DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art is in major financial trouble, and trustees are scrambling to right the ship while artists and observers are furiously debating the state of the institution. Much more discussion and finger-pointing will take place in the coming weeks and months, but even as that occurs and blame is apportioned, one thing is clear: MOCA must retain its Downtown Los Angeles headquarters on Grand Avenue, and that facility must continue to stay open most weekdays and on weekends.

In other words, do whatever it takes, short of selling pieces from the collection, to keep the building open to the public. We would prefer an independently owned and operated museum, but if it's a merged institution versus none at all, we'll take the former.

The financial troubles, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, hit like a bombshell. At this point, no one seems to know exactly how much the museum has been damaged and how depleted are its coffers. It appears that operating costs were increasing at the same time that the endowment was shrinking, the nonprofit equivalent of the perfect storm. Making matters worse, the tumble seems to have begun well before the recent Wall Street crisis.

Certainly the situation needs to be examined, and MOCA Director Jeremy Strick, along with the museum's board, owe the public and the museum's many donors an honest assessment of what happened and whether anyone was watching the henhouse. If the dire tales turn out to be true, and there is every reason to believe they will, we expect that someone, and probably more than one person, will lose their job. This is not a statement we make lightly, but there will need to be accountability, the kind that does not come with a golden parachute.

While that accountability must come, the most pressing matter is to ensure that MOCA remains open and active on Grand Avenue. The loss of the Temporary Contemporary space in Little Tokyo would be significant and one we'd regret, but again, if forced to choose between the evils of losing both facilities or saving one, we'll grit our teeth and take the latter.

MOCA is important to Downtown for many reasons. The institution was founded in 1979, and the $23 million Grand Avenue space, designed by Arata Isozaki, arrived in 1986. In the 22 years since its debut, it has become a focal point of cultural life on Bunker Hill, drawing tens of thousands of people every year. It has hosted numerous important exhibits, among them retrospectives of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and has provided Angelenos their first glimpse of many rising or lesser-known artists. In the process it has given not just the community, but the entire city, a prominent place in the contemporary art world.

MOCA has also prefaced the Grand Avenue project, establishing a cultural beachhead that was reinforced five years ago with the arrival of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The $3 billion Grand Avenue development has already been delayed many times due to difficulties in securing a construction loan and various market forces. While MOCA's demise would not put a nail in the coffin of that project, it could be seen as an ugly signal to the investment community and the rest of the world about the area's viability as a destination, rather than just bad management.

Considering that museum officials are guarding the financial situation tightly, it is hard to recommend what steps should be taken. The investigation must be extensive and speedy. As that occurs, we have to grasp the idea that MOCA officials may have blundered so badly that the museum can no longer go it alone. While the concept of such mismanagement will make many seethe, it could turn out that MOCA does not have the money to survive. Businesses of all sizes across the country are learning the same harsh lesson, and a museum must operate competently as a business.

This is going to be tough. Hard-working staffers may lose their jobs and there could be a drop in the quantity and quality of future exhibitions. That is not a happy eventuality, but the only thing worse would be having no Downtown MOCA at all. Save the museum, even if it hurts.

Then make sure there is accountability.

page 4, 12/1/2008

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