December 27, 2007
LACMA gets contemporary
On a recent afternoon, I surveyed the new construction with Barbara Pflaumer, LACMA's associate vice president for press relations, as my Virgil. Given the din and scope of unfinished construction, it hardly seemed possible that the work will be completed in time. Yet Pflaumer assured me it will. Mark your calendars: Feb. 16 through 18 will be the opening weekend, free to the public.
However, in order to appreciate why and how these new structures came into existence, it is important to understand the history of LACMA.
In 1910, Los Angeles County inaugurated a Museum of History, Science and Art located in Exposition Park, near USC. The museum's early art holdings were modest but came to include donations from William Randolph Hearst and J. Paul Getty.
In the early 1960s, industrialist Norton Simon spearheaded plans for an independent institution devoted to the visual arts in the Mid-Wilshire district, near Hancock Park, where many of Los Angeles' oldest and wealthiest families lived at that time. Though the idea took hold, eventually Simon withdrew the majority of his own support, opting instead to endow only a small sculpture terrace for the fledgling institution and, instead, eventually morphing the Pasadena Art Museum into the Norton Simon Museum.
Nonetheless, LACMA opened in 1965 with three buildings designed by architect William Pereira, each named after a major donor: Howard Ahmanson, Anna Bing Arnold and Armand Hammer.
Over the next several decades, the museum expanded both its collections and its facilities. On the construction side: A 1983 expansion substantially increased gallery space. In 1986, the Robert Anderson Building for modern and contemporary art was added, and in 1988, the Bruce Goff-designed pavilion for Japanese art (representing the last work by this famed architect) opened, partially funded by Joe and Etsuko Price. In 1994, LACMA purchased the property on the block to its west, including the May Co. building.
On the collections front, there were some major gifts: Joan Palevsky purchased an important collection of Islamic art for the museum; Phillip Berg donated his collection of tribal and ancient art; Hans Cohn contributed his collection of antiquities and glass; and B. Gerald and Iris Cantor presented LACMA with several important Rodin sculptures.
During the same period, the landscape of Los Angeles museums was anything but static. Over the last 25 years, a number of new art institutions appeared and have taken root: the Museum of Contemporary Art and its satellites (the Geffen in Little Tokyo, formerly known as the Temporary Contemporary, and MOCA Pacific Design Center); the Hammer Museum (formerly known as the Armand Hammer Museum and now operated by UCLA); the various incarnations of the J. Paul Getty Center (now located in Brentwood and at its original home in Malibu), and the Skirball Cultural Center.
By the 1990s, while these other museums were becoming well established, LACMA sometimes seemed to have lost its focus and its ambition. There was even a three-year period when the museum had no director. LACMA has always been known for having a large and complex board, and as the millennium dawned, efforts were made to rethink the museum's direction.
In 2001, architect Rem Koolhaus (nomen est omen!) was engaged to develop a master plan for the property that involved leveling most of the buildings and constructing a series of pavilions that would take the visitor chronologically through the collection, with different galleries illuminating different cultures' artistic contributions to that historical period.
The estimated cost was $300 million, and because the museum is owned in part by Los Angles County, the funding became the subject of a bond issue ballot initiative that required 66 percent of voters' support. When the project received just 60 percent, it was shelved.
Exit Koolhaus. Enter Eli Broad.
Broad, who is a trustee of the museum, was also a huge fan of the architect Renzo Piano, who was one of the designers of Paris' Pompidou Center. As Pflaumer told me, Broad approached Piano, who after seeing the site, decided he, too, needed to develop a master plan, which was named "Transformation" (not to be confused with the similarly named movie by Michael Bay).
The board got involved, and the fundraising began. Broad announced a $60 million lead gift ($50 million as a contribution to paying for a new building and $10 million to an acquisition fund).
According to its own recent press release, LACMA has to-date raised $200 million for Phase I of Transformation. In addition to Broad's gift, LACMA received $25 million from Lynda and Stewart Resnick, $25 million from the BP Foundation, $15 million from Los Angeles County, $5 million from Richard Riordan and Nancy Daly Riordan and $1.6 million from the Ahmanson Foundation.
Piano's plan effectively divides LACMA's campus into three projects or phases. Phase I, which will be unveiled in February, takes the area between the western edge of the original three buildings and the eastern edge of the May Co. (which was primarily occupied by a parking garage and Ogden Street) and re-imagines the space as the new center of the campus.
This manifests itself by changing the orientation of the museum (and I mean that geographically, not sexually), i.e., the new entrance is on Sixth Street, rather than Wilshire Boulevard. Visitors will drive into an underground parking garage and then rise in a glass elevator to a new public plaza, the BP Grand Entrance, an 8,100-square-foot parcel that, according to a LACMA press release, "serves as the museum's main entrance, orientation space and public art plaza." The new plaza will offer arriving visitors their "first experiences with contemporary art."
For the opening, the museum has acquired a major outdoor installation by sculptor Chris Burden, "Urban Light," made up of more than 200 Los Angeles street lamps that will be powered by the solar panels over the BP grand entrance. In addition, there will also be an installation of palm trees by Robert Irwin, the artist who designed the garden at the Getty Center.