For centuries, museums were ornate, imposing castles — Beaux Arts reimaginings of Greek temples. The marble-clad Los Angeles County Museum of Art, built in the mid-20th century, was a sleeker but still opaque version.
LACMA’s new building, which officials hope to open in 2023, reflects a dramatic shift in how museums present themselves to the public. Designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, the building will open itself up with glass walls and embrace the neighborhood by extending itself over Wilshire Boulevard.
Much as the new museum will look outward, so the collection will as well. The museum’s 125,000 art objects will literally go out into the world, as galleries are emptied in preparation for the demolition of four LACMA buildings before construction on the new museum building can start. Some pieces will go on exhibit in other museums in the U.S and overseas. But the necessity of relocating art right now dovetails with an ambitious goal of museum Director Michael Govan — to set up two permanent satellite locations of LACMA in South Los Angeles.
The idea, partially, stems from Govan’s rethinking of what a 21st century museum should look and be like in a vast county where numerous communities — parts of South L.A., the San Fernando Valley and Lancaster, for example — are miles from LACMA or any other significant museum. As LACMA’s collection grows and requires more room, what if the next couple of hundred thousand square feet of museum space were spread over half a dozen locations? Govan suggests starting that process right now.
This is also part of an effort to reach more people with diverse ethnic backgrounds and income levels who may have stayed away from the Mid-Wilshire castle of art. Like numerous other museums, LACMA has tackled the issue of attracting more nonwhite and lower-income visitors in a variety of ways. For years, the museum has had programs that bring schoolchildren into the museum and the museum to schoolchildren. At Charles White Elementary School, for example, LACMA exhibits work in a gallery and brings in contemporary artists who make art with students.
Setting up satellite museum campuses in underserved areas could serve as the ultimate outreach effort. One proposal is to construct a museum building in the 120-acre Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook, which is already slated for extensive renovation. Another is to use an existing building in the Wetlands Park recreation area in South Los Angeles. Both sites have the strong support of local elected officials — L.A. City Councilmember Curren Price, whose district includes the Wetlands Park location, and L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who suggested the Magic Johnson site to Govan.
This is a costly undertaking — about $30 million would be needed at either location — at a time when Govan hasn’t yet finished raising the last $100 million of what he needs to build the $650-million new LACMA building on Wilshire. He’s confident that he can raise it all, noting that the satellite campus project and the Zumthor project draw different donors. For starters, he has already secured a $2.5-million grant from the Ford Foundation for the satellite campuses.
There are plenty of questions still to be answered: How do you decide what art is displayed there? How does the community play a role in the programming? But this is a creative and intriguing project that deserves support. It’s an outside-the-cultural-center-box idea. LACMA, in particular, serves a unique and difficult role in Los Angeles County. It gets 42% of its operating expenses from the county government and will get $125 million in taxpayer dollars toward the construction of the new museum. It has a mandate to provide great art and education to the entire county. Certainly it does that in its structure on Wilshire — and its first priority should always be to maintain itself as a great encyclopedic museum, one of the last of its kind to be built in the U.S.