THE BLOG
01/17/2014 11:09 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2014

Rockstars, Museum Endowments and Longevity

From Paris to Los Angeles, it is surprising that dinner conversation in the art world shifts its focus from the museum to the museum director. Jeffrey Deitch disappeared as the conversation centerpiece in Los Angeles as all talk is about the new director, Philippe Vergne, who will save MOCA.

Elsewhere no one talks about Alfred Paquement's recent departure as director of the Pompidou nor its new director as fundamental to its very existence.

Annie Philbin, the first "cult" figure arrived from New York in 1999 to take over the Hammer. She transformed the sleepy, almost forgotten institution into a compelling center for the West side of town where virtually all the collectors live. Philbin's Hammer is now a multidisciplinary venue for contemporary and historical art, emerging art, performances, movies, lectures, debates, film et al. Hammer's current and balanced budget exceeds that of MOCA and has tripled under Philbin's direction.

Michael Govan, arrived in 2006, and has done what we all know with another rather sleepy institution. Govan is the perfect blend of intellectual rigor, serious curatorial vision, movie star looks with innovative, institutionally transformative projects which fascinate and engage his immediate audience of the wealthiest in town. LACMA is the most select private club in the West for those who want to be engaged in continually big, new cultural projects. Having completed the first chapter in LACMA's physical renovation, Govan chose the architect, Zumthor, to transform the rest of LACMA's campus. Before anyone heard of Zumthor and long before he won the Pritzker prize, Govan introduced Zumthor to LACMA donors.

In order to be able to raise the funds to pay for public museums, the institution must be led by a movie star-cum-cult figure who can continually seduce and engage the super wealthy. The institutions become known more for their leader/director than for the institution.

While some of the world's great museums have been led by exceptional and visionary personalities, they do not depend on them for their very existence. Institutions such as MoMA, Centre Pompidou and the Tate will remain the world's great modern and contemporary art museums regardless who is the director at any particular moment. The prominence of these institutions is about how they are endowed and/or funded, their permanent collections and their curators.

What will happen when Annie Philbin leaves the Hammer and Michael Govan leaves LACMA?

Govan's greatest legacy will not be whether or not the +$650 million Zumthor campus is built but whether or not he will have made possible a significant increase of LACMA's current endowment of approximately $115 million to transform it into an institution sustainable beyond his term as director. Comparisons can be made to other encyclopedic museums such as the Museum of Fine Arts - Houston's endowment of $1 billion, Metropolitan Museum of Art's endowment of $2.7 billion and the Art Institute of Chicago's endowment of $838 million.

MOCA's board seems focused now in thinking creatively as to how to increase the endowment. While not minimizing the museum director's importance, the endowment is the fundamental, necessary element to its long-term sustainability as an institution housing one of the greatest post-war art collections. MOCA's board fulfills its fiduciary responsibility by demonstrating their capacity to raise the endowment as they have begun to do. It has been difficult to attract a high profile museum professional without the endowment needed to sustain its historical operating budget of around $17 million. This reality presumably pushed MOCA's board to announce a new objective of $150 million having achieved its initial objective of $100 million.

The non-Angelino art world would like to see the philanthropic dilemmas of its institutions as symptomatic of the superficiality of an economy dominated by Hollywood. Unfortunately the reality is more complex with Los Angeles' economy more diversified than New Yorkers want to believe. The LA phenomenon is not unique to Hollywood: it is symptomatic of the US funding model for museums.

Assuring the longevity of Los Angeles' institutions requires going beyond the traditional circle of donors who have largely been tapped out. Thinking out of the box and being able to engage an increasingly global art world of donors and philanthropists will determine the future of these institutions and many more across America.