THIS YEAR, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has embarrassed itself by handing over gallery space to private corporations (the King Tut exhibition), and it has sold masterworks from its supposedly permanent collection (at auction last month in New York City). Now LACMA is about to destroy art. On Dec. 1, the museum will tear down its parking garage. The plan is to erect in its place a $60-million building for the display of contemporary art. The problem isn’t that LACMA is demolishing a garage so that it can add gallery space, the problem is that LACMA isn’t saving the art it commissioned for the garage.
In 2000, on the occasion of the “Made in California” exhibit, LACMA asked San Franciscans Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen to fill the garage with their edgy, street-inspired art. Over the course of a week, the two artists turned the garage into a gallery, a reminder that art need not exist within a Renzo Piano-designed white cube to be captivating.
In hindsight, LACMA was prescient. McGee and Kilgallen have become recognized as two of the nation’s most prominent street artists. Their work has been exhibited at and collected by museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Earlier this year, the Gallery at REDCAT launched an outstanding Kilgallen retrospective. But barring a change of heart and mind, in three days McGees and Kilgallens in LACMA’s garage, save for one plywood panel the museum has pried off a wall, will be lost forever.
The destruction of Kilgallen’s work would be especially disappointing. She died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 33. Relatively few of her works still exist; many have been painted over or otherwise destroyed. It’s stunning that the institution that gave Kilgallen her next-to-last major commission would be so disinterested in saving what it made possible.
LACMA claims that saving the art isn’t practical. On Nov. 12, in a story in The Times, it was explained that the museum had photo-documentation of the work, and the implication was that that was sufficient. That’s strange logic -- I suppose if LACMA had photographs of Rembrandts, it wouldn’t need the paintings.
A LACMA curator also said that preserving the work would take “huge amounts of money” and that saving it would violate the street-art background of the work. Please. Earlier this month, the museum brought in about $13 million through an ill-advised sale of art from its permanent collection. As shameful as that is, at least the funds will be used for acquisitions. What could make more sense than using some of that money to save art that LACMA already owns, art that it enabled?
It’s equally nonsensical to suggest that street art is made to be destroyed. The phrase “street art” ought to be treated like art historical shorthand on a par with “cubism” or “pop art.” Besides, it didn’t seem like a betrayal of the movement’s origins when LACMA, a preeminent establishment institution, commissioned the installation.
Museums exist in part to preserve art that merits saving, regardless of the history or traditions behind it. It’s true that McGee has admitted that he never expected the murals to be saved, but in nearly the same breath, he enthusiastically approved LACMA’s saving of the one panel. In the name of progress, LACMA is being shamelessly cavalier with its own raison d’etre.
Here’s what LACMA should do: Hire a concrete-cutting firm to slice as many McGees and Kilgallens as possible out of the structure before demolition. According to one California preservationist, cutting out the works would probably cost less than $100,000. Removing the artwork from the site and figuring out how and where to keep it would add to that, but it’s difficult to imagine how extracting the art would add up to more than 1% of the new building’s $60-million price tag.
Individually, each of LACMA’s blunders over the last year are problematic. As a group, they’re a signal that the museum has forgotten why it exists. Allowing two corporations, AEG and Arts and Exhibitions International, to profit from the King Tut show launched in its galleries is a perversion of a public museum’s mission and role. And museums should save and show art, not sell it. (Maybe LACMA has photographs of the works it sold?) Above all, a museum should not destroy art.
Only one of these three mistakes is still reversible. LACMA should remove as many Kilgallens and McGees as possible before demolition begins. If that delays the project for a few weeks, so what?