Two of Los Angeles’ most important museums – the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) revealed this week that they are discussing a possible merger. This announcement has eerily familiar and alarming echoes.
Ten years ago – almost to the day – the Board of Directors of the venerable Southwest Museum signed on the dotted line, approving an ill-conceived, ill-fated, and still contentious merger with the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum.
The Southwest had been seeking a “white-knight” for some years due to declining finances and erratic leadership.
So, with a few strokes of a pen, the Board handed over to the Autry what has been called possibly the world’s finest collection of Native and Meso-American artifacts and a museum building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This was done on the representation that Autry would deploy its $100 million endowment to maintain the Southwest Museum as a separate institution under the newly-created “Autry National Center”.
These solemn commitments are crumbling before our eyes as the Autry today is in the process of moving the Southwest’s collections into a warehouse in Burbank for its permanent storage while seeking to convert the Autry Museum’s basement to become the new and only exhibition home of the Southwest Museum.
Are we watching the Southwest Museum now fade into needless oblivion in the basement of the “white knight”, with MOCA soon to follow? Consider the parallels:
—A cash-flow challenged museum and a “white knight” galloping to the rescue accompanied by a press-generated buzz of excitement.
—A museum’s beloved and quirky exhibition location(s) that the “white knight” assures will continue to exhibit its collection.
—Public promises made by the “white knight” museum to maintain distinct museum budgets, staffing and marketing identities.
—A figure of $100 million is bandied about (Autry claimed it had a $100 million endowment in place; LAMCA says it has the ability to raise $100 million).
—A Board of Directors asking themselves how to best preserve a beloved institution and its priceless collection.
If the MOCA Board does not want to see the legacy of its great museum reduced to a LACMA exhibit information card tacked on the wall that reads: “From the collection of MOCA”, the transaction must be structured with great care, if it must proceed at all.
Strong, enforceable financial commitments spelled out in precise language to assure the independence and autonomy of the MOCA institution.
A centralized administrative and fund-raising structure which allows each museum board to oversee the programming and curatorial staff responsible to carry it out.
Condition the merger on the “white knight” raising and delivering the $100 million endowment before the merger becomes effective and is more difficult to unwind.
With strong and precise merger agreement language, the expectations of both museums can be unambiguously defined and objectively measured to know when they are achieved. With separate boards to advocate for each museum within the greater administrative and fund-raising structure, neither can subsume the other. With the obligation to actually have $100 million in hand, the merger objectives have a better chance of actually coming to fruition.
Without such protections, a MOCA/LACMA merger is at risk of repeating the lessons I have learned. Only years after the Southwest/Autry merger in 2003 did the Friends of Southwest Museum Coalition publish on its website a detailed report prepared by an internationally respected, non-profit attorney/accountant. That report established that on the day of the merger, Autry had only $1.8 million of invested securities in endowment, while the “failing” Southwest Museum had over $4 million of invested securities. The Autry $100 million will not be in hand for many years due to an accounting sleight-of-hand. So, as many say: Beware of Vanishing Museum Merger Promises.
Diana Barnwell was a community representative board member of the Southwest Museum at the time of its merger with the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in March, 2003