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Has LACMA lost its way?

30 March 2020

The planned redesign for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has drawn much criticism, not least because of spiralling costs. As demolition inches closer, is it time to reassess the project – or is it too late?

Matt Stromberg

Depending on who you ask, the planned redesign for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is either a disaster which will bankrupt one of LA’s most venerable cultural institutions or a fitting transformation that will further the city’s ascendance as a world-class art capital. More than a decade in the making, the project has been spearheaded by LACMA’s charismatic and headstrong director Michael Govan, who tapped the enigmatic Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor for the job. Zumthor’s design will replace four outdated buildings on LACMA’s campus – three designed by William Pereira in the 1960s and one by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer in the ’80s – with a single-storey sinuous, amoeba-like building on stilts that straddles Wilshire Boulevard. Originally a black blob, the plan is now for a grey-tan concrete structure with a glass facade, a nod to the La Brea tar pits adjacent to the museum.

The project has inflamed passions on both sides. Not one, but two competing groups – Save LACMA, and the Citizens Brigade to Save LACMA – have formed to try to halt the demolitions, slated for the end of March, and force the museum to scrap the plan and start over. Curators I spoke with, as well as Govan himself, noted that it would cost almost $250 million just to retrofit the buildings, ‘that are dilapidated, user-unfriendly and ill-fitting for a large 21st-century encyclopaedic museum,’ as Christine Y. Kim, curator of contemporary art, tells me. Meanwhile, Govan has already secured pledges or donations for the lion’s share of the project’s $750 million budget, including $117.5 million in taxpayer funds approved by the County Board of Supervisors last April. (The new building will be named for David Geffen who pledged $150 million in 2017.) What is at stake in all this is more than just a building – it’s a question of what a museum should be.

Much of the criticism has been aimed at Govan, for not revealing designs earlier (gallery floor plans still have not been made public), for ‘shrinking’ the museum, which will have 10,000 sq ft less of gallery space than the demolished structures, and for saddling the museum with insurmountable debt. Govan, the indefatigable salesman, tells me that he considers Zumthor’s building part of a longer-term expansion, which began with the openings of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the Resnick Pavilion a decade ago, two structures that added 100,000 sq ft of gallery space. In any event, 220,000 sq ft is more than enough for the museum’s permanent collection, which numbers 142,000 objects from around the world, Govan insists. Partnerships with other sites, such as the Vincent Price Art Museum in East Los Angeles, will allow for more of the collection to be seen by more people. And just as importantly, a larger museum would significantly raise the operating budget. He maintains that any debt will be appropriately managed; the board would never sign off otherwise.

The new structure has also been attacked for its inflexibility, both in terms of its single-storey plan which limits expansion, and for its use of concrete. As Govan explains, the plan allows for three types of galleries: 16 terrace galleries on the perimeter with sunlight, ideal for sculpture; 12 courtyard galleries with some controlled lighting; and 24 core galleries with artificial light, best for photographs and other light-sensitive media. Moreover, the single floor means that sections can be expanded or contracted at will, allowing for more fluidity between eras, cultures, and disciplines.

The biggest challenge, however, comes from the new curatorial direction that Govan envisions with Zumthor’s building. Instead of a mostly static permanent collection, the cornerstone of any encyclopaedic museum, LACMA will have a rotating series of thematic exhibitions drawing on the permanent collection, for periods of about three years. This will break down barriers and connect departments in new ways. ‘I do think that if we provided a more lateral and interconnected approach to presenting LACMA’s collection and touring exhibitions across the campus, we would ultimately spotlight our strengths in ways that we have been unable to in the past,’ Rita Gonzalez, head of contemporary art at LACMA, says.

It was this unconventional approach, however, that led the Ahmanson Foundation – which had donated $130 million in Old Master works to LACMA over the years – to suspend any gifts of art to the museum. ‘We’ve been unable to get a commitment from Michael Govan about presenting the collection as it has been throughout the life of the museum,’ foundation president William Ahmanson told the LA Times’ Christopher Knight in February. Govan shrugs off the split. ‘I have complete faith they’re going to be so excited about the increased attention to the collection,’ he tells me.

The debate here echoes similar ones going on throughout the art world. What is the purpose of the encyclopaedic museum: to present a rational version of the world in discrete categories, as they’ve functioned since the 19th century, or to challenge those hierarchies, taking into account the opening up of the canon that is taking place? ‘We’re obligated to not do business as usual,’ Govan says. ‘I would never use the word radical, unless you consider showing a little more Latin American Art in a city like Los Angeles radical, or if you consider that we haven’t balanced our presentations towards Asia given again, the demographics and the cultural politics of our time.’

This is not to say that Govan’s vision isn’t risky. It’s one of the biggest capital campaigns for a museum ever, and the hiring of Zumthor, a much-admired architect but one without a large-scale museum under his belt, has raised several eyebrows. But the old buildings don’t work. LACMA has to move forward to survive. This will be a test, not only of Govan and Zumthor, but of new ways of thinking about how and what museums exhibit. And to be honest, there’s probably no better place to challenge that old-world orthodoxy than in LA.

Matt Stromberg is a freelance arts writer based in LA.

This article was amended from the print version on 6 April 2020 to clarify the current relationship between LACMA and the Ahmanson Foundation.

J. Patrice Marandel

Since LACMA announced its intention to erect a new building, designed by Peter Zumthor, to replace its original complex by William Pereira (1965) and its extension from the 1980s by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, much criticism has been levelled at it. There has been a significant lack of transparency around the building’s design development – which has especially irked architecture critics – and the overall cost of the project has escalated. The original figure announced in 2014 of $600 million was promptly revised to $650 million, before the recent revelation that the final cost would be some $750 million. This proposed new museum will be the most expensive to be built so far in the 21st century – topping the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss in Berlin. Money can be found and money can be spent, but what one gets for one’s money remains the key question. It’s no wonder that the Zumthor building is no longer referred to as a museum (making the LACMA acronym irrelevant), but will instead be named the David Geffen Galleries, after the most generous donor to the new structure.

It’s a given that public museums grow; when museums embark on building projects it is usually to provide more room for new acquisitions. Yet LACMA’s paradox is that the projected museum is much smaller than the existing museum and will in fact reduce the gallery space by 10,000 sq ft – rather than adding 50,000 sq ft as initially intended. Director Michael Govan’s insistence that the museum be situated on one level because single-storey museums are more accessible also makes future expansion difficult. Work inside the old buildings, to remove asbestos, has already begun but no plan for the new galleries has been made public. Zumthor’s original design, which played appealingly with various ceiling heights and manipulations of light (seen in his beautiful design for the Kunsthaus Bregenz), has been abandoned. Small galleries, squared and with lower ceilings, have been oddly forced into Zumthor’s amoeba-shaped building. Seldom has the original vision for a building been so compromised.

Much less, however, has been made of how such a building will affect the very nature of the museum itself. In practical terms, the redesign is at odds with the smooth running of a museum: offices – both curatorial and administrative – have been moved off-site into a high-rise building across the road; and it lacks basic infrastructure, such as libraries, storage, event spaces, or a security desk. In order to face the restrictions imposed by the new building – its size, shape, and abundance of light – the museum is altering its operational structure. Following a two-year renovation, Bruce Goff’s Japanese Pavilion – intended for the display of Japanese art and located outside the main museum site – now houses the conservation department. Elsewhere, departments are being phased out. As curators leave, many will not be replaced. Recruitment is and will prove difficult; how to convince a young curator to accept a position in a museum in which the collection under her/his charge will have no dedicated galleries, and in which the unexhibited works will be kept in storerooms off-site? Generations of museum curators will have to deal with a museum designed with the idea that function follows form.

Over the years, LACMA has built a significant encyclopaedic collection, amounting to some 142,000 objects. Its holdings of Southeast Asian art ranks among the greatest in the world; they have not been seen in anything like their entirety in years and there is no plan now for them to be displayed properly. The museum’s great collection of Japanese art is in limbo waiting at some future point to possibly re-inhabit the Goff pavilion. In a gesture that defies Govan’s intention to seamlessly integrate the art of the past and the present in one single structure, the collection of modern art will instead be shown in isolation and be relocated from the Ahmanson building to the top floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) – LACMA’s other gallery building alongside the Resnick Pavilion.

And what about donors? LACMA has no established funds, as most older museums do. Its acquisitions depend solely on the generosity of donors. The department of European art that I directed for 25 years was supported by the Ahmanson Foundation; the Ahmanson family was one of the founders of the newly created LACMA 50 years ago. Ever since then the foundation has made possible the acquisition of works of European art by many of the great artists: Georges de La Tour, Antoine Watteau, Jacques-Louis David, Frans Hals, and Bernini, among many others. My department and I enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the foundation that was the envy of colleagues the world over.

For the past two years, the Ahmanson Foundation has sought reassurance that the new building will have dedicated galleries of European art. To no avail. As a result, in February, the foundation announced that it was suspending its support of acquisitions for the department of European art: it is a tragedy for the museum. And then there is the superb Carter Collection of Dutch 17th-century paintings, which was given under the condition that it be displayed in dedicated galleries of Dutch art: paintings by Avercamp, Bosschaert, Ruisdael, Post, Saenredam are at risk unless proper galleries are designed for them. Is the wish of these donors so difficult to uphold?

The public realises the danger LACMA’s collection faces. Let’s hope we won’t be forced to attend the museum’s requiem.

J. Patrice Marandel is former chief curator of European painting and sculpture at LACMA.

From the April 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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