense of ownership of their venerable institution. I am not advocating a simple switch to the European model of state support, which has its own problems. After all, more and more institutions there are cultivating their own American-style pools of donors. But some changes are in order.

It is clear that deficits are not sustainable, and museums are going to have to find new sources of revenue to balance their increasing expenses. Running a museum in this day and age is not easy, but unless the funding model evolves, it is only going to get harder.

Benjamin Genocchio is editor in chief of Art+Auction magazine and ARTINFO.

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Category: Art News