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LA MOCA – Leadership MIA

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On December 4, 2008 EDWARD WYATT and JORI FINKEL wrote an fascinating article titled Soaring in Art, Museum Trips Over Finances for the New York Times about the current crisis facing the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. While often framed by the media as a financial crisis, this is really more about the unique challenges of leading in the nonprofit sector and the failed leadership in this institution in particular.

In summary, the trouble occurred over the past ten years as the museum grew in both stature and size after the trustees hired Jeremy Strick, a talented curator, to be its director. During this period, two important things took place: (1) MOCA became recognized as the premiere contemporary art museum in the US, if not the world; and (2) in the process its expenses far exceeded its revenues causing the institution to tap into its endowment and other restricted funds reducing them from a reported $50 million to less than $10 million. While other cultural institutions reduced staff and reined in spending recently, MOCA’s paid and volunteer leadership seemed to be incapable of confronting the harsh reality of the situation they were facing. Now as the country enters a challenging economic period, MOCA’s problems will be further exacerbated.

The near total lack of outbound communication from Strick or the board on the current crisis is incomprehensible, especially in light of a very public offer of major support by billionaire arts patron Eli Broad. While it’s generally expected and required that nonprofit organizations operate with a higher level of transparency than their commercial counterparts, MOCA continues to play its cards close to the vest. The only public comment that I have read from Director Strick attributes the current crisis to the economic downturn; however, from reading the various press accounts, the issues impacting the museum were long in the making.

Leading a nonprofit organization is a very tricky endeavor. The ultimate authority rests with volunteer leadership who more often than not are successful, busy people who are not subject matter experts so they must rely heavily on paid staff. The nonprofit executive director often has one of the loneliest jobs in the world because they are responsible for leading staff and stakeholders in advancing the mission, yet they don’t have level of authority their business sector counterparts enjoy. While what we know is based on media, in MOCA’s case, it appears that the director was able to act as though he was the ultimate authority and in order for the museum to experience so many consecutive significant annual operating loses, the trustees were asleep at the wheel. In any case, a dysfunctional board can wreak havoc on an organization and strains between the executive and the board can make matters even worse. So appears to be the case at MOCA.

An interesting sidebar to this story is that following the lead of banks and auto companies, there is a suggestion that the City of Los Angeles assist MOCA with some type of bailout. Considering the current financial status of most states and municipalities in America, this seems highly unlikely. There’s a troubling trend underway of incompetently managed organizations appealing to higher authorities to bail them out of troubles of their own making.

KCRW has a podcast called the Politics of Culture which covered MOCA in Peril on Dec. 2, 2008. This is must listening for any nonprofit executive or board member.

MOCA Mobilization is an independent community group recently formed to support the Museum and its staff. On November 23, 2008 they organized a rally at the museum which was attended by hundreds of interested stakeholders. You can view video from the rally on YouTube and visit their Facebook page which as of this posting had over 3,000 members. Interestingly, neither the director nor more than one or 2 trustees participated. In time of crisis, this was a missed leadership moment.

The MOCA story is one of failed leadership, executive and voluntary. Pure and simple.

MOCA faces serious financial problems – LA Times (Nov. 19, 2008)

Leap Into the Void: MOCA’s Fiscal Future, Contemporary Art’s Rocky Past (Nov. 25, 2008)

Meltdown at MOCA – Edge LA (Dec. 5, 2008)

Does MOCA Need New Leadership? – LAist (Dec. 8, 2008)
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About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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