WHY THE MOCA LA DISPUTE MATTERS TO ALL OF US
In the last few weeks, the LA Times, the NY Times and every visual arts and museum blog in America has been hashing and rehashing the situation at LA MOCA and the recent resignation/firing of Chief Curator Paul Schimmel. I've been following this story with great interest, not least because it encapsulates so much that is good, bad and complicated about running a nonprofit arts organization - of any sort - in today's world. Without going into the details, which are readily available to you on Culture Monster and any number of other arts blogs and/or web sites, let me make an observation.
First, as we see happen so frequently in today's world, polarized positions on issues have tended to become intractable and worse, caricatured. The LA MOCA issue is no different. The so called art world is characterized as caring only about it's narrow idea of quality and being completely indifferent to financial viability and/or audience attendance. The so called real world is said to care only about the numbers of people attending and the cost/benefit ratio of the art regardless of what it is. Dire predictions emanate from both sides that if the other side prevails, all is lost. I'm exaggerating a little here, but not much.
Just like the current polarized political debates, this is an unhelpful construction that distorts reality and prevents an important conversation from happening; one that in fact that needs to take place in the hearts and minds of every cultural professional in this country.
It is disingenuous of anyone in this field to not acknowledge that the neo-liberal ideal, the power of the market, the dominance of the financial/profitability metric and the collapsing of that metric with quality (i.e. if it's good lots of people will pay for it and if they won't or don't, it must not be good) is absolutely the world we live in. One is hard pressed to find anyone today, in or out of the arts "sector" who still believes that art is intrinsically valuable and by that I don't mean that it has value because it makes you a better person but it has value because it simply exists, as a human expression of an impulse quite inexpressible otherwise.
I have long maintained that we in the art world, especially arts administrators, share some responsibility for this state of affairs. In our laudable quest to get the money to build and sustain the organizations we run, we've internalized the business model of America as the "right way" to produce and present art. In so doing, we have gone far down the slippery slope of making art a disposable commodity. The firing/resignation of Schimmel is the latest evidence of this and many feel compelled to call it out as they try to stem the tide of the full on commercialization of art. It may be too little too late.
However, there's enough evidence of pre-Jeffrey Deitch and Eli Broad startlingly bad management of MOCA LA ( raiding your endowment in the good times? really?) to give one pause. Every arts worker in America, well before the latest bubble followed by the inevitable crash, knows that running an arts organization, whatever its mission, requires constant vigilance and careful management. There never has been, nor will there ever be, a time for reckless behavior. And that prudence is necessary precisely because the intrinsic value of art is NOT universally recognized in this country. Custodianship of our culture requires sensible managers and Boards, not careless ones.
Why this conflict especially matters now however is because the environment, beyond simply the economic questions, is rocking our world. Rapidly shifting demographics of age and race, technological innovations that are remaking how we communicate and even relate to each other, the simultaneous tribalism and globalism occurring in the world all point to the desperate need for us to rethink how we exist in the world, how we do our work, for whom and why. Now more than ever, the country needs the richness of our absolute best, most courageous, thoughtful and profound artists to help us look at the world and make some sense of the craziness. We don't need more shiny toys, we need serious thought, deep reflection and insightful ideas - the very qualities that only art can provide.
But that thought, reflection and insight cannot be the exclusive domain of only a few of us. It needs to engage the millions of people who are desperately seeking meaning in their world and their life and are not finding it in the commercial products that we have been convinced by mass marketing that we all "need."
So a new approach is needed. We cannot afford to embrace either of the polarized positions that are dominating the MOCA LA debate. We've got to create the vast middle ground - artists, institutions, activists and whole communities who are determined to break through the mindless clutter of the contemporary world and connect with art and ideas that actually mean something to us. That is in fact what arts institutions were meant to do in the first place, is it not?
I'd really be interested in hearing from those of you who are engaged in this most vital practice and willing to share with us what you are doing and learning. That would be blogs worth reading.