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Published on August 29th, 2012 | by RLn Staff

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MOCA: THE DISAPPEARED

By Andrea Serna

Two million and six hundred thousand American jobs were lost in 2008. At the time, it seemed that every time you turned around, someone you knew was being laid off. For me, like a whole lot of other professionals in the arts, my call into the office of Bowers Museum’s Human Resources department came in December of ‘08. My colleagues at the Museum of Contemporary Art were getting the call at almost exactly the same time. As a matter of fact, Bower’s director, Peter Keller, cited MOCA as cautionary justification by saying “we don’t want to be like MOCA.” Keller saw the headlines about the layoffs at MOCA and decided this was his opportunity to cut his own payroll.

In the last two and one half years the spotlight on MOCA has grown very hot and volumes have been written about MOCA’s controversial director Jeffrey Dietch, Trustee Eli Broad and the exodus of renown artists who founded the museum and were also on the board of trustees. These happenings have received a great deal of attention due to the museum’s curatorial direction, or more correctly, the lack thereof.

Insiders believe MOCA’s problems were self-inflicted and that much more than the horrific economy led to their troubles. An example of the museum’s dubious financial strategy was former Director Jeremy Strick’s agreement with Louis Vuitton to stage the 2007-2008 show “MURAKAMI at MOCA.”  MOCA agreed to host a Louis Vuitton store on-site, which sold Murakami designed handbags, but brought no shared revenue to the museum. “People were buying memberships in order to get into the Louis Vuitton store and not even taking time to visit the exhibition.” Strick gained infamy for raiding the rich MOCA endowment for other misguided projects. He subsequently left for the Nasher Center in Dallas Texas following the economic collapse.

Lost in this conversation is the talent drain as a result of Dietch’s and Broad’s decision making. According to the MOCA Mobilization Facebook page, the current museum staff of 45 represents a 60 percent staff reduction since 2008. The MOCA Mobilization Facebook group was founded by  artists Cindy Bernard and Diana Thater in reaction to the first round of layoffs that cut 38 staff members at MOCA. After going quiet for over a year, it recently revived with a vengeance. Their stated mission is “to generate support for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles…disseminate information on the current crisis and discuss options.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, an estimated 90 individuals have disappeared from the museum payroll. MOCA, however, refused to confirm these numbers.

Most of us know about the most famous person to lose his job this year, curator Paul Schimmel. What you may not know is that  six other people got the ax the same day.

Many creative innovative people have left the museum and have taken their talents to other arts organizations. With a skeleton staff in the Education and Curatorial Departments, the artistic heart of a museum impacted, not surprisingly resulting in the mass resignations on the Trustee Board, by the founding artists of MOCA. Respected L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight, states the resignations strike at the museums core.

The impact of the staff reductions has been profound. Artist Mere Rosenbluth, noted on the MOCA Moblization Facebook page that MOCA’s education department now only have one full time programmer/manager, a department that fulfills one of MOCA’s primary mission.

“Is no one else equally outraged at the additional staff layoffs and outsourcing of work that has occurred under Deitch?” he said.

“The incredibly dedicated and passionate individuals who ran MOCA’s family art workshops, teen apprenticeship program, symposia, screenings and educational/participatory events have been dismissed. What will happen to MOCA’s vital education program? When will these roles be filled?”

Back in 2008, my position as membership manager at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana along with the entire development, Public Relations and marketing staffs were eliminated. Those reductions took place following the most successful exhibition in the museum’s history, The Terra Cotta Warriors of China. The exhibition received nearly 2000 visitors a day and doubled the museum’s membership.

Traditionally, these new members would serve as a base for fundraising support for the museum. Instead, the Bowers cut off the main communication route to members, pocketed $2 million in profit and made a decision to enact policies that resulted in historically low member retention rate of less than 50 percent. Keller adopted the Disney model for this museum–high ticket prices joined with artistically unchallenged work. A good fit for the O.C.

As it turns out, all us down-sized museum refugees kept talking to each other. A former MOCA curatorial department employee, laid off in 2008 agreed to give Random Length News a statement on the condition of anonymity: “When I started working at MOCA it was clear that the institution lacked a solid management infrastructure to support its ambitious exhibition programming. Departments were defined and functional with an unspoken directive to prioritize exhibitions. Workloads were unevenly distributed benefiting mostly those directly involved with organizing and travelling said exhibitions.

While much praise has been given to Paul Schimmel for his efforts at MOCA over the years, his blatant misuse of museum funds has had a direct impact on the state of the museum today. He was in a position of power with no willing party to intercept or intercede. While I find him largely at fault, the board of directors and previous museum directors should also share the blame as they obviously never played their part in protecting the museum’s endowment. The museum is falling apart from within and will likely be “rescued” by Eli Broad who happens to be conveniently moving in across the street.”

Dietch recently sent a letter to the membership at MOCA. The letter, an effort to retain and reassure members, was a pretty standard “the kids are alright” attempt. In the letter he boast, “We have an exceptional staff at MOCA,” and solicitously adds that, “with the support of the board, our members, and the many artists we engage with, we are confident that MOCA is on a sound path.”

To Deitch’s credit, he seems to realize that MOCA will benefit from retaining their members, unlike Keller.  A healthy retention rate of at least 70 percent sustains the museum and guarantees such things as planned giving, annual gifts and a regular stream of visitors for new exhibitions.

Contrary to billionaire Eli Broad’s “It’s my money, I’ll tell you how to spend it” perspective on the museum, it is ultimately the public that is vested in the survival of a contemporary art museum in the heart of the newly revitalized downtown.

Broad has been involved in the museum since the beginning. To hear him tell it, the whole thing was practically his idea. Unfortunately, his money has tainted art throughout the city of Los Angeles. His manipulations and dubious deals left LACMA with a building bearing Broads name, and a bad taste after Broad picked up his art collection and moved it all across the street from MOCA to his new Broad Contemporary Art Museum on Grand Ave. A perfect move for a real estate developer; build a house for an art collection across the street from a well-respected museum and pick up visitors from the tourist traffic.

Marisela Norte, former Membership Coordinator at MOCA, shared with me what it feels like to be laid off after 14 years with the museum. Before losing our jobs Norte and I met on a monthly basis as part of a membership roundtable group that included representatives from museums throughout L.A. and Orange counties. As a key contact person for supporters of MOCA, she expressed her concern for the museum and it’s members.

“We all kind of knew the end was coming,” Norte said. “Previously they would send out notices when positions were eliminated. I don’t want to say it was like the disappearances in Argentina, but suddenly people just disappeared. There was no notice. (It was almost like) erasing institutional memory.”

She currently works at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) in the Wilshire corridor, a museum run by Suzanne Isken, former education director at MOCA. Suzanne has brought her contemporary art sensibilities to CAFAM and, along with her staff, is building an intriguing exhibition schedule.

Today the model of museum as popular culture is being carried forward by Dietch. Drew Barrymore is curating an exhibition of photography, Dietch is also planning an exhibition highlighting the history of Disco in New York. Norte says “When is the Kim Kardashian retrospective coming?”

From Norte’s perspective there is still one question that remains unanswered “Who answers the phone?”

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