MOCA (Los Angeles): Metrics of Success

July 12, 2012 – Since the late 1970s, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) here in Los Angeles developed a world class collection and hosted excellent exhibitions.  The museum’s financial troubles and issues of leadership, especially the question of responsibility, experience and contribution by the museum’s director and board of trustees, came to light in 2008. Now, the museum’s quality and integrity is being questioned and/or at risked again. MOCA is in headlines again this summer starting with the board approved resignation of the museum’s chief curator Paul Schimmel.  Schimmel has been with the museum for twenty-two years and has produced top-rated exhibitions for the museum. When the news broke out in June 2012, it put the spotlight on how deep MOCA’s issues are.  Since Schimmel’s departure, a domino effect of bad news for MOCA occurred, most recently with all four of its artist-trustees – Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, and Catherine Opie – resigning from the board. Artists had a major role in the founding of MOCA and put their faith and trust in the museum.

In many ways, MOCA is starting to look like a case study in a debate of numerous topics from how a museum should be managed, having an experience Museum Director, responsibilities of a museum director and board of trustees, quality in exhibitions, and finding a balance between popular culture and intellectual integrity. The list goes on. One of the important topics of discussion is what makes an art museum, such as MOCA, a successful museum?

I was reading a post on Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes blog about MOCA and he brought up an essay called “Metrics of Success in Art Museums” by Maxwell L. Anderson.  The essay was commissioned through the Getty Leadership Institute.  Anderson argues the importance and need for art museums to create a new set of metrics to determine their success in today’s times. Years ago, a museum’s success was determined on the quality and importance of its collection. Today, as Anderson points out, there is a shift from focusing on the collection to getting the public’s attention without “…balancing these two imperatives and without a consensus on what constitutes best practices in the latter” (Anderson, 2). As a result, museums compete for blockbuster exhibitions and higher attendance and for some, sacrificing quality for quantity.

Using MOCA as an example, one of the debates among its board, director and the public is what constitutes the success of the museum?  While reading articles and OP-EDs written by artist-trustees, some members of the board including Eli Broad himself and art critics, one definite set of indicators that keeps appearing are big shows, foot traffic, and members. In accordance to Anderson’s explanation, these are three indicators that are used today in measuring the success of a museum, which can be problematic for the long term health of a museum when the focus is just only on those three indicators and nothing else.

In addition, we are living in a more technological, celebrity-youth centric, quantity versus quality environment all around us. And there is a new generation of art patrons who serve as members of a Board of Trustees and for some, see a museum from the viewpoint as a for-profit institution. Another concern Anderson writes is the decrease in arts funding while increase pressure is put on museums for revenue. Those who fund museums demand proof their investment is not for naught: “Without generally accepted metrics, arts organizations will have more and more trouble making a case of themselves…‘They all want to say the market improvement will improve their endowments and lead to more grants, but they’re all under pressure from their boards to show more bang for the buck, to show measurable results…” (Anderson, 4). These concerns gives us a glimpse to the challenges museums face and the adjustments they are trying to make, which is a huge challenge in of itself, especially if they’re on a budget.  A museum’s success starts with its mission, leadership, fundraising, having a strong support staff and the quality in the museum’s education programs and exhibitions.  Anderson suggests eleven points as part of the metric of success and explains each one. Those eleven points are:  (1) Quality of Experience, (2) Fulfillment of Educational Mandate, (3) Institutional Reputation, (4) Management Priorities and Achievements, (5) Caliber and Diversity of Staff, (6) Standards of Governance, (7) Scope and Quality of Collection, (8) Contributions to Scholarship, (9) Contributions to Art Conservation, (10) Quality of Exhibitions and (11) Facilities’ Contribution to Core Mission.

This is a good essay to read if you want to have an understanding of the importance for art museums to create a new metrics of success and why. But also to understand how museums operate and what is needed to create a healthy and strong foundation for a museum to be successful in the long run. At the core, museums are non-profits, public stewards to protect and preserve a collection and to educate the public. With the issues MOCA is experiencing, it raises a lot of questions on how MOCA has been and is being managed, but those same questions are applied and discussed within both the art and museum communities: What is the role of museums today? What can museums do to stay innovative, creative and find the balance between intellectual integrity and popular culture? How can museums sustain themselves, especially in today’s economic atmosphere?  With advancing technology and social media that is available, how can museums incorporate this into their programming? How can we determine the success of a museum both internally and externally? What are the pitfalls of managing a museum like it’s a for-profit business – or, like a commercial gallery – when it’s a non-profit institution?  Should power within its structure be spread out accordingly or in the hands of a few and what are the responsibilities and expectations for those who have the power? There are more questions asked and debated upon, but as Maxwell Anderson’s essay states, times have changed and art museums need to take a look at their priorities and figure out a new metrics of success.

If you are interested to learn more about MOCA and to read Maxwell L. Anderson’s paper, please see the direct links below:

Metrics of Success in Art Museums:

“The Sudden Sexiness of Museo-Success Metrics” (Modern Art Notes: Art Focused Journalism by Tyler Green), July 11, 2012

“Metrics of Success in Art Museums” by Maxwell L. Anderson

Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA):

“Firing of MOCA curator is latest of many departures [Updated]” (by Mike Boehm and Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times, June 28, 2012)

“MOCA’s past and future” (Op-Ed by Eli Broad, Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2012) – Eli Broad talks about the recent departure of top curator Paul Schimmel.

“Letters: A different MOCA” (Re: “MOCA’s Past and Future,” Opinion, July 8) (Op-Ed by Life Trustees of MOCA, Los Angeles Times, July 11, 2012)

“Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie resign from MOCA board” (by Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2012)

“MOCA’s loss of artist-trustees strikes at museum’s core” (by Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times, July 16, 2012) – The resignations of John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie from the Museum of Contemporary Arts board is a warning for an institution founded by artists.

“The mess at MOCA” (Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2012) – Is the L.A. museum forsaking a rigorous intellectual approach in favor of a celebrity-driver, pop-culture-infused strategy to draw more visitors?

“MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch defends ‘seriousness’ of shows” (by Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2012)

“MOCA trustees letter says the museum will hire a chief curator” (by Jori Finkel, Los
Angeles Times, August 7, 2012)

“MOCA Meeting Aims to Generate Unity Among Trustees” (by Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2012)

Related Readings on MOCA / Museum Success / Role and future of Museums:

Museums 2020 (United Kingdom): The future of museums and their impact.

“Guest Post: What Can Museums Learn From NonProfit Leadership?” (From Museum Geek blog, Posted August 2, 2012)

“How Do Museums Pay For Themselves These Days?” (by Daniel Grant, HuffPost Arts & Culture, September 7, 2012)

Zocalo Public Square (Los Angeles) Forum – How Can L.A.’s Art Museum’s Thrive? :

“If You’re a Museum, L.A. is Semi-Happy to Support You”

“My Museum’s Got More Picassos than Your’s: What’s the Secret to a Successful Art Museum?”

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2 Responses to MOCA (Los Angeles): Metrics of Success

  1. Candace says:

    Looks like an interesting an informative ride. Something about riding the rails, even in an urban setting…

  2. Riding the rails can offer a glimpse in changes of the scenery, the people, and even public art that surrounds us.

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