Three billionaires walk into an LA Art Museum…

 

Abu Dhabi's 450,000 sq. ft. Guggenheim museum opens in 2013

 

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.

 

The recently opened Centre Pompidou Metz

 

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.

Deitch says:

“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.

 

Shenzhen MoCA, designed by Coop Himmelblau, 30,000 sq. meters

 

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.

 

Praemium Imperiale Nuragic Contemporary Art Museum Cagliari, Italy

 

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.

 

Amsterdam FIlm Museum

 

 

Charlie Chaplin image projection - Amsterdam FIlm Museum

 

delugan14kl.jpg (545×357)

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.

 

Cold War photomontage: Soviet Space. (2009) by Vincent Johnson

 

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

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9 thoughts on “Three billionaires walk into an LA Art Museum…

  1. Pingback: Three billionaires walk into an LA Art Museum… « fireplace chats | Artist News

  2. California Plaza on Bunker Hill may not have gotten the Dance Gallery — a dream of Bella Lewitzky — but it did get the Colburn School of the Performing Arts. And, hopefully, the new Broad Museum will be built across the street from it and MOCA.

    • You are absolutely correct about the Dance Gallery and the Colburn School. I’m glad to see that someone both remembers and cares about the proposed Dance Gallery’s history. And yes, hopefully the Broad museum will open across from MoCA, and the entrance to MoCA Grand Ave. will be reconfigured, as I’ve heard architect Peter Zellner talk about. And yes I hope that MoCA will finally get the building that Los Angeles deserves for having become a major center for the production of art, as versus the work being made here and being showcased and sold everywhere but here.

  3. I guess my original comment was incorrect, in that, yes, California Plaza did not get a cultural component above and beyond MOCA. The Colburn School actually is north of Cal Plaza, so it really has nothing to do with the city-owned properties that were turned over to the developer of that complex. Colburn was a separate part of the rebuilding of Bunker Hill.

    And, Vincent, I agree with everything in your essay. However, when I find myself becoming impatient with the status quo of the city’s cultural scene, I think back to the way things were 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago, etc. It’s hard to think of the community lacking the various pieces of its cultural maturity that I now take for granted, including the Getty Museum, Disney Concert Hall, Norton Simon, and a LACMA well past the sparseness and immaturity that it opened with over 45 years ago.

    For that matter, things like the renovated and expanded Griffith Park Observatory are so much more complete and advanced than what we in LA were accustomed to (and accepting of) decades ago. (I won’t even mention that our major universities such as UCLA and USC weren’t even ranked in the top 30 or 40, or 50 not that long ago!)

    And the area where the monthly Art Walk now takes place, warts and all (referring to crowds of people more into partying and drinking than looking at art)? Originally not much more than a nightmarish environment that even a jaded New Yorker, hardened Detroiter, or cynical Clevelander or Philadelphian would have written off as depressing and unnerving.

    • Jenny,

      I am truly appreciative of all of the positive that has transpired in LA culturally. I grew up in Cleveland, where as a boy I would walk to the Cleveland Museum of Art, which was free. It is that museum that allowed me to aspire to be an artist, well before I knew of the existence of this thing called the Artworld. The other cultural treasure in Cleveland back then was the Cleveland Public Library. It was and is an open stack system, meaning that the entire collection is right there on a shelves, with only rare artifacts locked behind glass. The Newspaper Reading room was and is simply magisterial. As a boy I would spend hours there reading the worlds different newspapers. This is where I first began to have a real sense of the much larger world I was living in, and even gain tremendous perspective on many different areas of life. I remember reading the wedding announcements of the New York Times, and being amazed by the credentials of the persons mentioned. This became my own guidepost too as far as reaching for the stars as far as my own education occurred. So I would later find myself in the Art History department of Case Western Reserve. I was then also (and still am) drawn to architecture, and considered going to Cornell for that. Instead I transferred to the painting department at Pratt Institute and lived in Brooklyn when you had to travel to Manhattan to buy the New York Times, which would often be resting atop a public refuse container, fresh and unsullied, so I would take it home to read. I was in New York during the early 1980s. It was an astonishing time, as the artworld was in Soho, and literally thousands of people would come to the openings on West Broadway, where the Leo Castelli and Mary Boone galleries were the sensations of the times. Cal Arts and the Whitney Program were the most talked about schools. Artists Space and P.S.1. had the power that contemporary art museums in New York (and LA) have today.

      My larger point is that LA is not seizing the moment. There is no television coverage of the arts here, or of the LA artworld at all. This is astounding to me, as LA is well known to be one of the primary centers of art production in the world, and has been viewed as such for well over a decade now. The LA Times ignored the Whitney Biennial, when there were a record 25 LA artists in the WB a few years ago. I look at cities like London and New York and see daily arts coverage, even daily televised restaurant coverage, at the level in which a true world-class city should be operating. The phenomena of LA coming into the artworld as only the second U.S. city in this country’s history, to be a fully part of the international cultural dialog, is not, as I said, being met locally with the same zeal it is internationally.

      Democracy Now comes on television in New York every morning at 7AM. There are cultural scholars on TV at that early hour as well having debates. I know how far LA has come, and how far America has come, but it has to come much, much further. Without getting into the numbers, I know that in Germany that there is a national program of state funded kunsthalles, that exhibit art in cities and towns and the Berlin metropolis, and that alone provides for a powerful tool for exhibition nationally, as it is important to show in any of them. This is much different than the artist-run-spaces that Canada funds for lack of an art market. Germany has both a tremendous art market, but also exerts its nationalism through such events as Documenta. The same holds for the Italians and the Venice Biennale. The issue is not merely nationalistic pride. These are the real seminal events of the international artworld, and LA has become a real part of these events, while locally there is this unconsciousness to this reality.
      I understand how it works here. Those with the means to travel do so, go to Europe or even to Texas to see art, enjoy culture. Those persons then have a completely different intellectual life that what is available to everyone here locally. Movie stars send their children to school in London. Yet in New York, Robert di Nero has made such a personal financial investment in Tribeca, that he caused it to transform from a frightening placed (like downtown LA was) to one of the coolest hoods in New York. And he didn’t stop there. The Tribeca Film Festival exists because of him. So this is also what I’m talking about, which is the disinterest in what is here because it is not at a certain level, but then not personally doing something that is trans-formative right in Los Angeles. What I speak of is clearly in evidence in San Francisco. Take the Blue Bottle coffee cafe in the Mint, in downtown. The place looks like post-modern fantasy of a coffee bar, but the prices are not much beyond Starbucks. And it is one of the three best coffees and coffee bars in the country, along with Four Barrel cafe and coffee in SF, and Stumptown in Portland, Amsterdam, and at the Ace Hotel in NYC. Those places are cultural gifts to those cities.

      I can go on forever about this. We’re off to SF soon. Check out my Notes on the meeting about the LA artworld post on this blog

  4. Pingback: 3 billionaires | Minervacreations

  5. This review is overly pessimistic. The fact that so many NY-ers are leading LA institutions is not something to be ashamed of. Jeffrey Deitch and Michael Govan are huge players in the art world and it’s should be a point of pride that LA institutions were able to lead them away from NY because now the city has boundless cultural opportunities. MOCA could always have a better building, but their permanent collection is without peer in California, including that of SFMoma. You mention the state of LA’s opera, but not the LA Phil whom are enjoying stratospheric popularity in reputation and attendance. You mention LACMA’s struggling film program but not it’s doubling endowment and ambitious completed expansions. Then there’s the Hammer museum which has become a star in it’s own right. The Norton Simon, of course, is the constant of world class art.

    The Getty is a mess, but even they have been making great acquisitions in the past few years. They should do better. But still, the showcases for art in LA are in a better state today than they were 20 years ago and it’s growth as a cultural destination is the most remarkable of any other city.

    Attendance for LA museums are low, but not because Angelenos are not going. An LA Times article reported that a heavy percentage of attendance for LA museums are local as opposed to NY and SF which is more heavily skewed by international tourism. In other words, the people in LA are taking advantage of what the city can offer, yet outsiders are still in the dark.

    • Los Angeles does have more than it had 20 years ago, more than it had even five years ago by a wide margin, from culture to quality restaurants and bars. It might even get on the international exhibition travel circuit. It might even one day have international performing arts festivals that are standard fare in international cities. SFMoMA’s collection is 4 times the size of MoCA’s and will be larger when its new addition opens, for which they were able to raise $550 million dollars. In the US, I travel to SF, Chicago, NYC, Texas and Miami Basel to see contemporary art and know that there is no Art Institute of Chicago (which I understand has one of the top five Modern and Contemporary collections in the world) in California. Outside of the US, my point of perspective is London and Paris. I once asked a curator here that if she could go anywhere in California for a year, but could not travel outside of the state, how would she feel about this? What has improved for me most here of late in LA is in concert dance/experimental dance theater offerings. I went to each of the Wooster Group different Redcat performances, as well as Beijing/LTDX at Cal State LA and many other exceptional performances. The most important private contemporary art collections in the US that are not in New York are in San Francisco. I was just in London – the city that I would say that has the most dramatic cultural transformation in the Western world in the past 2 decades. London has become one of two most important Western world art markets as well as being a top center for the production of contemporary art. And it has massive extraordinary venues galore and remarkable media coverage of its cultural events – including public articles written by world class scholars – something that does not often happen in LA. (PSTime did get plenty of LATimes coverage, never seen this in LA ever in the past.) I saw the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Tate and Mary Corse’s work at the new White Cube Bermondsey. In LA, Pacific Standard Time has been phenomenal. I checked out the Light and Space work in San Diego/La Jolla, and many of the museum shows in LA. The most well attended show at MoCA was the Art in the Streets show? The Wynwood Walls in Miami, where dozens of international street artists have their works on display, seems the much more appropriate venue. Or the Society of Illustrators.

      As far as pessimism, it is my experience that vigorous critical inquiry and criticism – as versus California Boosterism – is what will cause the changes that I dream of happening here. Meanwhile I will continue to fill my calendar with the best offerings available to me, and not wait for Los Angeles to be completely transformed. LA has a huge tourist base but those tourists do not have many LA’s cultural institutions in their plans. Build it to where it matters and they will come. Its why the Tate Modern with its phenomenal programming has 5 million visitors without even a shadow of MoMA’s or the Pompidou’s collections. Its why Govan is having architect Peter Zumthor envision a new LACMA.

      Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles

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