In the three decades since the Museum of Contemporary Art opened in a temporary space downtown in 1983, it has been variously flush with money and desperate for a bailout after having squandered its endowment. It's had great directors and controversial ones, good shows and bad shows, dissension in the ranks of its board, years of high attendance and periods of anemic crowds. Although its ranking among museums internationally has been somewhat diminished by the rise of newer, more ambitious institutions and its curatorial staff is a fraction of what it once was, its permanent collection remains one of the most acclaimed in the world.
But now, hobbled by a small endowment, MOCA stands at a critical juncture, mulling a number of options that might provide longterm stability. The larger, encyclopedic Los Angeles County Museum of Art has proposed a merger, leaving MOCA's name and building intact and offering it an infusion of $100 million. The University of Southern California has had talks with MOCA officials about putting the museum under the umbrella of the school. And most recently, officials of the National Gallery of Art in Washington have discussed with MOCA lifetime trustee Eli Broad a cultural arrangement — lending artwork, collaborating on programming — that involves no takeover and no money.
These days, operating a museum means wooing the public to visit and donors to contribute — and the competition for both is steep. What gave MOCA its cachet in the art world was its independent direction in collecting. What made it popular in Los Angeles were fresh, sometimes controversial, ideas: The 2011 "Art in the Streets" graffiti exhibition had the highest attendance of any show in the museum's history. But maintaining a collection and conceiving and curating significant shows takes money.
Many of the city's most devoted cultural leaders will be deciding MOCA's future in the coming days. As they do, a few principles should guide them:
• MOCA must survive. If it is headed for oblivion, it should welcome a partner that might save it. It should not, however, surrender its fate to an overbearing or financially suspect entity.
• MOCA should, if possible, retain the independent spirit that has given it luster in the art world and episodic appeal to the public.
• MOCA's collection and place on Grand Avenue deserve special protection. Any suitor who covets the museum for its works but not its history should be regarded with suspicion.
To stay truly independent, MOCA needs, ultimately, to quadruple its $23-million endowment. It's possible that this latest tumult may prompt an urgent effort to raise that money and give the museum a way to survive on its own. That would be the best scenario of all.