LACMA gets Contemporary

In February, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will unveil the
first phase of its renovation and expansion, including the opening of a
new building devoted to contemporary art — the Broad Contemporary Art
Museum (that’s Broad as in Eli and Edythe Broad, our local Medicis) or,
as the acronymists at LACMA have dubbed it, BCAM.

On a recent afternoon, I surveyed the new construction with Barbara
Pflaumer, LACMA’s associate vice president for press relations, as my
Virgil. Given the din and scope of unfinished construction, it hardly
seemed possible that the work will be completed in time. Yet Pflaumer
assured me it will. Mark your calendars: Feb. 16, 17 and 18 will be the
opening weekend, free to the public.

However, in order to appreciate why and how these new structures
came into existence, it is important to understand the history of LACMA.

In 1910, Los Angeles County inaugurated a Museum of History, Science
and Art located in Exposition Park, near USC. The museum’s early art
holdings were modest but came to include donations from William
Randolph Hearst and J. Paul Getty.

In the early 1960s, industrialist Norton Simon spearheaded plans for
an independent institution devoted to the visual arts in the
Mid-Wilshire district, near Hancock Park, where many of Los Angeles’
oldest and wealthiest families lived at that time. Though the idea took
hold, eventually Simon withdrew the majority of his own support, opting
instead to endow only a small sculpture terrace for the fledgling
institution and, instead, eventually morphing the Pasadena Art Museum
into the Norton Simon Museum.

Nonetheless, LACMA opened in 1965 with three buildings designed by
architect William Pereira, each named after a major donor: Howard
Ahmanson, Anna Bing Arnold and Armand Hammer.

Over the next several decades, the museum expanded both its
collections and its facilities. On the construction side: A 1983
expansion substantially increased gallery space. In 1986, the Robert
Anderson Building for modern and contemporary art was added, and in
1988, the Bruce Goff-designed pavilion for Japanese art (representing
the last work by this famed architect) opened, partially funded by Joe
and Etsuko Price. In 1994, LACMA purchased the property on the block to
its west, including the May Co. building.

On the collections front, there were some major gifts: Joan Palevsky
purchased an important collection of Islamic art for the museum;
Phillip Berg donated his collection of tribal and ancient art; Hans
Cohn contributed his collection of antiquities and glass; and B. Gerald
and Iris Cantor presented LACMA with several important Rodin sculptures.

During the same period, the landscape of Los Angeles museums was
anything but static. Over the last 25 years, a number of new art
institutions appeared and have taken root: the Museum of Contemporary
Art and its satellites (the Geffen in Little Tokyo, formerly known as
the Temporary Contemporary, and MOCA Pacific Design Center); the Hammer
Museum (formerly known as the Armand Hammer Museum and now operated by
UCLA); the various incarnations of the J. Paul Getty Center (now
located in Brentwood and at its original home in Malibu), and the
Skirball Cultural Center.

By the 1990s, while these other museums were becoming well
established, LACMA sometimes seemed to have lost its focus and its
ambition. There was even a three-year period when the museum had no
director. LACMA has always been known for having a large and complex
board, and as the millennium dawned, efforts were made to rethink the
museum’s direction.

In 2001, architect Rem Koolhaus (nomen est omen!) was engaged to
develop a master plan for the property that involved leveling most of
the buildings and constructing a series of pavilions that would take
the visitor chronologically through the collection, with different
galleries illuminating different cultures’ artistic contributions to
that historical period.

The estimated cost was $300 million, and because the museum is owned
in part by Los Angles County, the funding became the subject of a bond
issue ballot initiative that required 66 percent of voters’ support.
When the project received just 60 percent, it was shelved.

Exit Koolhaus. Enter Eli Broad.

Broad, who is a trustee of the museum, was also a huge fan of the
architect Renzo Piano, who was one of the designers of Paris’ Pompidou
Center. As Pflaumer told me, Broad approached Piano. After seeing the
site, Piano decided that he, too, needed to develop a master plan,
which was named, “Transformation” by the museum staff (not to be
confused with the similarly named movie by Michael Bay).

The board got involved, and the fundraising began. Broad announced a
$60 million lead gift ($50 million as a contribution and $10 million to
an acquisition fund).

According to its own recent press release, LACMA has to-date raised
$200 million for Phase I of Transformation. In addition to Broad’s
gift, LACMA received $25 million from Lynda and Stewart Resnick, $25
million from the BP Foundation, $15 million from Los Angeles County, $5
million from Richard Riordan and Nancy Daly Riordan and $1.6 million
from the Ahmanson Foundation.

Piano’s plan effectively divides LACMA’s campus into three projects
or phases. Phase I, which will be unveiled in February, takes the area
between the western edge of the original three buildings and the
eastern edge of the May Co. (which was primarily occupied by a parking
garage and Ogden Street) and re-imagines the space as the new center of
the campus.

This manifests itself by changing the orientation of the museum (and
I mean that geographically, not sexually), i.e., the new entrance is on
Sixth Street, rather than Wilshire Boulevard. Visitors will drive into
an underground parking garage and then rise in a glass elevator to a
new public plaza, the BP Grand Entrance, an 8,100-square-foot parcel
that, according to a LACMA press release, “serves as the museum’s main
entrance, orientation space and public art plaza.” The new plaza will
offer arriving visitors their “first experiences with contemporary art.”

For the opening, the museum has acquired a major outdoor
installation by sculptor Chris Burden, “Urban Light,” made up of more
than 200 Los Angeles street lamps that will be powered by the solar
panels over the BP grand entrance. In addition, there will also be an
installation of palm trees by Robert Irwin, the artist who designed the
garden at the Getty Center.

From the grand entrance, one takes an escalator that snakes along
the outside of BCAM to its top floor (reminiscent of the Pompidou
Center, or to inject a local reference, the Beverly Center). BCAM has
60,000 square feet of exhibition space arranged on three floors, in two
wings, with a glass core elevator between them the size of a New York
studio apartment.

For the inaugural exhibit and for most of the first year, BCAM will
focus on artists that the Broads have collected in depth, exhibiting
more than 200 works from the Broad Foundation and the Broads’ personal
collection, including works by such artists as John Baldessari, Jasper
Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein
and Jeff Koons. The ground floor will offer two Richard Serra
sculptures, one from LACMA’s collection and one loaned by the artist.

As part of Phase I, the Ahmanson building is also being renovated.
At the same time, the collection will be reorganized and re-installed
not only to showcase highlights from the permanent collection,
including some of 130 works by modern masters recently donated by
Janice and Henri Lazarof, but also to feature the depth of LACMA’s
collection in South American, African and Asian art. The former
building for modern and contemporary art will become the Art of the
Americas building.

Phase II of Piano’s transformation will address the May Co. building
or LACMA West, as it’s now called, as well as building a new
free-standing, single-story glass building behind BCAM for temporary

Phase III, which really is in the planning stage and several years
off, would address the existing LACMA campus and attempt to reorganize
and rethink the displays in those buildings in relation to renovations
done in Phases I and II.

Impressive? Yes. But in the spirit of Christmas, (or for my
Judeo-centric friends, in the spirit of Charles Dickens) let me say:
“Bah, humbug!”

There is something that rubs me the wrong way about this
“transformation.” The more I thought about it and the order of these
“phases,” the more it struck me that the logical order was reversed:
Shouldn’t Phase III, the rethinking of the present campus come first?
And why start by building a whole new building devoted to recent art,
instead of the current collection and the Lazaroff’s newly donated
Picassos? Is that modernist collection not as worthy of showcasing as
the contemporary works (if not more)? To the extent that LACMA is
faulted for being a jumble of buildings, is Phase I a “transformation”
or just an addition?

Or, let me put it this way: The fact that Eli and Edythe Broad and
the Broad Art Foundation launched the campaign with their $60 Million
gift, and that Phase I begins with the opening of something called the
Broad Museum (not the Broad building or Broad galleries) filled with
art that either Broad owns or that he collects (thereby raising the
value of his collection or of the artists he collects) bothers me.

Broad has been coy about bequests of his own collection to the
museum — he will no doubt, in time, donate many works. However at
press time, Broad is merely loaning works to the museum, and no
agreement has been reached. Nonetheless, he will also be increasing the
value of the works he owns and therefore the value of any tax benefit
he would receive, should he gift any of the works.

It begs the question of whether donors and collectors, in general
and in specific, and the whole inflated contemporary art market are
driving the agenda of the museum, putting an inordinate emphasis on art
of the last few decades. Why not leave that to other museums and
galleries (MOCA, the Hammer)? Is focusing on the art that the present
monied class collects, buys and sells in so extravagant a fashion
pandering for their interest and support? Does the fiddler call the
tune? Or is it the man who owns the fiddle?

Finally, in so far as Broad’s own collection reflects his taste as
much as that of his art advisers, isn’t this new renovation a
collection of other people’s ideas used already elsewhere? An escalator
up the outside of the building, glass elevators exposed to the
outdoors, a Robert Irwin garden, a temporary contemporary exhibit hall
— are these distinctive, original ideas? They do nothing to address
the present original campus and everything to shmeichel the Broads.

But that is just me being Scrooge.

Several people I spoke to in the art world have high hopes for
LACMA’s new director, Michael Govan, and for LACMA, believing BCAM and
the Broads’ support to be essential to revitalizing the institution.

Moreover, when I turned to Lyn Zelevansky, LACMA curator of contemporary art, she cheerily swatted away my objections.

“LACMA,” Zelevansky said, is “the people’s museum.” Located in
Mid-Wilshire, she believes it is the museum most Angelenos have access
to and grow up with. Also, as a “general museum,” it has, Zelevansky
said, “a broad audience and our mission is to engage.” She believes the
BCAM and its emphasis on contemporary art “makes us [LACMA] better.”

As Zelevansky sees it, the issue for LACMA was quite simple: “We just really ran out of space.”

As for the current frenzy in the art market, Zelevansky said, “The escalation of prices is an ongoing problem.”

I’ll say. The entire $200 million Phase I transformation would only buy two Picassos, if that.

However, Zelevansky feels that while other museums speak to a
limited community of art insiders, LACMA, under Govan, is going to use
its collections to reach out to Los Angeles’ communities.

Pflaumer also told me that Govan intends to engage living artists to
create works for the museum that better involve viewers. To that end,
the light-filled, columnless galleries of BCAM; the glass elevators;
and the outdoor sculptures are all crafted to enhance the visitor’s
experience of the art.

Alfred Barr, New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s first director, once
said of his own institution: “This museum is a torpedo, its head the
ever-advancing present, its tail the ever-receding past….”

With the completion of LACMA’s Phase I, it increases its connection
to the present and lays the groundwork for its future — one that we
hope will celebrate not only the new and the collectible but also the
greatness and depth of the museum’s encyclopedic holdings. That is a
goal worth advancing that even a Scrooge such as myself wouldn’t

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else,
he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times
Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.