The Great Depression of the 1930s was notable for bread lines, dust bowls and hard times, but it was also a time when the arts flourished. And the same seems to be happening in the Great Depression’s first cousin, the current recession. The Museum of Contemporary Art is the latest example of a stunning turnaround.
As museums fall on hard times, like the rest of the nation, some are being forced to scale back hours and exhibitions, or to close all together, shuttering their vast collections. But the crisis has caused wealthy philanthropists to step up, and more importantly open their wallets.
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is the latest example. In a stunning turnaround, thanks to a $30 million gift from billionaire Eli Broad, the museum reopened over the weekend, putting more than 500 works of art on display.
The gala kickoff drew 1,000 guests on Saturday night. Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli will set the stage for a performance starring Lady Gaga and the Bolshoi Ballet. MOCA expects it to bring in another $3.5 million, according to Reuters.
Broad, a modern art collector and philanthropist founded KB Home, one of the nation’s largest homebuilders. He pledged $30 million if the museum could raise matching funds, and in less than a year, the museum had raised additional $30 million.
“This is the biggest turnaround of any art institution, whether it is performing arts or the visual arts, if you think of all that has happened in the last year,” Broad said.
Broad wants MOCA’s works to be more visible, and gave half his gift — $15 million, or $3 million a year — to fund exhibitions, including its prized Rothkos, which Broad said are the best of any museum.
Among featured artists are Andy Warhol, Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The museum has more than 6,000 works in all, considered one of the world’s top collections of post-World War II art.
“We were among the first institutions to be hit very hard and very early, and we are among the first to be saved in this process,” said MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel.
Schimmel, MOCA’s chief curator since 1990, said he is working with “smaller budgets and a more restricted financial landscape,” like most art institutions these days.
The MOCA exhibition, to run Nov.15 to May 3, is being shown at the museum in downtown Los Angeles, and the nearby MOCA venue, The Geffen Contemporary, which shut for 10 months due to the cash crunch.
Apart from eight Rothkos in a single gallery, visitors can enter Ed Ruscha’s Chocolate Room, made of chocolate on paper and smelling like chocolate. Or, they can wander into an all-white and neon room by Doug Wheeler — sans shoes.
The MOCA, which was facing a merger with another museum, or even possible closure, is now on sound footing. It’s budget is balanced debt has been paid off and it’s searching for a new director.
Warhol Foundation President Joel Wachs, who sits on MOCA’s advisory board, said the comeback, while impressive, is “not yet complete.”
“It can’t rest on its laurels and it can’t rely on a very few people to rescue it,” said Wachs, adding that MOCA must continue “the kind of exhibitions it has become known for.”