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The Tides of Culture: Who Cares About MOCA?

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Photo by ForYourArt for L.A. Currents

The chronically underfunded Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) is back in the news. Questions over the museum’s viability as an independent organization and the merits of a potential merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) come on the heels of two other cultural events that have served to reopen a discussion that dates back to the dawn of Western civilization: What role, if any, should “the arts” play in contemporary American culture?

Los Angeles is currently ground zero for this discussion.

The first of these events was Time Warner Inc.’s announcement in January that it was dropping Ovation, the cable behemoth’s only arts channel, from its lineup. Executives from Ovation, which is headquartered in L.A., have almost reached their goal to get 50,000 signatures in an effort to “show Time Warner Cable that the arts matter.” (Disclosure: I previously worked as a consultant for Ovation.)

Time Warner’s decision to drop Ovation reflects serious questions about art and mass media and whether art can be relevant to a wider audience.

The second event was First Lady Michelle Obama’s appearance on the Oscars telecast. Some applauded her presence. Others saw it as unintentionally reinforcing the notion that art is elitist and bemoaned her appearance as a missed opportunity to promote the arts. 

Howard Sherman, writing in The Huffington Post, had this to say:

. . . short of an arts message during the Super Bowl . . . [the Oscars] was the biggest chance to speak to America about the value of the arts that we get this year. And I fear it had no impact.”

Those of us who work in “the arts” often find ourselves discussing the fungible nature of that exact term. The terms “art,” “arts,” and “artist” mean different things to different people. We are used to hearing about why the arts matter so much because we so often have to tell each other that they really do! And when those mass media opportunities arrive and their potential impact is unrealized, we bristle and shake our heads like Sherman did over the Oscars.

It seems that if the arts want to “matter,” what is required is a completely different lens through which to view arts culture.

But back to MOCA. Museums are increasingly pressured to bridge the separation between society and contemporary art practice (which is somewhat imprisoned by its self-referential nature). Museum patrons call out for greater attendance, and museum officials proudly present higher numbers to their boards. Museum director Maxwell Anderson noted in Artforum: “Crowded openings are what capture our imagination . . . as long as museums appear busy, they must be relevant.”

Although MOCA’s attendance is on the rise, its future remains uncertain. The Los Angeles Times’ art critic, Christopher Knight, called MOCA a bargain for LACMA, while The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney cited “cautious approval” for a plan to merge the museums. Although the merger appears to be gaining support, philanthropist Eli Broad may have a “make-or-break” veto because of his 2008 bailout of MOCA. A partnership with USC is also still on the table, which has a number of MOCA insiders enthused. (Another partnership between USC and the Shoah Foundation in 2006 has been cited as a success.) There is also hope these bids will finally serve to draw a new level of support the museum needs to remain independent.

And in a new twist, a report in The New York Times on Tuesday said that MOCA is considering a five-year agreement with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after Eli Broad approached them for assistance.

“It’s the growing pains of a cultural metropolis . . . coming of age,” LACMA Director Michael Govan told The New York Times. “It’s not old and set. It’s still new and it’s still growing.”

The L.A. Times summed it up:

Given the museum’s stellar history, there’s no problem that a hefty infusion of endowment cash could not solve. For whatever reason, though, it hasn’t been forthcoming — either from Broad or the many other very deep pockets on MOCA’s board of trustees.

But here is the rub: Endowment cash hasn’t been forthcoming because there is simply not enough munificence or understanding that contemporary art museums provide a crucial space for the sponsorship of cultural inquiry. The idea of research and development is accepted in the sciences, and contemporary art museums provide research and development for culture that is essential to its health.

Caring about MOCA is an opportunity to express the belief that a space for independent imagination is essential to the cultural landscape. Whether through a truly visionary act on the part of an individual or a crowdsourced campaign, MOCA’s success has the potential to create waves and inspire a city that is still in mourning over the voter apathy displayed in last week’s mayoral election. This city is united by one thing: creativity. But that creativity must be divorced from elitism. The current turmoil of the “culture world” in L.A. reflects a larger dynamic: How can public engagement with the arts coexist with the exclusivity of the art market?

Let’s think beyond expanding the impact of L.A.’s artistic influence at a time when “this region is on a cultural and artistic roll” and imagine how bold action — whether in the form of a well-funded merger or independent endowment — could make deeper waves.

Bettina Korek is the founder of ForYourArt.

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