The Rise and Stall of LACMA's Planned Reinvention

Times Staff Writer

How does a $400-million project to transform the Los Angeles County Museum of Art go from fast-forward to pause in 364 days?

"The environment simply went to hell. I don't know how else to phrase it," said Walter Weisman, chairman of the museum's board, looking back on the grand fund-raising, demolition and construction project that the museum unveiled a year ago, then put on hold indefinitely earlier this month.

But the rise and stall of LACMA's planned reinvention is a story with more plot twists than that.

In interviews, Weisman, LACMA president and director Andrea Rich and other key players sketch a tense 12 months punctuated with recurring financial uncertainties as they tried to advance architect Rem Koolhaas' revolutionary idea for the museum.

"We don't have the money to have Rem go full blast into the next phase," Weisman said. If someone stepped up with $10 million to revive work on the design, he said, "that would be wonderful. But no one has."

Rich and Weisman are quick to say that the project is not exactly dead. But somebody has to head the donor line -- apparently somebody besides L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, who tops the list of likely donors but prefers not to stand alone.

Another LACMA trustee, requesting anonymity, said, "I think [Rich and Weisman] would have OKd the expenditures for the next step if they had more optimism about the long run."

The run-up to this drama began in mid-2001, when LACMA trustees held a design competition for a museum renovation, then gave the thumbs-up to the only contestant who ignored the rules: Koolhaas of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who proposed leveling LACMA's four awkwardly arrayed buildings. In their place would rise a new museum with a plaza downstairs and the collections reorganized upstairs under a tent-like roof.

The cost estimate didn't come from Koolhaas. Each of the architects in the competition was asked to propose a $200-million renovation. Noting the escalating costs that accompany construction jobs, LACMA's leaders guessed the price might climb another $100 million. To keep operations stable, they wanted to add $100 million to LACMA's endowment (now at $77 million). Which adds up to a capital campaign for $350 million to $400 million.

To raise that, Weisman said, he and Rich first aimed to gather $300 million in pledges on paper in a "quiet phase" of 12 to 18 months. Another two to four years of public campaigning would generate the remaining $50 million to $100 million.

"I am concerned about where the money will come from," warned LACMA life trustee Robert Ahmanson on the eve of the vote. That didn't entirely surprise insiders; his family name is on one of the buildings targeted for demolition. And by then, the bandwagon was rolling.

*

Dec. 5, 2001 -- With 23 of LACMA's 50-some trustees present, the LACMA board votes unanimously to support the Koolhaas plan.

*

Before the vote, Rich said later, she conferred with many potential donors. She came away encouraged, even though, on the day of the vote, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index was down about 11% for the year.

Over the next 12 months, the S&P; 500 would fall another 22%. Though the board embraced the project, there were complaints about the design, about devoting millions to a building instead of to art and about casting aside four existing buildings, none more than 37 years old.

"This whole process," Rich said later, "had one side of the population thrilled and the other side furious."

Then there was the question of Broad, a LACMA board member, a booster of the Koolhaas plan and the city's most visible cultural donor.

Insiders at local philanthropies say Broad is known for using his prospective gifts to pry contributions from other sources and to further his own preferences -- a strategy few dare criticize publicly.

In January, and later, Rich said only that Broad had "given me something to work with" and that other trustees "made commitments to make commitments."

This, fund-raising experts say, is not uncommon. Big-name architects and their designs are often used to help sell capital projects and, at the moment they're announced, as in LACMA's case, institutions often have no donor commitments on paper.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which now has its own $300-million renovation project in the planning stages, introduced Steven Holl as its architect in July 2002. Dyan Sublett, the institution's vice president for advancement, says she is still a long way from written commitments.

But what did Broad dangle at LACMA? Within a few weeks of the board vote, he told The Times that his donation would be "more than our family has ever given to any other building, by some margin" -- that is, more than the $23 million given to Caltech.

He also warned that "we don't want to end up with a Disney Hall situation," referring to the decade of stalled progress and tightrope fund-raising behind the downtown L.A. concert hall, now due to open next fall.

*

February through April -- As the stock market slumps, Rich and Weisman find a tepid response among donors. But Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, steps up with an idea.

*

Looking at the plans of LACMA and the Natural History Museum, Yaroslavsky saw a chance to seek public money. The idea grew into a $250-million ballot measure bond issue, to be paid for with a property tax hike. If passed in November by a two-thirds majority, the measure would have sent $98 million to each museum, provided each museum raised $112.5 million elsewhere.

Yaroslavsky said later that the odds were less than 50-50 of getting the bond issue passed.

*

Summer -- Rich joins a team of LACMA curators and administrators on a fact-finding trip to Rotterdam and to European museums. She returns, however, to find no improvement on the private fund-raising front.

*

Typically, early meetings with a prospect might lead Rich to hope for a pledge of $10 million or more. But as the year advanced, "I would get answers like, 'Maybe $5 million, over five to seven years,' " she said later.

On Aug. 6, Yaroslavsky, LACMA and the Natural History Museum unveiled ballot Measure A, labeled "earthquake and fire safety improvements."

Rich had said at the beginning that the museum wouldn't seek public money, but now it seemed vital.

The following month, Koolhaas unveiled a more complete model of his project and reported that studies showed the new building would weigh less than the existing LACMA buildings. Hence his plan to reuse the plinth -- the original base -- potentially saving millions, seemed feasible. Specific questions related to the roof design were still hanging. To get those answered and complete schematic designs, Koolhaas said, could take from one to two years, at a cost of about $4 million.

Meanwhile Broad, leading the charge in support of Measure A, contributed $1.2 million and loaned another $1 million to the campaign to get it passed.

*

Nov. 5 and beyond: Measure A draws 60.5% of the vote, short of the 66.7% needed. At the Natural History Museum, renovation plans are unchanged. As for LACMA, Broad tells the press, "I can't do it alone.... Where does all the rest come from?"

*

No answers were forthcoming. Rich faced the LACMA board Dec. 4 and outlined the capital campaign's fading prospects. They agreed to back off on the new design, and the what-if and why-didn't games began.

Instead of institutional reinvention, Rich said later, she and her staff would focus on upgrades at the LACMA West building and improvements related to programs and the endowment -- goals, she said, that are "doable in my lifetime."

About a week after the board decision, Broad told The Times he was ready to contribute $50 million to the project but didn't take the step because nobody else was ready to make a comparable commitment. And "even if you got one or two others, what you end up with might have gotten you halfway there."

The design's biggest boosters seized on the estimated $4-million cost of having Koolhaas do schematic designs: For less than the $5 million spent on the ballot campaign, they argued, the trustees could buy a year or two, and give the economy a chance to turn around.

Rich's response: "It's easy for other people to say: '$4 million, what a tiny sum of money.' But $4 [million] to $5 million for LACMA is not a pittance."

Where, outsiders wondered, were LACMA's other trustees and their wallets?

From mid-1999 to mid-2001, tax disclosures show, nongovernmental contributions to the museum added up to more than $52 million, with trustees responsible for much of that. On Dec. 3, the Annenberg Foundation, of which LACMA trustee Wallis Annenberg is vice president, announced a $10-million gift to LACMA's endowment fund. But capital giving is different.

In recent years, fund-raisers say, major donors have begun to demand design details before making commitments. Since schematic designs often cost millions, this means a chicken-and-egg quandary on the front end of every big capital project.

Indeed, said LACMA board President Weisman, he wouldn't expect a donor to commit a major capital pledge to paper until "you've priced things. This brick costs a dollar, this chair costs $3 -- a level of precision in what you're presenting that enables someone to say yes or no."

As for Broad, who did not respond to requests for comment for this article, "he seems very unwilling to get into a philanthropic boat without a bunch of people with him," said California Community Foundation President Jack Shakely.

*

'Prudent' Decision?

LACMA's state of limbo is not unique. In New York, the Guggenheim Museum has shelved plans for a new complex in lower Manhattan. San Francisco's Jewish Museum has similarly deferred a new building, and many other organizations have quietly lengthened construction and fund-raising schedules.

After LACMA's decision to back off, at least two veteran fund-raisers -- the Natural History Museum's Sublett and Gary Phillips, a Santa Monica-based consultant -- were quick to reach for the word "prudent."

"Certainly, you could not pick a worse time to raise money," said Jerry E. Mandel, president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, which delayed its timetable for a new concert hall announced in 1999. The $200-million campaign has reached only its halfway point, and the opening date has been delayed from 2005 to 2006.

"Here's the question for LACMA," he said. "How certain are they of their lead gift?"

For Rich, that was last month's question. Since Dec. 4, she's looking less at the far horizon.

"There are people prepared to contribute substantial sums to the museum, to its programs and to its endowment," she said last week.

"So we will pursue a fund-raising effort. What we will do with the facilities part of that, I have to study."

*

Times staff writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°