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Is Los Angeles Ready For its First Mega-Museum?

This merger is being proposed for two of LA's biggest museums, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)

A merger is afoot in Los Angeles, but it’s not a movie studio or a record label this time around. This merger involves the city’s two biggest museums, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). LACMA, an encyclopedic museum with a massive campus, stellar educational program, and a magnificent collection of historical art has offered to buy the embattled MOCA, with its youthful audience and top-notch collection of contemporary art, for a reported $100 million.

The deal is nowhere near happening quite yet, and there are two other suitors, the University of Southern California (USC)—whose Fisher Museum isn’t on the level of LACMA or MOCA—and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., who recently announced their own proposal to share resources. But the LACMA proposal seems to be gathering support from artists like John Baldessari and politicians like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

MOCA has been in the thicket for a number of years now, and had to accept a $30 million matching gift from billionaire philanthropist and art patron Eli Broad. Broad was instrumental in hiring New York City art dealer and youth movement advocate Jeffrey Deitch, who has polarized as MOCA’s director, and the firing of its chief curator Paul Schimmel shortly thereafter, two changes that have altered the public perception of the museum. It has been accused—perhaps unjustly—of being too populist, too celebrity driven, and not academic enough. Because of the degradation of MOCA’s reputation, paired with the exodus of the only four artists on its board of trustees (Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie, John Baldessari, and Ed Ruscha), the museum’s ability to fundraise has been cauterized. Ergo, MOCA’s current troubles and its necessity to seek a buyer.

Let’s say the merger does go through. What does that mean on a practical level for Los Angeles? Let’s start with the simple number of museums in Los Angeles. For all intents and purposes, there are four capable, world-class contemporary art museums operating in Los Angeles: LACMA, MOCA, the University of California Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, and the Getty. A fifth is on its way, Eli Broad’s pet project, the Broad, which will open next to MOCA’s Downtown Los Angeles location in 2014.

So, the merger isn’t a monopoly by LACMA in the strictest sense, but the Hammer is small and the Getty is on the other side of town, so it would position LACMA as far and away the most important museum in Los Angeles. This would set Los Angeles back to a time when the city couldn’t support more than one competitive museum (smaller cities like Minneapolis or Denver might be content with such a proposition, but Los Angeles is currently touted as a North American art capital). Between LACMA’s opening in 1961 and MOCA’s opening in 1983, LACMA was pretty much the only game in town.

In terms of quality, I, for one, have enjoyed the dialogue MOCA has begun about the currency of art in Los Angeles in terms of how it deals with popular culture, celebrity, and excess (shows by actor/artists Dennis Hopper and James Franco, and a massively popular exhibition on “street art”)—even if the execution of these exhibitions has been something of a crapshoot. Symbolically, the loss of MOCA’s independent identity would severely impact Los Angeles’ current standing as a nurturing community for art, at least temporarily branding it as a place where a major institutional art center can flail and ultimately fail.

As for the promise of LACMA to try and leave MOCA’s autonomy intact, think about it like this: let’s say Coca-Cola bought Pepsi-Cola and let them operate with the same ingredients. Sure, the flavor would be the same, and you’d still have a choice of which product you would be inclined to purchase, but the thrill of the competition would be gone. It is natural that LACMA wants to purchase MOCA and create what would amount to a mega-museum, but the fact of the matter is, the competitive nature of these museums creates a push and pull that allows for a more exciting, experimental exhibits, each museum pushing each other in the right direction. A better option—for the public—would be for USC to absorb MOCA or for the National Museum to give MOCA time to get back on its feet, allowing for greater parity amongst the museums of Los Angeles.

This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship—weekly steps to being an active, engaged global citizen. This week: Become a Member of a Cultural Institution. Follow along and join the conversation at and on Twitter at #goodcitizen.

Images courtesy of LACMA and MOCA\n

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