With the exception of the Getty Museum, which transformed an oil trust gift into as much as 7 billion dollars at the height of its investment value, Los Angeles’ art museums have been as underfunded as LA’s other cultural institutions for decades. Now with the arrival of truly deep pocket billionaire power players on LACMA and LA MoCA’s museum boards, the LA culture front is about to dramatically change into a true global leader. The fact that LACMA has existed for decades as a publicly funded entity of the region – thus its name Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA, born in 1965) and the fact that LA MoCA on Grand Avenue exists only because a one percent for art tax was applied to the California Plaza towers on Grand Avenue (the one percent being 20 million dollars) testifies to this. The LA MoCA building in Little Toyko has lived its entire 2 decade plus existence with a 3 minute roof. For years it would have to go dark for months at a time. So even though the terrible wish to have a major contemporary art museum in LA was present at least as far back as 1979, the principal benefactors of LA MoCA did not personally endow the museum enough to build a free-standing cultural institution anywhere in Los Angeles, but did find the means to piggyback its designs upon the then 2 billion dollar plus California Plaza twin towers development. LA MoCA’s newest board members, which number 15 at the moment since 2009, will with the generosity of all on board, led by Jeffrey Deitch and his global reach, finally get LA MoCA the building, audience and recognition it deserves. LA wants to be a global cultural powerhouse, but despite there being over 180,000 millionaires in the region, the LA MoCA and LACMA attendance figures do not come close to matching the 2 million people who leave LA every holiday to enjoy themselves in Las Vegas, San Francisco, San Diego and destinations around the world. For decades it has been the case that the international museum shows have bypassed Los Angeles. Michael Govan at LACMA has said this will change with the arrival of the Resnick pavilion in 2010. Govan also said that building LACMA’s collections into those of a world-class museum will take decades.
Part of the LA artworld was upset and acted as if it had been defiled when it was told that the Deitch circus will take over LA MoCA’s holier-than-thou financially naked exhibition program. Yet on Sunday mornings in LA, we culturally interested persons in Los Angeles receive our LA culture advertisement flyers, pamphlets and posters in the New York Times. These materials are not delivered by LA’s most prominent published news organ. The Los Angeles Times is perceived locally as the unwashed lower order, as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are at the level that upscale Los Angeles has aligned itself. This is despite the fact that more than one LATimes Pulitzer award-winning (or Pulitzer finalist) culture writer was absorbed into the NYTimes in recent years, including the former LA Times film critic Manohla Dargas and the former LATimes architecture critic Nicholas Ouroussoff. Dargas still resides in Los Angeles.
The Deitch story received more concentrated and in-depth press coverage from New York than any exhibition or event at MoCA in its entire history. In fact that coverage dwarfs anything that has ever happened at any LA museum or cultural institution. Only the nearly 15 year-long Disney Concert Hall building saga (which the NY culture press embarrassed the LATimes into finally completing), and the Getty Museum debacles (including persons not qualified as curators who were making museum purchases) as reported by Thomas Hoving in the 1980’s, have received as much press. Of all the carpet-bombing degree of press coverage of Deitch’s hiring, for me one statement by Deitch stands out as to the exact degree to which he will connect Los Angeles to the international culture world.
“I’ve been thinking about an industrial-type building in L.A., unlike a residence anyone has seen, where people would drop by . . . I want to bring all my experience, all my contacts, all my resources together and make it all work to support what I’m doing at MOCA. (Los Angeles Times)
I spoke to an artist and writer friend here in LA about this statement. We both agreed that it was of major importance, but were concerned that it would turn into the most exclusive and private Los Angeles art salon. LA doesn’t need more private art salons, it needs more public engagement. An example of such is what the LA collector Shirley Morales is doing with her new Ltd. Los Angeles gallery space on Sunset Boulevard. Ltd’s program already is going to be one of the hottest of the year 2010 in Los Angeles. This summer it will recreate the major rock club in the real space of the original club, as an art project, which is Ltd. Los Angeles’s exhibition space. This public engagement is also being given form by LAXART and ForYourArt. I was privileged to be invited to the salon series that launched the public art programs of West of Rome and of Shamin Momin’s L.A.N.D. and I also attended the salons led by LA architect Michael Rotundi at Eugenia Butler’s home several years ago in LA. Her mother, also named Eugenia Butler, had one of LA’s top galleries in the 1960’s, and also held a salon at her home for European Conceptual Artists of the era.
We know that over the past two years, LA MoCA almost died and was rallied around by hundreds of artworld friends. LA MoCA was offered to be absorbed into LACMA by that museum. It was given $30 million by Eli Broad, who also paid for UCLA’s new art school building and the new Broad Stage at the Santa Monica Community College.
LA MoCA has had a tremendous run of spectacular exhibitions in its history, despite running on fumes in recent times. It’s boosterism says it has a collection of over 6,000 works of art. Yet if I am not mistaken, the Rubell Family Collection in Miami also has over 6,000 works. From my experiences in Miami during Art Basel, their collection, which showcases their previous year’s purchases during the current year’s Art Basel, not only was often the sensation show of the entire Miami Basel viewing experience, but dictated by what they had purchased, who the hot artists were of the moment. So if the Rubell Family Collection, which was put together by a single family in Miami and New York City, can create and shift taste during the most important art event on the North American continent, and have a 45,000 square feet exhibition space, in 27 galleries, with a 30,000 volume art library open to the public for research, what does this say about the entire cumulative efforts of the entire LA artworld to create a robust international cultural showcase in LA? By comparison, SFMoMA has doubled its collection in the last 15 years to over 27,000 works; they are fundraising for half a billion dollars, much of which will go to their 150,000 square foot addition that will house their billion dollar art gift from the owners of The Gap jeans company, the Fishers, of San Francisco. We got to see their blowout 75th anniversary show earlier this year, while they also had the Luc Tuymans retrospective, which did not travel to Los Angeles. We are going back to see the Fisher collection, the paintings on loan from the Musee D’Orsay to the De Young Museum, and the 300,000 square foot renovated Oakland Museum.
I also need to point out that when the Getty Museum was being planned, I was living in Chicago, having just left NYC . I had intentions of moving to LA and did so because of the several new cultural projects being discussed during the 1980’s. The Getty Center said it would be building a pavilion for international museum shows, a world-class art bookstore, and more. It did none of those things with its several billion dollars, leaving local art lovers no choice but to maintain that LAX Airport and the 5 freeway to San Francisco are LA’s most important connections to the larger and far more well off self-contained artworlds in Europe, New York, and Asia and even Brazil and Mexico City. The Getty could have transformed Los Angeles by collecting contemporary art and opening a massive structure called the Getty Contemporary. It could have filled the several holes in the LA culture scene, from paying for Modern Opera to come to LA, to helping the LA Opera finally build a free-standing opera house, to having a world-class cinema showcase, to sponsoring a major international contemporary art show in the countless empty warehouses in this city. If LA’s museums do not become more capable of collecting the art made in Los Angeles, it will become as dispersed and only able to be seen elsewhere. This is unlike the Pompidou, whose phenomenal 300,000 square foot 5 floor showcase envelops and displays not just the first tier known works of Modernism, but it also exhibits the major contributions of lesser known but well deserving artists who were more than a small part of the Paris artworld since the end of the 19th century. It has already been the case for at least a decade, since several LA artists came to world prominence, that these artists had no commercial gallery exhibitions in Los Angeles. This year of 2010 has been groundbreaking in this regard, as Mike Kelly has a massive installation via West of Rome, at his enormous Farley building (former storage facility) in Eagle Rock. Tim Hawkinson has a show at Blum&Poe in its new 21,000 square foot gallery building. He hasn’t shown commercially in LA in a decade, as hasn’t Paul McCarthy, who will debut the opening of the New York powerhouse L&M Arts gallery in Venice. Their gallery is being purpose-built from the ground up, which is highly unusual because most LA galleries are born of renovations.
Lastly, note that major players from the New York artworld are now in control of all three of LA’s leading museums. Michael Govan, formerly of DIA Chelsea and DIA Beacon, NY, is the head of LACMA. Ann Philbin, from the Drawing Center in New York, is the head of The UCLA Hammer Museum. Jeffrey Deitch, formerly of Deitch Projects New York, which sponsored an erotic art parade to launch the New York artworld’s fall season in recent years, is the head of LA MoCA. If this does not represent a reality check for Los Angeles, and a capitulation to that reality, that there are not enough interested persons here with the means to transform LA into what it dreams of being, what can I say? LA dreams of getting events such as Art Basel Miami Beach to come to Los Angeles and fight the sprawling traffic nightmare of the century and like it. LA isn’t at the level of San Francisco in terms of cultural apparatus – SF Opera is the second most important opera house in the country. SF is also building a freestanding 30 million dollar jazz showcase. SFMoMA is the most important Art Museum in California, period. Like SF, The Vegas Strip has a phenomenal dining scene and everyone in LA wants to celebrate their birthday in an only-in-Vegas stellar ultralounge or nightclub. For San Francisco’s presentation of the Ring Cycle, ticket purchases are first based upon prior donations to SF Opera. LA meanwhile has miscalculated its number of ticket sales of its Ring Cycle, which was supposed to propel LA into some fantasy space of cultural superiority. Meanwhile the NYC and SF Operas are planning mind-blowing versions of the Ring Cycle in 2011. The most important flagship grade upscale shopping on the West Coast is on the Las Vegas Strip. So it isn’t like Los Angles has been just cruising along as leader of the pack in the West in these important areas. Only in the past few years have relevant lounges, cocktail bars, and clubs opened here that would be news in SF or Vegas. Time to grow up, whether LA wants to or not, as New York City is here and has taken control of the vehicle. The question will now be is this transformation and transition about New York extending itself into the semi-arid desert, into the “sand states,” of which Southern California is part, or will it be about the elevation of Los Angeles for LA culture’s sake.
In the past there have been several major projects planned for LA that never came to fruition. The Steel Cloud, which was to overhang the Los Angeles freeway system as it came into downtown, was one of the first in the 1980’s. It was to have a musical forest, whereby live video footage would be shown on huge screens over the freeway, of persons living and loving and working and being in Los Angeles. The project was trying to connect LA freeway culture to LA street life. Then there was the Dance Gallery, that was supposed to be the second major venue for the arts on the Grand Avenue corridor. This venue was to be the most advanced showcase for concert dance in the world. It was to have a dance library and a dancer’s medical facility. Another LA, what’s-in-that- pipe-you’re-smoking, dream that received major press coverage back East during the 1980’s, and like the other major cultural institutions announced in LA during the mid-1980’s, was the American Cinemateque. This was to be a 20 million dollar showcase in Hollywood. It was to have a black box theater and real-time translation. It too never saw the light of day here. This despite their being at the time 40 such venues around the world, including a multi-screen international cinema showcase in Mexico City. The much more recently announced dream (November 8, 2007, Variety magazine) of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences building is the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, in Hollywood, to be designed by Christian de Portzamparc. This will happen whenever Hollywood raises the 200 million dollars for the building.
The Amsterdam Film museum, river view
From the LA film museum’s press release:
“We’ve chosen a site just south of the Sunset and Vine intersection, and will aim to develop two contiguous blocks into an eight-acre museum campus. This location is bounded by Fountain to the south, Delongpre to the north, Vine to the east, and Cahuenga / Ivar to the west.”
I also remember UCLA’s Film Archives saying that they were going to showcase their program in a new venue possibly on Wilshire Boulevard. That was planned to be the equal of the film program at MoMA. Just this past week MoMA announced it was bringing its 3rd most well attended exhibition, the Tim Burton retrospective, to LACMA. LACMA then said they weren’t sure if the film program component of the exhibition would be coming to LA, where Burton works, where Hollywood is located. During this same week LACMA has said it might still have to drop its own film program for lack of funds and audience. The MoMA Tim Burton retrospective drew an audience of over 850,000 visitors in a 5 month span. The MoMA in Berlin, Germany show had 1.2 milion visitors and sold over 182,000 catalogs during its 7 month run. In 2009 total visitors for LACMA was 695,545. During that same year LA MoCA had a total of 148,616 visitors. The Tate Modern had 4,747,55 visitors. MoMA had 2,672,271 visitors. The Centre Pompidou had 3,533,000 visitors. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston had 1,274,774 visitors. SFMoMA had 703,520 visitors. In other words, there is a hell of a lot of work to do to bring LA up to speed.
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles