When Elsa Longhauser was named executive director in June 2000*, the Santa Monica Museum of Art took a quantum leap forward. Founded in 1989, when Abby Sher hired Frank Gehry to design a commercial-use property that included the museum on the site of the former Edgemar Farm Dairy, on Main Street in Ocean Park, SMMOA went through several directors — notably the capable founding director Tom Rhodes — who struggled valiantly to get it up and running. It wasn’t until 1998, when it moved to its current location in Bergamot Station, that the fog began to clear.
When Longhauser arrived, everything clicked into focus. With her first exhibition, a daring retrospective of the radical feminist artist Valie Export, Longhauser established herself as a forward-thinking curator with an intuitive sense of how to display art. Even if you don’t care for the work in a given show, you can never fault the presentation: Her shows are always beautiful.
Born and raised in Philadelphia in a family of three children, Longhauser was fortunate to have parents who collected art and taught her to love it as a child. After earning a B.A. in art history at the University of Pennsylvania, she was able to put her passion into action when she became director for the Paley/Levy Galleries at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia in 1983. During her years at Moore, Longhauser established herself as an authority on self-taught art and collaborated with mythic Swiss curator Harald Szeemann on a major survey of the style for the Wexner Center. She also organized touring exhibitions of work by outsider artist Adolf Wolfli, and seminal Bay Area artist Jay DeFeo.
By the end of the ’90s, Longhauser and her husband, designer Bill Longhauser, sensed that they’d completed their work in Philadelphia and were pondering where to go. A trip west convinced Longhauser that L.A. was the right setting for the next chapter of her life in museums.
“I felt a fantastic sense of potential when I came here,” she recalls. “It’s been amazing watching the city develop, too. The museums of Los Angeles are in the midst of an incredible period. Each museum offers something slightly different, so there’s a tremendous sense of collegiality and mutual support between all of us.”
Unique to SMMOA is its support of artists who’ve been making great work for years yet remained under the radar, either by oversight or choice. “There are many worthy artists whose voices don’t get heard, and we feel a responsibility to that community of artists,” says Longhauser, who’s also made a commitment to L.A. art and its history. She’s mounted groundbreaking shows of work by Wallace Berman, George Herms and Michael Asher, among others.
With a mighty assist from Lisa Melandri, a brilliant curator who oversees the daily operations of SMMOA as deputy director for Exhibitions and Programs, Longhauser has established SMMOA as an adventurous institution that fearlessly treks into territory other L.A. museums are too timid to explore.
“We’re a kunsthalle and not a collecting museum,” Longhauser says. “What we offer people instead is a collection of ideas.”
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One recent example is the series of public discussions SMMOA kicked off in March with an evening featuring Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik and LACMA’s golden boy Michael Govan, followed earlier this month by a conversation between MOCA curator Ann Goldstein, Beatrix Ruf (director of Kunsthalle Zürich) and Suzanne Ghez (director of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago). The series wraps July 10 with a talk by Lynne Cooke, curator of the Dia Art Foundation, and Ivo Mesquita, curator of the 2008 São Paulo Biennial.
Photo by Kevin Scanlon
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Elsa Longhauser was named executive director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art in June 2006. It should have read June 2000.