The new home for the El Segundo Museum of Art — which isn't a public museum, but technically a private collection open to the public — infills a tiny slice of downtown El Segundo's Main Street, right next to a former post office storefront, in a skinny slot that used to be a drive-through alley. The new headquarters — complete with an exhibit hall, artist-in-residence housing, roof deck and administrative facilities — features soaring, 24-foot tall ceilings that seem even higher in the thin main hall of the building where gathering crowds and a floating chorus of voices continually grew Sunday afternoon at the official public opening.
Drenched in natural light from the 16 pre-fabricated skylights above, the collection on view for the inaugural show, “Desire,” is based loosely on landscape and nature, and features a mix of recent works by international and local artists, 19th century French landscapes, a diagram for a land art piece by Christo, and contemporary sculptural pieces, among many others. Artist-in-residence Michael Sistig's big canvas with listing ocean liners in a precarious, dark sea is situated by itself, on the back wall of the main space as the show's focal point.
Sunday's event was bursting with curious locals, excited kids, architects, arty types and an army of volunteers showing guests how to access the interactive database that identifies each art piece, the artist, the year it was made, etc. For this show (and for all future exhibits), there are no labels on the wall to identify art pieces except for a number spray-painted on the concrete floor — guests instead access a database through their smartphones, and in a turn towards a more technology-based approach to art viewing, can also then leave comments. Simultaneously with the building's technology, the constraints of the narrow lot on which it stands also shape the way visitors see and interact with the art — all of which is hung up high or down low on the walls, or, in other places, splayed out on the floor.
Amidst kids gathering clues from the paintings for a scavenger hunt, and visitors on their phones looking up the specifics for each piece, John Ferri — who acted as the builder on the project — explained the many strategic planning and construction considerations that went into realizing the space. For instance, the design eliminated any conditions where the vertical grout lines between the blocks didn't keep their perfect stacked pattern. “There are 14,000 blocks used in the walls of this building, and 24 different sizes of blocks. That took a lot of planning,” he says. The building's designer and ESMoA-co founder Eva Sweeney adds, “John was patient with us.”
Those smooth, burnished white block walls give the space an industrial elegance that continues from the intimate and cozy front entry all the way up to the expansive rooftop deck. The space looks simple and immaculate, but that only comes from the meticulous details that Ferri and Sweeney toiled over (they also had help from local architect John Milander). “Eva has a great eye,” says Ferri. Sweeney finishes his thought: “And it takes a lot of work for it all to look so simple.”
Eva, with her husband Brian, first purchased the corner post office on Main Street, primarily as a storage space for their personal art collection (the couple also run the non-profit arts institute ArtLab21, which has locations in Berlin and Bonn, Germany). They then set their sights on the lot next door. “We initially thought of designing the building in that 15-foot wide drive-through footprint, but the bathrooms and other facilities never would have worked,” says Sweeney. Instead, working with Ferri, the design team opted to chop 10 feet off the post office building and give that portion over to the future museum site. The result is a 25-foot-wide, compact, well-planned building that sits efficiently within its tight boundaries, and wraps up visitors in an unlikely urban quality — it's an experience rarely encountered in sprawling L.A.
The space will serve a local community hungry for this kind of culture, and, the organizers hope, the larger art community in L.A. With a very hip and art-savvy addition to the neighborhood, the special opportunity for this South Bay city is not lost on Sweeney. “It's such a dynamic environment here with the big firms like Boeing and Chevron right down the block, and all the smaller scale warehouses and fabrication shops mixed with the beach and the residential neighborhood,” she says. “El Segundo hasn't been discovered yet.”
The area's rich context was considered, too, in the design, and was the reason why the exterior south facing side of the building was left totally clean without the typical gas meters and plumbing valves one sees on most backsides of buildings. “In the summertime” Sweeney explains, “we can use this wall as a projection surface and the outside of the building is an exhibit space too. It's another way to engage the local community, we really want them to be involved in this.”