The Lannan Foundation has gone public.
Formerly known mainly in art and literary circles as a $100-million foundation that quietly spends about $5 million annually in support of contemporary art and writing, Lannan will soon be recognized by a larger audience as a place to see the best of contemporary art. An elegant new exhibition space opens today at the foundation's headquarters in Marina del Rey with a politically charged show of paintings by German artist Gerhard Richter and a captivating outdoor installation by New York sculptor Tom Otterness.
The Lannan Foundation has taken over a former air systems assembly plant, at 5401 McConnell Ave. (one block north of Jefferson Boulevard) in a well groomed industrial area of Marina del Rey. The two-story building--originally designed by Los Angeles architect William Kriesel and now remodeled by Kriesel with the help of Miami architect Mark Hampton--includes 4,500 square feet of indoor gallery space and a 3,000-square-foot, walled garden for sculpture. Free exhibitions are open Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Most future shows will feature works from the foundation's own collection, established by the late financier and collector J. Patrick Lannan, but the inaugural exhibitions are loans. One of the shows, Richter's critically acclaimed suite of paintings called "18. Oktober 1977," was deemed so urgently deserving of a West Coast venue that the foundation rushed its remodeling project and opened the galleries several months ahead of schedule in order to book the show.
"These are some of the best paintings I've seen in 10 years," said Lisa Lyons, the foundation's director of art programs, as she surveyed 15 black and white paintings based on the imprisonment and death of leaders of the German terrorist Red Army Faction group known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. "I've noticed that there's a lot of chatter in the galleries where photographs and documentation of the gang are displayed, but when people see the paintings, there is total silence. These paintings are just overwhelming."
Formed during the student anti-Vietnam War movement in West Berlin, the leftist Baader-Meinhof group wanted nothing less than to overthrow capitalism. Gang members perpetrated violent crimes during the 1970s and some of them were caught and imprisoned. Richter's chilling paintings, mostly based on press photographs, are named for the date when three gang members were found dead in their cells at Stuttgart's Stammheim Prison. Though the deaths were officially declared suicide, the affair is still a matter of intense debate in Germany.
Lyons said she learned that the St. Louis Art Museum was organizing a traveling exhibition of Richter's paintings when the museum asked the foundation for financial support. Lannan not only provided a grant but a showcase. After leaving Los Angeles, on Sept. 1, the paintings will be loaned for 10 years to the new Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt.
Lannan's ability to grab the Richter show during the only period when it was available provides an example of how foundations can respond quickly to opportunities, in contrast to museums that are booked up years in advance, Lyons said. Another function of the foundation will be to exhibit art that is deemed too political or controversial to attract corporate sponsors, as well as unwieldly work that is extremely difficult to display.
Take Tom Otterness's 40-foot-long, 4-ton work, "The Tables," installed in the foundation's garden. The piece is composed of three Cor-Ten steel picnic tables that are covered with a fantastic array of miniature people, animals and monsters. One table represents "Nature," the second addresses "Urban Reality" and the third offers a view of "Industry." Meant to portray human follies and absurdities through the ages, the apocalyptic table-top scenes offer such horrific delights as a "whale bomb" that threatens an agrarian community, a "Humpty Dumpty/Nero" who fiddles while his house is undermined, and a voracious family of spiders who are about to consume a military-industrial complex. Visitors are invited to sit on benches attached to the tables and observe the comic spectacle.
Otterness has only shown "The Tables" twice before, first at the Brooke Alexander Gallery in New York and then at the Museum of Modern Art. "The Tables," which has been in storage since the MOMA show in 1987, will be at the Lannan Foundation through Jan. 1, 1991.
Lyons views Richter's and Otterness' work as "complex meditations on history," but that will not be the constant theme of Lannan exhibitions. The gallery program will have a three-part focus, alternating selections from the foundation's collection with loan shows and one-person exhibitions predominantly drawn from the collection. The first solo show will feature the work of Nicholas Africano.
"We get so many proposals for really worthy projects. It's heartbreaking to turn them down, but we can't be all things to all people. Quality is the first criterion, but it's a little like marriage. You pick your spouse carefully" when giving grants or launching exhibitions, said Lyons who was a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 1977 to 1983. She resigned to help found a private art consulting organization, The Museum Fund, and joined the Lannan staff last year.
In her work with The Museum Fund, Lyons had hoped to develop a new approach to corporate philanthropy, but she found that most corporations were more interested in putting art on their own walls than in helping museums. Now at the Lannan Foundation, she directs a program that "supports, purchases and presents high-quality contemporary art, some of which is controversial," she said.
"We don't seek controversy, but we don't shy away from it either," Lyons said, noting that the foundation underwrote "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment" at the Washington Project for the Arts in Washington last year after the Corcoran Gallery cancelled the show.
Applications for Lannan grants have increased markedly during the subsequent controversy over government funding of art that may be deemed offensive. There is a mood of "desperation," she said, and "it is increasingly difficult for the foundation to carry out its work when the demand is so acute."
J. Patrick Lannan, a longtime director of International Telephone and Telegraph, established the nonprofit Lannan Foundation in 1960 "to support and present high-quality, innovative and sometimes controversial forms of contemporary art and literature." Formerly based in Florida, where Lannan lived, the foundation moved to Los Angeles in 1986, three years after his death. Lannan's son, J. Patrick Lannan, Jr., became foundation president in 1985, and he has said that the California move had much less to do with his longtime residence in Los Angeles than with the city's stature as an art center.
Under his direction, the foundation has developed a program that aims "to further the careers of emerging and under-recognized artists and writers, to foster serious criticism and discussion of contemporary art and literature, and to bring new, experimental and provocative art and literature to a wider audience."
The foundation owned and operated a museum in Lake Worth, Fla. from 1981 to 1988, when the building and a collection of more than 1,000 American craft works and 20 pieces of kinetic art were donated to the Palm Beach Community College.
Since 1986, when a program of visual arts grants was established, the foundation has given 95 grants ranging in value from "a few thousand dollars to several hundred times that," Lyons said. The awards include grants to major museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art's "Project Series," Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art's recent retrospective of John Baldessari's work and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's current exhibition, "The Primal Spirit: Ten Contemporary Japanese Sculptors." Among smaller institutions to receive grants is Appalshop in Whiteburg, Ken., for an exhibition of Builder Levy's photographs of Appalachian coal miners.
In addition to supporting exhibitions, the foundation buys art for its own collection and occasionally gives grants for acquisitions or to catalogue unusual collections and document projects.
The foundation's literary programs, directed by Meghan A. Ferrill, include $35,000 Lannan Literary Awards, which have been granted to writers John Berger, Cid Corman and Wendell Berry.