Friday Musings: An “Outsider’s” View of L.A.’s Contemporary Art Scene

On Friday during Happy Hour, instead of having cocktails, I became inebriated with the exuberance of my own verbosity”. This was the result.  Brace yourselves…

I was catching up on what I’ve missed in the Art world over the last couple of days by reading some articles primarily about the ouster/resignation of MOCA’s Paul Schimmel on Wednesday.  Since the news prematurely hit the blogosphere everyone has been busy chronicling their thoughts and positing on how the Chief Curator’s resignation impacts the city’s cultural milieu.  This story raised many questions in my mind:

Q:  Where does board oversight end and true museum leadership begin?

Q:  How do cultural institutions sustain themselves through an economic downturn?

Q:  Is L.A. truly demonstrating the global Contemporary Art prominence that it so desperately desires?

Q:  How many Contemporary Art institutions does L.A. need?

I don’t have answers to all these questions, but over the last 9 months I have tried to acquaint myself to L.A.’s Contemporary Art scene through following ambitious shows like Pacific Standard Time, the Hammer’s Made in L.A. biennial and the MOCA/Mercedes-Benz sponsored multi media extravaganza that was Transmission-LA .  I’ve been reticent to write about them because, well frankly, I haven’t been inspired to do so.  I AM, however fascinated by the behind the scenes drama that has been taking place with our museums.  Here are some articles that I think best articulate the issues that L.A. currently faces:

Cultural institutions have succumbed to the architectural equivalent of keeping up with the Jones’.  This New York Times article discusses a study that shows how some large scale re-development projects have struggled with sustainability.

For Arts Institutions, Thinking Big Can Be Suicidal”, New York Times, section C1, June 27, 2012

This has been an issue that fascinated me when I first visited San Francisco’s MoAD after it was first built and again years later.  When it comes to building cultural institutions, it doesn’t take much to create a perfect storm.

This Hyperallergic article further explores the rash of firings and layoffs that have befallen LACMA, the Getty and MOCA recently.  The layoffs are nothing new; cultural institutions are the first hit when state funding dries up and endowments become anemic, however the author points out some interesting observations regarding how these same institutions are choosing to spend their ever-dwindling endowments. In the case of MOCA’s delayed announcement of this news 2 days AFTER it hit the internet suggests, perhaps a larger PR budget allocation is needed (hello, Olivia Pope?):

LA Museum Drama: MOCA Goes Full Deitch, LACMA Lays Off Staff, Hyperallergic,, June 29, 2012

And last but not least, I think Friday’s L.A. Times touches on the emotional nerve that this move has made.  In the case of MOCA L.A. we have one step forward and two steps back.  To art world critics and insiders, Schimmel was the “substance” behind the “style”.

Critic’s Notebook: MOCA’s firing of Paul Schimmel is a bad sign

The problem is museums can’t afford the substance, and with trustees at the helm (who are charged with maximizing returns) some difficult decisions must be made.  What I’ve seen in L.A.’s Contemporary Art scene is a fixation on getting bodies in the door.  MOCA boasts a steadily increasing annual visitor rate.  Curated shows with music, food, celebrities, fashion draws a consistent crowd.  It appears to be a short term survival tactic that suggest that philanthropic donors and memberships have decreased.

What museum boards need to ask themselves now is once you get these folks in the door, how will you keep them over the long term?  Catering to 20 somethings in a transient city with the hopes that they either become collectors or future benefactors may not be the winning formula for Los Angeles.  What is the winning formula?  Well, if I knew that, I’d be on a board by now, and part of the problem…or perhaps the solution.

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