LACMA’s broad and winding road

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Question: What happens when you mix together the biggest modern art collector in Los Angeles with the most encyclopedic public art museum on the West Coast?

Answer: You get the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Built at an expense of $56 million–just part of the $156 million spent to complete Phase I of LACMA’s ongoing, three-phase Transformation campaign to unify, expand, upgrade, and ultimately remake its sprawling Wilshire Avenue campus–the new museum that is to be unveiled in late February is a striking addition. Funded by billionaire L.A. art collector Eli Broad (rhymes with “road”) and designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano, BCAM–as it is to be called–contains three floors of open, uncolumned space especially designed for the display of modern and contemporary art, significantly expanding LACMA’s ability–and commitment–to display art made in the mid-late twentieth century and beyond. For its inaugural exhibition, the new museum-within-a-museum will present American highlights from the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, and from The Broad Art Foundation. Selected by LACMA curator Lynn Zelevansky, these works include some of the most significant post-war masterworks made in the past half century.

The catch? Although they are to remain on ongoing display at LACMA, the works do not, and apparently will not, belong to LACMA: shortly before the building bearing his own name was complete, Broad decided to retain control of the works for the Foundation. Rather, they will remain in a state of permanent loan, as part of the Broad Art Foundation, which will continue to act as a lending library to cultural institutions around the world. It’s a decision that was inevitably controversial, and unsurprisingly it has generated some blistering response from critics, including an amazing back-and-forth volley of articles and essays in the L.A. Times debating the effect.

And yet… Taken on its own terms, this new building gives LACMA–as well as residents of Southern California–a handsome new jewelbox in which to view some extraordinary works of art, if not, ultimately, the works themselves. At least, not all the time. So whether LACMA’s cup should be deemed half empty, half full, or both at once, remains very much in the eye of the beholder. Among those eager to welcome the facility is LACMA’s curator for contemporary art Lynn Zelevansky. “This building is a big step forward,” Zelevansky says. “People that come to the museum can see certain works over and over again. It doesn’t matter what it says on the label.”

However it is interpreted, the fact is that this so-called Transformation marks a moment of tangible change, and growth, in LACMA’s infrastructure. And change and growth are exactly what LACMA has desperately needed. Founded nearly a century ago in 1910, as part of the nascent city’s Museum of History, Science and Art, LACMA was only reestablished in 1961 as an independent institution centered on the visual arts. In 1965, it got its first home, in the three white modernist structures that still comprise its central courtyard; unpopular with artists, the structure was acerbically depicted in flames in a famous Ed Ruscha painting (which sadly is not part of the Broad Collection, although one of Norm’s in flames is). The museum’s expansion ever since then has been scattershot: a workmanlike 1983 addition was followed by in 1986 by the problematic Robert O. Anderson Building, with its odd angles and horizontal flat facade that added a processional entryway but walled off the museum from Wilshire Boulevard. The graceful, lotus-like Pavilion of Japanese Art by Bruce Goff was added in 1988, and in 1994, LACMA expanded westward to the corner of Fairfax, encompassing the handsome, rounded Art Deco May Co. Building from 1939, which became a center for children’s programming.

The result was–is–a sprawling campus, with a hodgepodge of structures and styles befitting its encyclopedic cornucopia of collections from disparate continents and eras, and its patchwork evolution. To call it “eclectic” would be kind; in the museum’s own magazine, Renzo Piano is quoted as calling the campus “a mess,” explaining his reluctance to join the competition to design an addition in 2001. Instead, five (equally stellar) architects were invited to submit proposals, and in December 2001, the one by Rem Koolhaus was chosen by the museum’s board, with the notable backing of Eli Broad. One can’t fault LACMA for lack of ambition: the visionary plan proposed razing the whole shebang, including the signature courtyard–everything except Goff’s Japanese Pavilion which would remain in place, like a lone flower, in the northeast corner–and replacing it with a futuristic, tented high-tech rectangle. In doing so, it would also totally reconceive the museum’s gallery options in one fell swoop, as if reshuffling a deck of cards. But the revolutionary scope and expense of the plan was off-putting to more than just art-lovers: L.A. County voters, asked to weigh the museum’s lofty plans against strained public services, rejected a bond measure to help fund the elaborate project in November 2002, and the plan was shelved.

What is impressive, in retrospect, is how quickly the museum responded. In June 2003, Eli Broad agreed to lead a campaign for a new contemporary art building; by that fall, Piano had signed on to do the job, despite his aesthetic misgivings. However, Piano did not merely propose a new building, rather he came up with a new framework to rethink and reintegrate the existing facilities, to be enacted in three phases. Thus, the Transformation was born. In 2004, the Board of Trustees unanimously approved the plan, and by late 2005, construction was underway. In their own way, museum boards can be like dinosaurs: casting a huge shadow, but often lumbering in gait. In LACMA’s case, the board, duly activated, acted more like velociraptors, charging toward the uncertain future to outpace the confines of their obsolete ecosystem.

Ironically, it was actual dinosaurs–or rather their mammalian descendants–which now next delayed the process: that winter, excavators at Wilshire Boulevard dig unearthed a large deposit of fossilized bones, spanning from mammoths to millipedes, mired in ancient asphalt. This was not a shock, given LACMA’s prime location abutting the Rancho La Brea tar pits, atop what once was tar-pitted marshland. As a sister institution to the Natural History Museum (and next-door neighbor to the kiddie-popular Page Museum), LACMA had foreseen the problem and had paleontologists onsite to gather, clean and catalogue the specimens. Yet, the presence of a fossil bed meant that the basement for the new museum would have to be quite shallow. Additional precautions had to be taken against a different geologic hazard: methane gas, which is endemic to the location. Throughout 2007, as rubbernecked drivers along Wilshire Boulevard observed daily with amazement, the profile of new edifice could be seen rapidly taking shape.

The building that will be officially unveiled in February is extraordinary in many ways. Clad in pale Italian travertine, interrupted by dramatic red beams and stairwells and an outdoor “spider” escalator which ascends the building’s north facade, with a serrated skylit crown made of fritted glass, it cuts a sharp silhouette, befitting Piano’s reputation for refined theatricality. Featuring two symmetrical wings anchored by a glass core, BCAM offers nearly 60,000 square feet of gallery space spread out among three floors that are uninterrupted by any columns: six lofty galleries in all, each spanning over 8,300 square feet. As if to solidify the theme of transcendence, the entrance lobby is on the third floor: the visitors work their way down. In the event of an earthquake, the structure is designed to twist and sway, making it as flexible as it is elegant, the architectural equivalent to Fred Astaire in a zoot suit. When it opens, the galleries on the ground floor will feature two giant steel sculptures by Richard Serra, Sequence and Band, the latter of which was purchased for LACMA using most of a $10 million donation by… Eli Broad.

More than just a building, BCAM represents a commitment on behalf of this venerable institution to its display of contemporary art. That commitment is made tangible by the in-your-face array of outdoor artworks being installed around the grounds, which was cheerfully instigated by Michael Govan, LACMA’s Dia-schooled Director. The most dazzling of these is Urban Light, an installation of 202 vintage streetlamps of varying heights, designed by sculptor Chris Burden. Known for his subversive sculptural wit (in one famous work, he created a suspended armada of model submarines representing the nation’s entire global fleet), here Burden literally transports a condensed illuminated history from the city’s sidewalks into the museum’s courtyard.

“It’s a wonderful Wilshire Boulevard marker for us, and will become a landmark,” declares LACMA President Melody Kanschat. “What I love about it is that it’s a grand entrance, right in the center … it brings our entrance back to the streets. Now the life is right at street level; it’s a wonderful signpost for what LACMA’s all about.”

The Burden piece is just one of several dramatic new additions: a Palm Garden created by Robert Irwin will subtly enhance the new Wilshire plaza area with living plantings. Charles Ray’s toylike, life-size Firetruck sits nearby. And then, in classic “mine is bigger” badboy showmanship, there is Jeff Koons’ Train –a chugging, steaming, 70-foot long replica of a 1940s locomotive, dangling from a towering 160-foot crane–which LACMA may install later, depending on the results of a feasibility study. The new museum building itself is designed as a framework for the installation of artist-designed banners, the first of which will be designed by–who else?–L.A. conceptual imp king John Baldessari.

With the new BCAM at the heart of LACMA’s new Transformation, both thematically and physically, with Eli Broad at the helm of the project, and his name on the museum, it is only natural that Broad’s tenth-hour decision to withhold ownership rights of the works from his two great collections would generate flak. A billionaire businessman who made his fortune as the founder of SunAmerica and KB Home, Broad is a man with a knack for making things happen, but also for doing things his own way. If any one person can be called responsible for pushing L.A. to embrace its stature as an art capital in recent decades, it is he.

The founding chairman of MOCA, the man who doggedly spearheaded the campaign to conjure the pipe dream of Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall into reality, he has also built, with wife Edye, over the course of four decades, two of the most substantial collections of modern and contemporary art in America. The combined collection is notable not just for quantity, but for its focus. As Zelevansky observes, “It’s very unusual collection in the way it is made, in its depth. Eli and Edye make a commitment to a particular artist, and they maintain that commitment throughout their career.”

The Broad Art Foundation is the larger of the two, including over 1500 works of contemporary art. The collection is also unusual in its mission statement: conceived of as a lending library to other artistic institutions, the Foundation has lent out over 7000 works to some 400 museums and galleries since its inception. The “Family Collection,” as it is called, consists of over 400 post-war Modern masterworks by such artists as Warhol, Lichtenstein, and the artist who’s become its poster boy, Jeff Koons. Taken together, their value would dwarf that of the new museum, which is surely part of LACMA’s frustration. (The two collections, both of which will be seen at LACMA, will eventually be merged.) The deal that brings these works to LACMA, then, in a semi-anxious state of semi-permanent loan, is if anything a continuation of the vision Broad has been enunciating for decades, and was evidently loathe to end. The problem was thus partly one of hubris and one of timing. Had Broad announced from Day One his intention to keep his works as a separate lending library, but establish a binding partnership with LACMA for their ongoing display, the emphasis in the press may well have been on the unusual template he was establishing. But by putting his name and imprimatur on the new museum–apparently he worked closely with Piano on its design–then waiting until it was nearly complete to make his decision, he ultimately left LACMA with no choice but to accede to his will.

Just the same, the trustees at LACMA are gamely interpreting the change as one more welcome, if unexpected, step on the long road to renewal. “Whether you call it a wing, gallery, center, pavilion… calling something ‘museum’ in our context not that big a deal to us,” states Kanschat firmly. “We will also be able to use the galleries for our permanent collection and for special exhibitions. It’s really a permanent loan,” she adds. “From our point of view, what a wonderful relationship! When they’re not on view, we don’t have to store the works; it’s as if we have a special library card.”

“It’s been an option on the table for a very, very long time,” explains Joanne Heyler, the curator of the Broad Art Foundation, of the arrangement. “There was an expectation that there’s only one way to have a collection serve the public good, which is an outright donation,” she adds. “But Eli’s never been one to do things the traditional or expected way. As people see how the building is used in the coming years, they will see much more clearly how it serves LACMA rather than serves Eli.” As such, storage, maintenance, conservation, documentation, and transportation costs of the artworks will continue to be borne by the Foundation, which will work closely with LACMA. Adds Heyler in summary: “It’s a long-term partnership between two institutions.”

For now, other prominent collectors have been stepping forward to fill the expectation gap. In January, shortly after the terms of the Broad deal were made public, LACMA unveiled another treasure trove of Modern masterpieces, the Lazarof Collection, featuring works by Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, Giacometti, and other mid-century All-Stars, worth $100 million. Also revealed recently was a $10 million gift from collectors Jane and Marc Nathanson, to go toward buying contemporary art.

But as vital as BCAM is in establishing LACMA as a mecca for modern and contemporary art, no less significant is the way Phase I reorders LACMA’s campus. Establishing a new east-west corridor running through the Ahmanson Building, the plan shifts the center of the campus westward to the plaza behind BCAM; eventually, this area will contain the ticket office. And with modern art given its new showcase, LACMA is now able to reinvigorate its other galleries, which are equally part of its mandate. “It was a commitment to planning more space for all of our collection,” explains Kanschat. “We started with contemporary, but that led to expanding the art of the Americas, European, Asian… Shifting that work out to a new building freed up more space, allowing another domino to fall.” Phase II will include the restoration of the old May Co. Building known as LACMA West. And after that? says Kanschat, “As we look to Phase III, that may move to an overhaul of the old buildings, to make the most of the resources we already have, to keep as much on view and open to the public as possible.”

Given the vast jumble of its campus, perhaps LACMA’s greatest accomplishment has been embracing its own fragmented image. Indeed, LACMA’s Transformation might be best thought of as an ongoing process of organic growth and reinvention, without any clear endpoint: like that of its sprawling collection, or the fractured metropolis it calls home. And to judge from the shiny red Jeff Koons egg it is using as a logo, that evolution may still be in its early stages. “I love that metaphor for an encyclopedic museum,” says Kanschat. “It’s always changing, always growing, always evolving.I think that’s true of society as well,” she adds.