It’s hard to think of an institution taking up 20 acres of Miracle Mile real estate as an underdog, but that’s how the Los Angeles County Museum of Art looked just a few years ago when private donors failed to line up with their checkbooks behind Eli Broad and a few LACMA trustees, and voters rejected a bond measure that would have guaranteed a massive chunk of the estimated $200 million to $300 million for the museum’s much-touted plans to demolish and replace all but the historic May Company building (now LACMA West) and the Bruce Goff–designed Japanese Pavilion on its Wilshire campus with a new tent-topped monolithic structure designed by Rem Koolhaas. But by 2004, the museum was back with a new plan by architect Renzo Piano to rehab the campus and add a new contemporary-art museum backed by Broad, and by the time director Andrea Rich announced her retirement in 2005, the museum had raised more than $150 million toward its transformation. With new leadership in place, the first in three phases of what the museum has now officially termed its Transformation with a capital “T” well under way, and the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) about to open, LACMA is poised to become the region’s premiere cultural mecca. Here are a few reasons why.
Powers that Be
Under the tutelage of Thomas Krens, Michael Govan spent his 20s running the Williams College Museum of Art, laying groundwork for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA) and working on projects for the Guggenheim, including Frank Gehry’s Bilbao building. Tapped in 1994 to run the Dia Art Foundation, he masterminded the conversion of a 240,000-square-foot former Nabisco box factory on the Hudson River into DIA Beacon, now a world center of minimalist and post-minimalist art. Now CEO and Wallis Annenberg director of LACMA, Govan is backed by a re-energized and reconfigured board of trustees, nearly half of whom have joined since 2001, headed by board chairman Andrew M. Gordon of Goldman Sachs & Co, and joined by new trustees David Bohnett, head of Baroda Ventures private-equity firm; Terry Semel, chairman and CEO of Yahoo! Inc.; and author, producer and art collector Michael Crichton.
Put simply, BCAM, made possible by a donation from Eli and Edythe Broad of $50 million to the museum’s capital campaign, plus a $10 million fund for acquisitions, gives LACMA the architectural landmark it was hoping for, more or less, and brings 60,000 square feet of exhibition space devoted to contemporary art, making LACMA one of the few encyclopedic museums with a sustained and substantial contemporary-art presence, and allowing contemporary art to be displayed in a cultural and historical context difficult to match in most institutions. Also put simply, the new museum that will open (on February 16) with a display of around 200 works of postwar art is LACMA’s catch and every other museum’s one that got away.
Did I mention Real Estate?
With a former one-block section of Ogden that linked Wilshire and Sixth but bisected the LACMA campus now incorporated in the grounds, and with outdoor space opening up behind LACMA West and BCAM, and adjacent to the recently upgraded park behind the rest of museum row, the stretch between Fairfax and Curson offers continuous culture along Wilshire and continuous green along Sixth. It’s less grand than the Smithsonian and National Gallery necklace around the Mall in D.C., or the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s snuggling up next to New York’s Central Park, but it’s more accessible than either of the Getty locations, and greener than the Grove.
Art in Public
The museum, which already has an under-recognized outdoor lineup of sculptural works, is taking advantage of its grounds as an outdoor extension of its galleries, with major new commissions that are serious works of contemporary art, yet are sure to be crowd pleasers too. Chris Burden’s Urban Light, being just off Wilshire between BCAM and the old Ahmanson building, is a forest of antique Los Angeles County cast-iron lampposts the artist has collected and restored for the past seven years. Robert Irwin, known for both his more subtle and minimal Light and Space installations, and his more ambitious and flamboyant projects like the garden at the Getty, will fuse these inclinations on the grounds adjacent to BCAM, with a carefully ordered grove of palm trees selected as much for their natural presence and iconic L. A. signature as for their potential to offer an interplay of light and shadow. And if the museum can get past a feasibility study and the necessary fund-raising, it might eventually be home to Jeff Koons’ proposed Train, a 70-foot replica of a 1940s locomotive, dangling from a 161-foot-tall crane, releasing steam and chugging three times a day.
A Serra of Their Own
Works by the New York sculptor have been popping up from San Diego to San Francisco over the past few years, as West Coast institutions scramble to bring his massive steel forms — not only important works for any institution claiming a serious collection of 20th- and 21st-century sculpture but also instant landmarks — into their collections. But LACMA, with funding provided by the Broads, got Band, a centerpiece of Serra’s retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last summer and without question one of the defining works of Serra’s career.
Gifts that Keep on Giving
Local institutions winced in 2005 when real estate developer Edward R. Broida gave 62 works from his collection of modern and contemporary art to the National Gallery of Art in D.C., and again in 2006, when upon his death, 175 works went east to MoMA. Govan is hopeful of achieving what he has called a “critical mass of prestige” that would prevent L. A. collectors from viewing their own local institutions as second-rung locations for depositing their treasures, and LACMA might even begin to draw donations from elsewhere. Recent major gifts including 130 works of modern art, 20 of them Picassos, from the Janice and Henri Lazarof Collection, might just begin to turn LACMA into a gravitational force for gifts.
THE GIANT ON THE BLOCK
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The LACMA West building boasts 300,000 square feet of space, most of which LACMA visitors have never seen unless they shopped there when it was still a May Company department store. Phase 2 of LACMA’s Transformation includes overhauling and increasing the gallery spaces already created for special exhibitions, an expansion of the Boone Children’s Gallery, a video and new-media lab, rehabbed library and study collections, new curatorial and administrative offices, a restaurant, retail space and a bookstore.
THE LETTER C
It’s the letter that makes the LACMA acronym an awkward bit of verbiage, but it stands for County, and is central to the museum’s complex, daunting and also rich position as the people’s art museum. Its ever-expanding reach as an encyclopedic museum, and its clear moves toward a more multicultural consideration of contemporary art, make it a more accessible and interesting location for a diverse constituency.
The Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), along with the new BP Grand Entrance, opens with a free community weekend, Feb. 16-18. For information: (323) 857-6000 or lacma.org.