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LACMA and the Jews: How they built a ‘Temple on the Tar Pits’

With a frequent line around the block of people waiting to get in, the Broad Museum and its Jewish benefactors, billionaire Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, have recently captured the public’s imagination.
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January 13, 2016

With a frequent line around the block of people waiting to get in, the Broad Museum and its Jewish benefactors, billionaire Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, have recently captured the public’s imagination. Yet more than 100 years ago, some now almost-forgotten Jewish arts patrons were among the first to be involved with the genesis of a downtown institution that would one day become the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Before LACMA opened in 1965, its growing art collection was part of a Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art that opened in Exposition Park in 1913, and even before that museum’s first exhibition, Jews were involved.

In a just-released book, “LACMA So Far: Portrait of a Museum in the Making” (Huntington Library, 2015), author Suzanne Muchnic shows that in the catalog of the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Jewish architect Alfred F. Rosenheim (1859-1943) is named a member of the museum’s art committee.

Rosenheim, born in St. Louis, moved to Los Angeles in 1903, where he designed several landmark buildings that are still standing, including the Hellman Building (354 S. Spring St.), the domed Second Church of Christ, Scientist (948 W. Adams Blvd., now the Art of Living Center), and the Hamburger Department Store Building (801 S. Broadway, later the May Co.), which made news recently because it’s currently getting an extensive mixed-use makeover, another major investment in a newly revitalized downtown.

As president of the Fine Arts League, an organization promoting the creation of a new museum, Rosenheim “was not just somebody who dipped in for a moment,” said Muchnic, formerly the lead art writer for the Los Angeles Times, a position she held for 31 years. The multi-purpose museum’s original site was located not far from an already westward-moving Jewish population — an early iteration of Sinai Temple had opened on 12th Street and Valencia in 1909 (the building now serves as Craig Taubman’s Pico Union Project). And its home, Exposition Park, had hosted several Jewish events, including a “Mandate Day” celebration attended by 10,000 in 1920; a “Zionist Ball,” held in the park’s Armory Hall (today an annex of the California Science Center) in April 1921; as well as a “Purim Ball” in March 1921, also in Armory Hall, organized by the Jewish Consumptive Relief Organization.

Jewish association with the new museum extended into other galleries of interest as well. In order for the new encyclopedic museum to grow, there was a “big effort to have quite a variety of cultures and people and geography,” Muchnic said, and presenting art of Jewish interest was part of that effort.

According to an item published in the May 20, 1922 edition of the B’nai B’rith Messenger, “an interesting Jewish exhibit” covering “the arts and crafts of the Bezalel Institute of Palestine,” as well as “a fine display of sacramental objects loaned by the B’nai B’rith Temple and the Sisterhood of that Temple,” was opening at the Museum of History, Science and Art.

In November 1922, there was also an exhibition of the work of Jewish artist Peter Krasnow (1887-1979). After noting that Krasnow “has come to Los Angeles with the intention of making his home here,” which he did, building a studio near Glendale on land he purchased from photographer Edward Weston, the Messenger noted that Krasnow was “one Jewish artist who can paint Jewish life in its literal as well as in its symbolic form.” Later, after earning a national reputation as a pioneering Modernist, Krasnow would incorporate aspects of Judaism into relief sculptures he made for Sinai Temple’s Kohn Chapel in the congregation’s current home on Wilshire Boulevard.

By the 1940s, a Jewish woman was working at LACMA as a curator. Ebria Feinblatt, (1913-1990), a UCLA graduate school fellow, joined the museum’s staff in 1946 as an assistant to its director-consultant, William R. Valentiner. In 1947, Feinblatt was hired as the museum’s founding curator for prints and drawings, and the difficulty of the task to which she was appointed is worth describing. According to a LACMA publication titled “In honor of Ebria Feinblatt, curator of prints and drawings 1947-1985,” at the time of her hiring, the “new department had no endowment, no acquisition funds, and no large general collection.” Feinblatt also had additional duties in the paintings, ancient and decorative arts, so could not devote her full efforts to the print collection. For almost 20 years, she worked without an assistant curator, intern or secretary, yet she was able to amass, by LACMA’s own estimation, a “remarkable collection.” 

Ebria Feinblatt, longtime curator of prints at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The archive at LACMA shows that later in life, Feinblatt, a private collector of art in her own right, donated several works to the museum, as well as to the Skirball Cultural Center’s museum. (At the time of the gift, it was called the Skirball Museum and was located on the Hebrew Union College campus.) It also bears noting that, as a Jewish curator at LACMA, Feinblatt would be followed by others, perhaps most notably Stephanie Barron, a four-decade veteran curator at the museum who is currently senior curator and department head for Modern art; Barron’s acclaimed exhibitions on German art around and during the Nazi era have been groundbreaking and of particular interest to the Jewish community, including the current exhibition, “New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933,” closing Jan. 18. 

The genesis of the current LACMA was sparked in the 1950s, when, seeking more space for the Exposition Park museum’s growing art collection, a serious effort was begun to create a stand-alone art museum at a new site. Los Angeles County donated an empty parcel adjacent to the La Brea Tar Pits for the new institution, which, depending on your cultural perspective, was either in Hancock Park or at the southern end of the Fairfax District — another area of burgeoning Jewish population. Besides being located next door to the May Co. store (a company founded by David May, who was Jewish; the store is now being renovated to become the future home for the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures), and not far from several shuls and Jewish-owned small businesses, the future LACMA site was also only a few blocks north of the Westside Jewish Community Center, which had moved to its 5870 W. Olympic Blvd. location in 1954.

Although fundraising efforts for the new museum remained in the hands of the “old-money, conservative elite,” Muchnic wrote, business tycoon Norton Simon was also breaking in at the time, becoming “the first Jewish person on the [museum’s] board of governors,” Muchnic said.

Simon (1907-1993) was born in Portland, Ore., to Myer and Lillian Glickman Simon, descendants of European-Jewish immigrants. He got his start working for his father’s store, said Muchnic, who is also the author of “Odd Man In: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture” (1998, University of California Press). That store, called Simon’s The Store of Bargains, was just the beginning for the industrialist, who, after making millions from enterprises such as Hunt Foods, made his name investing in art.

In 1958, Simon “pledged $1 million to launch a campaign for a new museum,” Muchnic wrote. However, concerned that the new museum would “be a monument to one man [Howard Ahmanson had pledged $2 million] instead of a public cooperative venture,” Simon withdrew all but $100,000 of his pledge.

Another major Jewish contributor to the new art museum was financier Bart Lytton (1912-1969). According to Muchnic’s LACMA history, Lytton pledged $500,000 to the museum project, and one of the three original buildings initially was named for him. But, with trouble in his businesses, “he wasn’t able to make good on his promise,” Muchnic said, and because of differences with the museum over direction, as well, the building was instead renamed for another major Jewish donor, Armand Hammer.

An examination of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s annual report from 1965-67 shows that others Jews pledged and donated a large portion of the $12 million raised. In addition to gifts of $250,000 each from Simon (a sculpture plaza was named for him) and Lytton, the $100,000 to $250,000 category lists the Mark Taper Foundation and Mr. and Mrs. Theodore E. Cummings, later a close adviser to President Ronald Reagan and ambassador to Austria. In the category of donors from $50,000 to $100,000 were financier Edward Hellman Heller and movie producer Sol Lesser (some “Tarzan” films that starred Johnny Weissmuller) and his wife. Giving from $25,000 to $50,000 were the May Department Stores and Mr. and Mrs. Tom May; Dr. and Mrs. Jules Stein; as well as Norton Simon’s sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick R. Weisman.

Simon, Lytton and Weisman would go on to invest in eponymous museums, most notably the Norton Simon Museum (formerly the Pasadena Art Museum); and the Lytton Center of the Visual Arts, active from 1961-1969 in Lytton Savings and Loan on Sunset Boulevard. (The Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation has a site in West L.A. displaying works from the collection that can be visited by appointment only.) But despite Lytton’s issues with LACMA, hanging on the second floor of LACMA’s Hammer Building, just inside the doors at the top of the escalator, a plaque bears this inscription: “In Memory of Bart and Beth Lytton for their Pioneering Spirit and Generous Support for this Museum.” And, according to Muchnic, at one time, another plaque dedicated to Simon and his concept for the new museum hung in the lobby of the Ahmanson building.

When LACMA opened to fireworks in 1965, however, Time magazine probably did not have the Jewish neighborhood and donors in mind when it referred to the new museum, fittingly, as the “Temple on the Tar Pits.”

Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon J. Rodman at edmonjace@gmail.com. 

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