However you feel about museums — and most artists, writers, collectors, and dry-wall installers with MFAs have multiple axes to grind — it’s where most of the public get their art fixes. Here’s how the local institutions measured up this year, strictly on artistic criteria — if we weighted for relative budgetary constraints, it’d be a whole other can of worms.
1 UCLA Hammer: Even if the Hammer hadn’t pulled off L.A.’s biggest art coup of the new millennium with the spectacular, landmark Lee Bontecou retrospective (through January 11), it would have come in first for such programming as Tomoko Takahashi’s liability-isolated maelstrom of orchestrated consumer detritus Auditorium Piece, the flawed but ambitious International Paper: Drawings by Emerging Artists, sound-based multimedia artist Christian Marclay’s first U.S. museum retrospective, and Roger Hiorns’ copper sulfate crystal-encrusted engine block and thistles (through January 18).
2 The Getty: The Getty outdid itself in two distinct areas this year, with a wealth of strong exhibits about photography (“Strange Days,” Dorothea Lange; “Surrealist Muse”; and the current “About Life: The Photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron” — through January 11) and book illumination (“Five Hundred Years of Manuscript Illumination,” “Illuminating the Renaissance,” “The Medieval Bestseller: Illuminated Books of Hours,” etc.). These strains came together in a sense with the Getty’s most high-profile exhibit, contemporary video artist Bill Viola’s “The Passions,” which melded the expanded objectivity of photographically captured reality with the luminous subjective spirituality of pre-modern iconic visual art.
3 Santa Monica Museum of Art: SMMOA continues its potent, balanced mix of support for worthy contemporary artists like local hip-hop lumpmeister Joel Morrison, visually dazzling historical surveys like the late Alfred Jensen’s crackpot abstractions and the festively veiled politics of Kim MacConnel’s pattern and decoration paintings, and an interesting strain of museologically interrogative work exemplified by Rosamond Purcell’s Two Rooms installation and the current survey show of Fred Wilson (through February 7).
4 Otis: In a transitional year that saw the departure of Anne Ayres, one of the most singular curatorial voices in L.A. over the last decade, and the arrival of Meg Linton — one of the others — the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis managed to host several excellent exhibits, including the midcareer survey of filigreed shaman and Weekly production dude Tom Knechtel, an overdue retrospective of the fascinating text-based work of Fluxus artist Dick Higgins, and critic/curator Michael Duncan’s sprawling, treasure-laden manifesto L.A. Post-Cool. Linton’s tenure is just kicking into gear — can a Steve Roden midcareer survey be far off? Keep your fingers crossed.
5 LACMA: With points off for the not quite transcendentally wrong-headed Farrah Fawcett/Keith Edmier fiasco, LACMA managed to more than pull its weight outside the realm of contemporary art with the serendipitously timely “Legacy of Genghis Khan,” the just-barely-enough-actual-mindboggling-masterpieces-to-justify-its-title “French Masterworks From the Pushkin Museum” and the transcendentally right-headed catalog of ancient Tantric visual/spiritual technology titled “The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art” (through January 4).
6 Luckman Fine Arts Gallery at Cal State L.A.: One of the least well-known but consistently excellent small museum spaces in Los Angeles. Director Julie Joyce takes risks with shows like the deeply funny performance/video art of Type A in the group’s “Pre-Career Retrospective” while providing space for sure things overlooked by bigger-budgeted but smaller-brained institutions — the most recent examples being retrospectives of L.A. artists Patrick Nickell and Charles Garabedian.
7 The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens: The Huntington pulled off a deliberate hat trick to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the acquisition of its real estate, or something. Whatever excuse is needed for stellar, sumptuous shows of visionary poet/printer William Blake,
quintessential West Coast modern photographer Edward Weston, and 19th-century DIY utopian design guru William Morris (through April 4), I’m for it. Like a cherry on top of this
triflavored sundae, the funny and informative “Drawn to Art: Art Education and the American Experience, 1800–1950” (through January 4) explores the peculiar, overlooked cultural niche where most of us, for better or worse, get our first and most sustained exposure to the idea of Art.
8 MOCA: Continuing in its problematic ways with an inevitable but nevertheless superfluous retrospective of Laura Owens (summed up by a member of MOCA’s service sector as “Like my Granny doing her crafts on crack”). Would have scored better if Sam Durant (open for a week of ’03) had counted, but then the Hammer’s simultaneous Dave Muller show would have restored the curve anyway. Lucian Freud rocked, of course, and the People loved it. MOCA’s strongest surprises came from a pair of “marble” landscape floor sculptures — Mona Hatoum’s Map, a gigantic world map made out of 3,300 pounds of clear glass marbles, and Yutaka Sone’s Jungle Island, a set of carved marble replicas of L.A.’s major freeway interchanges embedded in a dense nest of jungle foliage like a film model for some post-apocalyptic J.G. Ballard story. Promisingly quirky.