Expansion project flowers at museum

Times Staff Writer

From a silent film studio to a roller-skating rink to a senior health center to an art museum, the site of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach has a storied past. But the tale is far from complete. The museum will unveil a sculpture garden and performing arts space today, and that’s only one component of a major expansion project.

“This is a museum of the living,” director Gregorio Luke said of the 9-year-old institution. Billed as the only museum on the West Coast exclusively devoted to the contemporary art of Latin America, it’s also a work in progress. The garden -- tucked away on the northeast corner of the site at Alamitos Avenue and 6th Street -- will provide a forum for a lively program of dance, music and family festivals. Construction at the front of the building will create a new entrance, an educational art studio, offices and meeting rooms.

Much remains to be done to create a street-side presence for the museum and secure the institution’s future. The opening of the sculpture garden coincides with the launching of a $10-million capital campaign for the endowment. But the completion of the expansive outdoor facility is a milestone.

The garden is “an oasis of beauty,” Luke said, gazing across the 15,000-square-foot space. “In the face of chaos, it’s a reconciliation of humanity with nature, a collaboration of humanity and nature.” At quiet times, the formal beauty of man-made artworks and bright colored walls will mingle with the natural charms of the plants, he said. During music and dance performances, another form of beauty -- bodies in motion -- will add to the mix.


More paved than planted, the garden is a multi-level, walled environment, anchored by the museum on the south and a stage with adjacent changing rooms on the north. Most of the footprint is divided into large, rectangular, stepped-off sections designed to accommodate about 600 people at public programs. About a dozen large sculptures are installed around the periphery and in interior planters in a desert landscape of cactuses, other succulents and palms. Water bubbles up from fountains in channels that cut through the center of the garden.

The artworks -- drawn from the museum’s collection and recent donations from artists and collectors -- include geometric abstractions by Alberto Vargas Aguirre of Mexico and Fernando de Szyszlo of Peru, a winged form painted in vivid hues by Perez Celis, a bronze “Cubist Bull” by Heriberto Juarez of Mexico and figurative pieces by Guillermo Trujillo of Panama, Luis Efe Velez of Colombia and Uruguayan-born, Los Angeles-based Cecilia Miguez. A huge metal knife and fork encrusted with narrative imagery by Gustavo Lopez Armentia of Argentina hangs on the bright pink wall shared with the museum.

“We didn’t want to present a uniform group of sculptures in the garden,” Luke said. “The essence of Latin American art is its diversity.” Latin American culture has been formed by an amalgam of influences and it shows in contemporary art, he said.

MoLAA is “an integrator, a bridge,” Luke said, citing a metaphor frequently used to describe the museum’s architecture and programs. Mexican architect Manuel Rosen has designed the new entrance as a symbolic bridge, with two intersecting rectangular structures representing the U.S. and Latin America. The exhibitions also bridge cultures, often introducing artists who are renowned in their home countries but little known in the U.S.


“We try to create opportunities for the artists as we carry out our educational mission,” Luke said. The art in the garden will expand that tradition while adding yet another bridge -- between visual and performing arts.

The museum was founded by Dr. Robert Gumbiner, a collector of Latin American art and the founder of FHP International Corp, a health maintenance organization. The site was home to a silent film studio from 1912 to 1918, although it’s not clear if any of the buildings from that era remain. The main shank of the museum, where the galleries are located, was built as a rollerskating rink in 1929.

Gumbiner, who converted his group medical practice into an HMO empire, purchased the building and turned it into a senior health care center with a community art gallery. In 1995, he left the company and announced his plan to transform the health center into a museum for Latin American art. It opened the following year with a show of 60 paintings in a 2,000-square-foot gallery. When the current construction is complete, the museum will be a 55,000-square-foot facility.

The opening of the sculpture garden kicks off a yearlong celebration, leading up to the completion of the two-story addition at the front of the building. One of the first events, Oct. 15 and 16, will be an auction of Latin American artworks to benefit the museum. Artists and collectors have donated 182 pieces with estimated selling prices of $200 to $240,000. The works to be auctioned will be on view at the museum Friday to Oct. 15.