An Icon Reborn


Symbolism isn’t everything, but it can be crucial to public perceptions. Consider the gold mosaic-covered cylinder on the former May Co. at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. The mammoth “perfume bottle” is the landmark feature of the 1939 Streamline Moderne-style building, but it grew increasingly dingy and pockmarked in the years of decline leading to the closure of the department store in 1993--one year after the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles declared the building a historic cultural monument.

In an ambitious and encouragingly farsighted move, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art purchased the property in 1994, but the cylindrical corner piece continued to deteriorate. And the building looked more pitiful with every passing day. Each falling tile intensified doubts that the once-proud building--at the west end of the commercial district known since its glory days as the Miracle Mile--could be transformed into a thriving cultural center.

But now the sorrowful eyesore has been restored to its original gleaming splendor and, yes, that means something important is going on inside. The five-story building has a new life as LACMA West. Renovated to expand the facilities and enhance the program of the neighboring museum, the former department store also provides a desperately needed satellite for the venerable Southwest Museum, which maintains a world-renowned but underexposed collection of Native American art in its Spanish Revival headquarters in Mount Washington.


The public will get its first look at LACMA West next Sunday. Much work remains to be done on some of the upper floors, but most of the first floor--the primary public exhibition and education space--is up and running.

The long-awaited event--together with renovations of the museum’s plaza and grounds--enhances the Wilshire Boulevard institution’s position as the city’s “cultural village green,” said Andrea Rich, president and CEO of LACMA. Programs to be presented at LACMA West--including the inaugural mix of Native American, African and Egyptian material--will allow the museum to better serve its culturally diverse community, she said.

Uplifting as the exterior restoration of the famous “perfume bottle” may be, it doesn’t prepare visitors for the dramatic change of the interior. The county museum, which purchased the building for $18.3 million, has put about $3 million into improving the infrastructure and adapting the building to its new use. The Southwest Museum has raised more than $1 million to build its display space, conserve and document its collection, and produce publications on the first exhibition, featuring Pueblo and Navajo textiles.

The money shows. Visitors who expect to see makeshift changes in a 60-year-old department store will be surprised to enter an entirely new ambience, designed by Kirkpatrick & Associates Architects of Santa Monica. The Southwest’s space was designed by architect Chris Carradine.

“You have a real icon in this building,” architect Grant Kirkpatrick said. “Of all the uses that could have been made of it, this is the best-case scenario.”

Rather than trying to create “a ‘90s version of the Art Deco or Streamline Moderne building,” the renovation “pays respect to it,” Kirkpatrick said. “Making an insertion of the new into the old,” he created a new complex of spaces while preserving the original structure. Numerous columns, which might have been an obstruction, seem to disappear, but they are simply hidden by new walls that “dance in and out of them,” he said.


The architects had an acre--about 43,000 square feet--to work with on the first floor. The central feature of Kirkpatrick’s scheme is a broad concourse stretching between the front and back entrances that serves as a pathway to three large galleries and a children’s art workshop. Plans call for the addition of retail kiosks along the central walkway, but the centerpiece--an information and ticket booth--is complete.

This “welcome center” is a soaring cylindrical form that echoes the gold shaft outside. The tower-like booth is clad in translucent material, creating a luminous presence that replicates the glow of the gold tiles. Translucent panels along walls of the promenade lighten the ambience and allow visitors to see into the galleries, while recalling the play of transparency and solidity that characterizes Art Deco design, Kirkpatrick said.

The majority of space on the first floor is devoted to the galleries and workshop. One gallery, a 9,000-square-foot space for temporary exhibitions presented by LACMA, will not begin operating until Jan. 17--the opening of “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum,” currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

But there’s plenty for visitors to see, even without Van Gogh. And now’s a good time--before the arrival of the expected crowds, although the museum is planning an orderly queue through the back door throughout the run of the blockbuster.

One of the two exhibition spaces opening next Sunday is LACMA’s Experimental Gallery, a 10,000-square-foot interactive area designed for children and families. A collaborative venture of the museum’s curatorial and education staff, the project has pooled the talents of Nancy Thomas, curator and department head of ancient and Islamic art, associate curator Elisabeth Cameron, curatorial assistant Liz Caffry and Jane Burrell, head of the education department. Bernard Kester designed the space.

The gallery is tailored to suit the needs of children, school groups and families, but it is also a place to try new ideas that might be implemented or adapted at the museum’s main facility, Thomas said. Although much thought has gone into designing and installing the initial show, the budget allows for changes so improvements can be made as needed. “This is a laboratory for the museum,” she said.

The opening exhibition, “Ancestors: Art and Afterlife,” uses the art of several African cultures--including ancient Egypt--to explore beliefs in the relationship between deceased ancestors and their living descendants. The 130 sculptural works and artifacts on display were drawn from the collections of LACMA, the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA and various other sources, with the help of the Museum Loan Network. An Egyptian mummy, for example, came from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Fragile objects are installed in glass cases, but others can be handled. Two African “fantasy coffins,” in the shape of a green onion and a fish, are off-limits. But the museum has commissioned another coffin, replicating a lion, so that children can crawl inside.

To make the exhibition accessible to youngsters, the curators have written kid-friendly labels and incorporated puzzles, games, videos and a CD-ROM-based computer program in the display. Computer terminals in a room adjacent to the gallery provide access to Internet sites and CD-ROM programs on Egypt and Africa. Children also will be given materials to create their own family trees.

The other exhibition space opening next Sunday is the realization of a long-held dream of Southwest Museum supporters. Leaders of the museum--which is rich in art but poor in space and cash--have looked for a suitable satellite for many years. The idea was not only to provide more display space for a deserving collection but also to build a much larger audience for the museum, which is centrally located but off the beaten track.

Launching the space at LACMA West is enormously satisfying to Duane King, director of the Southwest Museum, who admits that the museum didn’t have the money for the project when the partnership was announced last year. Subsequently, the museum has received funding for the exhibition space from the Getty Grant Program and five foundations: Ralph M. Parsons, James Irvine, Weingarten, Rockefeller and Camilla Chandler. Additional money for conservation, documentation and publications came from many other sources.

Walking through the 8,200-square-foot space is a bit like entering an imaginative, slightly off-kilter re-creation of the Southwest Museum’s main building in Mount Washington. Although far from a miniaturized replication of the museum, Carradine’s design immerses visitors in a Southwestern atmosphere with adobe-like walls, rounded corners, earthy colors, open beams, wood-post railings and a carpet inspired by an Indian chief’s blanket. Stripes in the carpet run at unexpected angles across the gallery floors, enhancing a feeling of movement as one room opens into another.

The exhibition “Common Threads: Pueblo and Navajo Textiles in the Southwest Museum” features 93 blankets, rugs, garments and tapestries. They span the 13th to 20th centuries, but most of the textiles were made between 1800 and 1940. Some of the works, including four early classic Navajo serapes, are among 34 pieces purchased in the 1880s by Charles Fletcher Lummis, who founded the museum.

Textiles were chosen for the inaugural installation partly because of supply and demand, King said. “We have a tremendous collection of textiles. Our curator, Kathleen Whitaker, has selected pieces to exhibit from 2,300 examples. And textiles have a large following. There is a lot of interest in them,” he said.

The show also gives the museum a chance to show artworks that have never before been on public display, although they have been published, he said. But most important is that the Navajo and Pueblo textiles on view are “superb artistic creations,” the Native American “equivalent of master paintings,” he said.

Placing a sampling of the Southwest Museum’s huge collection of textiles in the context of LACMA’s encyclopedic holdings will help museum visitors see where Native American art fits into the global scheme of cultural achievements, King said.

The textile exhibition also emphasizes interchange between the Pueblo and Navajo cultures and examines social and economic issues associated with textiles. One section shows how Indians traded with one another before the arrival of Europeans. Another gallery explains changes in textile materials and designs resulting from European contact. A re-creation of a 1914 tribal fair focuses on weaving as a steady source of income.

A new museum shop--designed to recall a Southwestern lodge with a faux fireplace--offers contemporary weavings, along with jewelry, books, toys and various Native American products. The store also features a gallery that will present changing exhibitions of paintings, drawings, sculpture and other works by contemporary Native American artists.

While the exhibition and the shop will open their doors next Sunday, the Southwest Museum is planning a grand opening celebration Nov. 7-8 in conjunction with its eighth annual Intertribal Marketplace, a bonanza of Native American arts. In the past, the popular event had been held at the Mount Washington facility, attracting up to 4,000 people over a weekend. This year, when the museum stages the marketplace on the spacious lawn behind LACMA West--a more accessible location, with the added attraction of the exhibitions--the crowd is likely to be much larger, but the actual attendance remains to be seen.

One thing is certain, however. With the bright gold shaft out front, new exhibition spaces inside and the Intertribal Marketplace on the back lawn, the poor old May Co. has a new look.


LACMA West, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon-8 p.m.; Fridays, noon-9 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. “Ancestors: Art and the Afterlife” opens next Sunday and closes June 14, 1999. Free. (323) 857-6000. “Common Threads: Pueblo and Navajo Textiles in the Southwest Museum” opens next Sunday and closes Sept. 26, 1999. $5. (323) 933-4510.

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times’ art writer.