ARTS & CULTURE

Plans for a new LACMA seem to be aligning, but first some questions

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic
County supervisors pledge funds. A major collection is promised. Good news toward a new LACMA. Still ...

Barely two weeks ago, the ambitious plan to build a new, 400,000-square-foot, energy-friendly building for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art at a heady cost of more than $600 million seemed a long shot.

Then, suddenly, it didn't. Everything changed.

First, local politicians got on board in a big way. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors pledged on Nov. 5 to put $125 million in taxpayer funds behind the deal. The supes further planned to issue a $300-million bond on behalf of LACMA to complete construction, as soon as the museum raised $175 million in private funds.

The next day, a reclusive Angeleno upped the private ante. Media mogul (and controversial conservative political donor) A. JerroldPerenchio, 83, stepped before the cameras to pledge his collection of nearly 50 paintings, drawings and sculptures. With works by Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Pissarro, Caillebotte and others, it is strongest in the popular field of late 19th century French art — a notable weakness in LACMA's permanent collection.

The art pledge came with at least one major string attached: The new building must be built. If it isn't, Perenchio can withdraw his pledge.

The timing of these announcements was at least partly driven by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which the next day broke ground on the first phase of the Purple Line subway extension. A subway stop will arrive at LACMA's front door, where the groundbreaking took place.

The quick turnaround in the museum project's fortunes was enough to make your head spin. It's encouraging — and worrisome too. Certain crucial issues remain to be sorted out.

The building project is no small thing. It calls for demolition of the museum's three original pavilions and their vast basement podium, which are crumbling and would require more than $300 million just to repair. An ugly fourth pavilion added in 1985 will also be torn down.

A new, two-level structure by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor will span Wilshire Boulevard, raised above the street on four or five massive supports. (Still in an early design phase, completion is targeted for 2023.) The total expenditure of at least $1,500 per square foot to get a new museum far outstrips anything LACMA — and most every other American art museum — has managed before.

For all that, it adds only a modest 40,000 square feet of new exhibition space — roughly the size of LACMA's Resnick Pavilion. Is growing existing gallery space by one-third enough? Zumthor's undulating design won't allow for expansion down the road.

The unexpected announcement of a public-private partnership to make it happen was a brilliantly orchestrated one-two punch. It knocked down some doubts about so grand — and even grandiose — a scheme.

One was that LACMA would do better to spend all that money on art, not on bricks and mortar. The Perenchio pledge mostly neutralized that.

Museum officials claim that the collection is worth $500 million. Even in today's overheated art market, the number is aggressively optimistic. (For an art museum it is also pretty much beside the point, since monetary value is not the same as artistic worth.) But the sum sidled up to the new building's cost: Buy one, get one free.

To switch metaphors, the collection carrot also came with a mighty stick. If the museum fails to erect the new building and the Perenchio pledge is withdrawn, the public humiliation might be more than LACMA could bear.

This is no idle concern. Thirteen years ago, in 2001, LACMA tried a similar scheme but spectacularly failed to achieve it.

Billionaire philanthropist and art collector Eli Broad fronted a widely publicized bid to raise a single new pavilion on the ashes of the old in a bold design by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. But confidence about sufficient funding failed to materialize. A year later, that $400-million plan was scrapped.

Perenchio had a ringside seat at the first fiasco. Andrea Rich, the late LACMA director at the helm during the Koolhaas proposal, was the ex-wife of television director John Rich, an Emmy-winner for "All in the Family." The landmark 1970s sitcom came from one of Perenchio's production companies.

Surely the collector knows how brutal a repetition of the earlier building failure would be. First time, tragedy; second time, farce.

Perenchio, a billionaire with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $2.7 billion, is already a sizable donor to the museum. His Chartwell Charitable Foundation has given at least $400,000 since 2012. He would likely contribute to the building fund.

And he is intimately aware of at least one other LACMA pledge that turned to dust.

A painting in Perenchio's collection — a showy Monet floral still life — hung in the museum in the late 1980s, on loan from Hollywood producer Hal Wallis. When Wallis died, it was sold by his heirs. LACMA, believing the producer had pledged the painting to the museum, mounted a legal challenge but lost. Now the Monet has been pledged again.

LACMA Director Michael Govan, reached by telephone in Mexico City, said that a written agreement stipulated completion of the new building for the art gift to be made. When asked whether the deal included any other provisions — especially any related to the art's display — Govan declined to answer. The document is private.

The display issue is crucial. Other pledges have foundered over donors' demands — usually to keep their art displayed separately, rather than integrated into the museum's collection. But LACMA's mission is to tell the story of art, not the story of collectors.

That account is important but secondary. The collector's story is appropriately accommodated by a temporary exhibition and book. Emblematic is the marvelous collection that Janice and Henri Lazarof donated to LACMA six years ago.

The Lazarof gift was transformational. Not only did it add remarkable depth and breadth to the museum's fine but modest holdings in Modern art, it no doubt served as a catalyst for subsequent pledges like Perenchio's. Strength attracts strength. The 130 works by Degas, Pissarro, Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Klee, Giacometti and other European artists are not restricted in how individual works may be shown.

The other issue of concern now is the project's clever financing. Call it Adventures in Creative Fundraising.

When the museum turns 50 next year, a capital campaign will get underway to help secure its institutional future. In addition to an effort to acquire gifts of art — "50 masterpieces for 50 years" is the working tag line — fundraising for the new building will begin in earnest.

The county deal is a type of debt financing, which breaks down the big overall cost into smaller, more manageable pieces spread over time.

The county has lent $7.5 million for planning, design and environmental studies, which LACMA must repay. Then, the museum will have about five years to raise its $175 million; that triggers the county-backed bond for the remaining $300 million, which matures in about 30 years. LACMA must service the annual bond debt — currently it's estimated at $18 million — plus repay the bond.

Added up, the numbers are big. Broken down over time, however, the project certainly seems doable.

The hitch is this: Every dollar raised is a dollar that cannot be spent on another pressing museum need or fervent desire. LACMA will be committing a very large portion of its annual fundraising power to the project. And the commitment will last well more than a generation, long after the current players are gone.

That's a lot to ask, especially when the building design and the Perenchio gift remain somewhat unknown quantities. Momentum has certainly revved, but LACMA has embarked on a nerve-racking escapade that leaves many questions as yet unanswered.

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