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Art College to Lease May Co. Site at Museum

TIMES ART WRITER

In a move that marries two major arts institutions and provides a new life for a landmark building, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has tentatively agreed to lease space to Otis College of Art and Design in the museum’s newly acquired May Co. building.

A letter of intent signed by both parties ends more than a year of speculation about how the financially strapped museum might make best use of the adjacent May Co. building in the Mid-Wilshire district.

The former department store at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue was purchased by the museum in March, 1994, with $25 million of interim county funding. The college--one of the West Coast’s most prestigious art schools, currently on county-owned property near MacArthur Park--is expected to expand into its new campus within two years.

The agreement, to be announced today, will provide the museum with much-needed revenue and a tenant that could enhance the museum’s educational role. Otis will enjoy heightened stature by gaining proximity to a major art museum. In moving next door to LACMA, the private college and graduate school will join an elite league of colleges that are allied with museums, most notably the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The move will give Otis space to improve its facilities and expand its student body from 720 to a projected 1,200.

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Plans also call for a major renovation of the May Co. building and restoration of its original facade. The facility, built in 1939, closed its doors in early 1993 after May Co. merged with Robinson’s. The building, designed by architect A. C. Martin, was designated a Los Angeles historical cultural monument in 1992.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky praised the agreement as “a major development” in the revitalization of the Wilshire district’s “Miracle Mile.”

William A. Mingst, president of the museum’s board of trustees, said the agreement “underscores our role as a very, very important resource of culture and education for all of Southern California. The link between art and education has become very important in the museum world.”

Otis’ president, Neil Hoffman, said the pact is the culmination of a two-year effort to chart the school’s future. At the May Co., Otis will be able to house all its disciplines under one roof and develop state-of-the-art facilities. On Museum Row--where Otis joins not only LACMA but the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the George C. Page Museum, the Petersen Automotive Museum and the Carole and Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures--it will be in a safer neighborhood than the crime-plagued MacArthur Park area.

The school currently occupies about 125,000 square feet of space in a combination of county-owned property and privately leased space. Otis will retain its county-owned site and will take over about two-thirds of the 290,000-square-foot May Co. building on a 30-year lease with two 10-year options.

Although details of the agreement will be worked out over a 90-day period, the museum is expected to spend about $2 million to $2.5 million to bring the May Co. building up to current safety standards. Otis will renovate and convert the building into classrooms and art studios. Mingst estimated Otis’ costs at $7 million to $8 million, but Hoffman said the full price has not been determined. The school has $5 million left over from a fund-raising campaign for improvements on its present site.

The wisdom of LACMA’s acquisition of the May Co. was questioned by some when it was announced because the museum has suffered cutbacks in public and private support. But museum trustees insisted that they had to take advantage of what was probably a one-time opportunity to acquire adjacent property for expansion.

The art school, originally called Otis Art Institute, was founded in 1918 on property deeded to the county in 1916 by Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, founder of the Los Angeles Times.


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