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LACMA's $900,000 Political Donation 

Was the museum promoting access to art, or speculating on land?

Wednesday, Dec 17 2008
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IT WAS APRIL 2007, THE REAL estate world was still a go-go boom, and a document issued by a Los Angeles property owner seeking a developer for a Wilshire Boulevard project could still lay out a luscious vision: a boutique hotel, a 15,000-square-foot gallery for an internationally known museum, classy specialty shops, and condos or apartments that would include some affordable units, thus legally allowing the landowner to increase the project’s density beyond zoning restrictions.

Like any real estate speculator, the landowner wanted to “maximize . return on its investment in the property” and asked interested parties to provide scenarios allowing the project or other possible projects on the land to tap into the usual, if controversial, benefits enjoyed by developers.

But the landowner wasn’t a player in L.A.’s crowded speculation-and-development world. It was the Los Angeles County Museum, which this week proposed a merger with the beleaguered Museum of Contemporary Art. Last year, the museum’s leaders foresaw entering L.A.’s hotel and condo or apartment market, using roughly two acres on the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Spaulding Avenue across from the museum’s 23-acre campus and the La Brea Tar Pits.

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The museum, known as LACMA, had big plans as the latest new hotel-and-condo speculator in town. Its own documents, asking developers to suggest what it should build, stated that museum leaders had already signed a so-called Memorandum of Understanding with the owner of five parcels next to the museum’s two acres.

Among the key benefits of its Spaulding Avenue property was the museum’s dream that a subway stop would be built nearby. That scenario relied on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority raising billions of dollars for a proposed “subway to the sea.”

Three weeks ago, a nasty dispute erupted over the museum board’s decision to spend $900,000 in privately raised museum funds to persuade county voters to approve Proposition R, a sales-tax hike to generate $40 billion for subway and transit projects.

County supervisor Michael Antonovich publicly accused the museum board of blowing nearly $1 million on political ads, then almost immediately asking the County Board of Supervisors to cough up $6 million in taxpayer funds — to cover routine expenses.

LACMA already receives about one-third of its $60 million operating budget from county taxpayers. Ironically, although the museum’s total budget does specify such line items as salaries and office expenses, most of the museum’s departments have no money for arts acquisition. Instead, curators must often raise money privately to purchase art pieces.

Records show the museum’s flurry of last-minute contributions to the tax measure during the run-up to the November election: $250,000 on October 9, $250,000 on October 17, and $400,000 on October 24.

LACMA was the single largest contributor to Prop. R, which narrowly won — and will now add a half-cent to the existing sales tax, making the Los Angeles County sales tax the highest in California, at 8.75 percent.

Initially, museum leaders insisted that they gave money to the political campaign for Prop. R because a subway would bring museum-lovers to their front door. A statement provided by Barbara Pflaumer, associate vice president of press relations, said, “A subway system along Wilshire Boulevard would provide an excellent way for culturally interested visitors to travel between venues (MOCA, LACMA, Hammer, etc). We felt supporting the campaign for Measure R was a very cost-efficient way of ensuring increased visitorship in the future.”

Increasing the museum’s visitors is justifiable, museum backers say, and one way to do that is to make it easier to get there. For example, a report for the de Young Museum in San Francisco suggested that nearby transit lines could increase attendance.

Pflaumer tells the Weekly the decision to pour money into Prop. R was made in two steps, the first in 2007, the second in 2008. And it was LACMA president Melody Kanschat’s decision alone to provide huge donations — without a vote of LACMA’s board — Pflaumer says.

Was increasing visits to the museum Kanschat’s sole intent?

Although the $4.2 billion subway underneath Wilshire Boulevard would run directly past LACMA, the proposed route also runs directly past its two-acre Spaulding Avenue property, where board members in 2007 had dreams of a luxury hotel and dense condos or apartments.

“The hotel explains to me why they would be contributing $900,000 to the Prop. R campaign, because [at the time] I couldn’t figure it out,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

BUT IN ITS RECENT STATEMENT justifying the $900,000 expenditure, museum leaders left out any mention of its plans — past, present or future — to develop its Spaulding Avenue property.

“You could easily say that there were two reasons [for the contributions],” notes Jim Suhr, a longtime developer. “One would be to boost transit access to their museum, but an equally good reason would be to boost the value of their land.”

Suhr worked with Wayne Ratkovich, the developer who saved the Wiltern, to turn the Craft and Folk Art Museum three blocks from LACMA into a big mixed-use development, which never happened due to the 1990s recession.

“The museum has probably got a reasonable defense: ‘This really is about bringing the public to our museum, that’s why we were doing it,’” Suhr observes. “They are going to say ‘no’ even if it is true. If you ask Bill Clinton if you inhale — you know what the answer is.”

Property owners and developers covet the limited land near L.A. subway and rail lines because it escalates in value. In addition, the Villaraigosa administration has widely advertised its policy of allowing projects near transit stops to ignore hard-fought Local Community Plans designed to protect areas from overbuilding using zoning, height, size, density and parking rules. (See L.A. Weekly, “Bitter Homes and Gardens,” Feb. 26, 2008, and “Take This Car and Shove It,” Aug. 30, 2007.)

In two recent examples, city officials agreed to let developers of the Sunset Gordon and Boulevard 6200 projects in Hollywood slash the parking they provide to new residents, arguing that residents of so-called transit-oriented developments will use nearby bus or subway lines instead of cars. The break for developers is big, since providing a single parking spot can cost $15,000 to $30,000.

Commenting solely on the museum’s argument that it spent $900,000 on the sales-tax measure to help provide museum-goers with transit, Supervisor Zev Yaro-slavsky says, “They have the perfect right to contribute to measures that benefit their institution.” Similarly, Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, gives kudos to LACMA for “civically improving the city.”

But spokespeople at New York’s Metro-politan Museum of Art and Museum of Mo-dern Art, and at the Museum of Contem-porary Art in San Diego, say they do not engage in political-campaign donations for any reason.

Merry Norris, formerly with L.A.’s cultural affairs commission, “understands the thinking” behind LACMA’s desire to boost attendance by supporting a metro stop, but whether the entity should have made the contribution to the “Yes on R” campaign “is an entirely different question,” she says.

LACMA notes that nonprofit rules allow it to legally donate up to $1 million to ballot measures, and that the money spent on Prop. R did not come from county taxpayers. But as Stern notes, “It’s really questionable about whether they should be doing this. It seems to me that their mission is to be presenting art, not to be building hotels.” Stern, by the way, is a LACMA member.

Reach the writer at tibbyrothman@verizon.net

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