Architectural renderings of the Main Museum of Los Angeles Art — set to open downtown in 2020 — reveal a pristine 100,000-square-foot complex with an elegant rooftop sculpture garden, hip cafe and glistening amphitheater. The museum will eventually span the Farmers and Merchants Bank, the Hellman Building and the Bankhouse Garage. The three historic buildings will be adapted to accommodate art while retaining their historical integrity.
But you don’t have to wait until 2020 to get a feel for the character and personality of the Main Museum. With the launch of Beta Main this weekend, the museum is offering the public an artistic amuse-bouche, a taste of the kind of experimental work the Main will exhibit and a chance to explore a bit of the space before it is completed.
“It’s a temporary configuration,” director Allison Agsten explains, looking out over the storefront hall that once served as a bank and will someday be the grand entrance to the larger museum. “We figured that since we have access to the space, and since it is an adaptive-reuse project, why not just start using it now?”
Agsten is using Beta Main as an opportunity to test ideas and projects that will later be incorporated into the fabric of the Main Museum’s identity and mission. The chance to experiment is important because so much of what Agsten envisions for the Main has never been done. “I’m not modeling this museum on another museum,” she says with a smile.
One big difference between the Main and more traditional institutions is that it will not be centered around a collection of paintings or sculptures. Instead, at the heart of what the Main offers to the public is an artist residency program. Another apparent difference is that the Beta Main’s programming will diverge from traditionally male-centric viewpoints.
“Women will always have a very important place in the program of this museum,” Agsten says. “My artists in residence, who they are, they speak for themselves.”
The first two artists Beta Main is featuring are known for their feminist and socially conscious works. Suzanne Lacy is one of the mothers of feminist performance art. She was deeply involved in the early performance art scene that developed in Southern California in the 1960s and ’70s. Andrea Bowers is younger. She studied and admired the women of Lacy’s generation when she was in graduate school at CalArts in the 1990s. Her work frequently incorporates detailed drawings.
From Oct. 30 through Nov. 8, Bowers and Lacy will, quite literally, inhabit the museum. They’ll be living in the residency spaces that overlook the main hall for 10 days as part of a program called “Performance Lessons: Suzanne Lacy Teaches Andrea Bowers Performance Art.” The program begins on Halloween weekend and concludes on election night.
“Performance Lessons” at Beta Main mirrors a similar work Bowers and Lacy performed in 2014 at the Drawing Center in New York. During “Andrea Bowers and Suzanne Lacy: Drawing Lessons,” the women lived inside the Drawing Center in SoHo and Bowers gave Lacy daily drawing lessons. At the Beta Main, their roles will be reversed and Lacy will instruct Bowers in performance art.
On a recent Monday, Bowers and Lacy sat down for a conversation in the space that will serve as Lacy’s bedroom during the program’s 10-day run. The two have been friends, colleagues and collaborators for a decade, and they share an easy rapport and similar sense of humor. Asked if the experience of living together as part of an immersive performance piece is fun, like a sort of grown-up slumber party, they laughed.
“Well, we have more fun when we just go out to the desert and sit in hot springs,” Bowers jokes.
“That being said,” Lacy adds, “in New York, every night when we went back to our little tents, we would lay in bed and just laugh hysterically, endlessly.”
Bowers loves Lacy’s lighthearted approach to performance art. One of the things the women are interested in discussing is the transmission of feminist and artistic practices from one generation to the next. They are aware that the transference wasn’t perfect, and that some of the older generation’s playful approaches to performance art might have been lost along the way.
Bowers explains: “As a student I really looked up to [the artists of Lacy’s generation] and I wanted to learn from them firsthand. One of the things we’ve discovered is that my generation was really obsessed with the critical underpinnings of why we were doing things. Her generation just jumped in immediately and started laughing. They’re really funny.”
Humor and intergenerational feminism are just two of the many topics Bowers and Lacy will explore during their stay at Beta Main. Through a series of formal and informal conversations, they will tackle issues surrounding performance art pedagogy, politics and relationality. Scheduled events include appearances by major feminist figures in performance art (Barbara T. Smith and Simone Forti, to name just two), but a lot of the art will happen in the downtime, when Lacy and Bowers are on their own in the space.
Visitors to the Beta Main space will get to see a visual mapping of their conversations. The two artists will spend each evening diagramming and outlining their experiences on one of the gallery’s walls. There will also be a library to explore, part of the piece’s examination of how performance art is archived and documented.
Bookending the program are two events that Lacy likes to jokingly call “Witches and Bitches.” (Bowers isn’t a fan of the term. “We fight sometimes, too,” she says, laughing again.) The first of these events happens on Halloween night, when witches from one of L.A.’s oldest covens will come to the space and perform a feminist ritual. On the last night of the piece, visitors are invited to join in a conversation about politics and performance and then stay and watch election results as they come in live. Given the likelihood that our nation’s first female president will be elected that night, the timing feels especially significant.
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“Performance Lessons” is an ambitious opening show for a new museum because of its depth, scope and nontraditional form. “Allison [Agsten] has been very brave,” Lacy says of the museum’s director. “She’s quite committed to the exploration. I think it’s very appropriate for this space in this downtown area because L.A. has been such a site of experimentation in the arts.”
Agsten is conscious of her role as both a facilitator for artists who want to explore complex concepts and as a director who wants her museum to be completely accessible to the general public. She seems confident that those goals are not mutually exclusive.
She also knows on a practical level how to make her goals a reality. The opening, for instance, is happening on a Sunday afternoon so that parents can come in jeans and T-shirts and bring the kids. There’s no separate, fancy opening for artistic elites. The museum will also be free.
As for the artists, Agsten says the work will always be rigorous. “I hope that when our visitors come, their open minds and senses of adventure are on full,” she says. “Because they might need it. It’s definitely not your usual.”