Wait, what? That was the art world’s collective response to a New York Times report indicating that things are looking serious between the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles and the National Gallery of Art.
After all, it was only Friday that the New York Times confirmed that MOCA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art appeared to be closing in on a deal. With that arrangement, as it was originally reported by the Los Angeles Times last Thursday, LACMA would raise $100 million for cash-strapped MOCA in an acquisition bid, and MOCA’s branding and two Los Angeles locations would be preserved.
But now, MOCA patron Eli Broad has looped in the National Gallery of Art as a sort of stopgap or shield against LACMA and its acquisitive director, Michael Govan. Broad, who was MOCA’s founding chairman, gave the museum a grant of $30 million in 2008 with a binding clause forbidding the museum from merging with LACMA. (As with any complicated intramuseum dispute, the story of MOCA vs. LACMA is one best told through animated .gifs.) Broad approached the National Gallery despite the fact that Hirshhorn Museum director Richard Koshalek was MOCA’s longest-serving director and notwithstanding that the Smithsonian is a much larger institution than the National Gallery. (Smithsonian Institution spokesperson Linda St. Thomas says Broad didn’t reach out to anyone else at Smithsonian, either.)
The National Gallery wouldn’t be solving any of MOCA’s significant problems with this arrangement. The “pact”—-pact!—-does nothing to alleviate the museum’s financial mismanagement, which earned MOCA a rebuke from the California Attorney General’s office in 2010. No money would exchange hands. Instead, National Gallery chairman John Wilmerding says that the museum will bolster MOCA’s standing as an independent institution. Which is one problem MOCA doesn’t have. (National Gallery spokesperson Deborah Ziska says, “The National Gallery of Art is in continuing discussions with LA MOCA about programmatic opportunities and we have nothing more to report at this point in time.”)
In fact, it is the National Gallery’s standing as an independent institution that has at times been called into question. For example: Wilmerding has served as an adviser for Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress, in her mission to build the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. Wilmerding advised Walton on her first major acquisition for the museum: the 2005 purchase of Asher Durand’s 1849 masterpiece, Kindred Spirits, from the New York Public Library. The sale of the “quintessentially New York picture” outraged New Yorkers. Not only did Wilmerding advise Walton, but the National Gallery also served as an underbidder on the acquisition, all but guaranteeing that Walton would get the bid. But consider that Wilmerding also advised the New York Public Library on the sale. All that the National Gallery got out of the fix was a short-term loan of the painting.
The proposed pact with MOCA may yet be stranger than Wilmerding’s association with Walton, because money is the core of MOCA’s present crisis—-and the National Gallery isn’t giving up any. The boldest component of this proposal is the notion that the National Gallery should be lending works and programming support to MOCA, suggesting that MOCA needs National Gallery leadership in showing contemporary art. As Marlo Stanfield says, “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.” The reason that LACMA wants to acquire MOCA is that MOCA has set an extremely high bar for contemporary-art exhibitions and acquisitions. It’s the same reason National Gallery wants to enter into a pact with MOCA—-and also because the National Gallery is going to be periodically out of a contemporary art space for the next three years as its East Wing is renovated.
Perhaps a pact with the National Gallery could bring some donors to the table, like bannermen sworn to an allegiance in Game of Thrones. Carlyle Group co-CEO David Rubenstein? Maybe, but Rubenstein just gave $50 million for the expansion of the Kennedy Center. Billionaire National Gallery board member Mitch Rales? He’s building his own museum. And anyway, Rales, along with Rubenstein and National Gallery president Victoria Sant and her husband Roger Sant, just put down $30 million for the East Wing renovation. That renovation, by the way, may yield a new Rothko room—-which D.C. needs like it needs another cable news network. MOCA organized the first museum surveys for John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Takashi Murakami, and many other blue-chip contemporary artists. Another Rothko room is so far behind the curve for contemporary-art programming that it’s hard to consider the East Wing and MOCA as remotely peer institutions.
The National Gallery simply cannot offer any contemporary-art expertise to MOCA—-not that it needs it. MOCA needs money, and the National Gallery won’t be giving MOCA the bailout it so badly requires. But this is Broad’s world, apparently; and what he wants to make of it is anybody’s guess.