Times Staff Writer

THE text is snappy: BCAM born!

The image is catchy: a shiny red sculpture of a cracked egg by Jeff Koons that reflects the saw-toothed roof of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, opening Feb. 16 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

And the message, emblazoned on streetlight banners all over town, is clear: LACMA has a hip new attraction and you need to see it.

But the public emergence of the $56-million building designed by architect Renzo Piano and financed by philanthropist and LACMA trustee Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, is far from the whole story. Much more than a new edifice, BCAM is the centerpiece of a multifaceted initiative to create a bold presence for contemporary art at LACMA and the keystone of a three-phase effort to transform the Wilshire Boulevard institution’s 20-acre campus.


It’s worth keeping in mind that LACMA has a history of off-again, on-again plans for greatness and gaps in leadership. But right now, there’s a frenzy of preparation at the museum and a palpable excitement in the air.

Phase 1, now sprinting to the finish, includes BCAM, a three-story building filled with loans of postwar art; the BP Grand Entrance, an airy pavilion, bankrolled by the British oil company, that shifts LACMA’s primary point of entry to the west; and an underground parking structure that replaces its ugly predecessor. Large contemporary artworks have popped up on the grounds and several permanent collection galleries have been renovated and reinstalled.

“You have to show people what you can do before you can take the next step,” said LACMA Director Michael Govan. Although he arrived less than two years ago -- after the Broad building was underway -- he has his eye on the future.

“This is more than just opening a building,” he said. “You are going to see the beginning of a whole new frame for the museum and something that’s a ‘best of’ ” -- shorthand for what he sees as “the best space to see contemporary art in an encyclopedic museum.”

Recent news that the Broads have decided to keep their personal holdings and the 2,000-piece collection amassed by the Broad Art Foundation -- which functions as a lending library -- rather than give the art to museums as planned, knocked some of the wind out of the opening celebration. Although the Broads never promised specific gifts to LACMA, and the staff and trustees say the new strategy is not a surprise, the rise of the facility bearing their names fueled hopes of art donations.

With or without the collection, BCAM is a major addition -- the seventh building -- at a complicated institution. Funded by public and private sources, LACMA has 13 curatorial departments and a 150,000-piece collection encompassing a vast, global swath of history. The museum has built considerable strengths in areas such as old master paintings, American furniture and German Expressionist material, but it got a late start in the Latin American arena and has barely begun to collect African art.


Through a wide variety of exhibitions and programs, LACMA attempts to serve and satisfy constituencies including art professionals, students, families and ethnic groups. Upcoming exhibitions will focus on topics such as the collecting activities of William Randolph Hearst, German art during the Cold War and Korean contemporary art.

When Govan looks at the big picture, present and future, he sees a balance of local and global imperatives -- a museum with close connections to the community and “world aspirations.” And he has a mantra: “Art is first and foremost.”

That means work by leading Southern California artists can be seen without entering a building. Passersby can check out a pair of 52-foot-tall banners on the Wilshire side of BCAM, dreamed up by John Baldessari and the design firm 2x4. For visitors who use the new Wilshire entrance, the first art experience will be a walk through Chris Burden’s “Urban Light,” a temple-like installation of 202 vintage L.A. streetlamps.

“You used to step into the museum and it could have been anywhere,” Govan said. “Now you register an immediate sense of place. You are here in Los Angeles.”

In another nod to L.A., the beginning of a palm garden-in-process, designed by Robert Irwin and landscape architect Paul Comstock, rises behind “Urban Light.” Koons takes the notion of entryway flowers to the hilt with “Tulips,” a giant sculpture of colorful blooms. Charles Ray’s “Firetruck,” a 46 1/2 -foot-long re-creation of a child’s toy, sits on the north plaza.

Inside BCAM, two enormous walk-through sculptures, Richard Serra’s “Band” and “Sequence,” occupy the entire ground floor. The two upper levels offer works by Cindy Sherman, Leon Golub, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Ruscha, Baldessari and Koons, selected by Govan and LACMA curator Lynn Zelevansky primarily from the Broads’ collections. The inaugural exhibition will be on view for a year, and some of the Broads’ loans are expected to remain at BCAM much longer.

“We picked what we liked, of course,” Zelevansky said, “but we wanted to do something that would reflect the Broads’ collecting habits, tastes and concerns.”

As the key partner of the Broad Art Foundation, LACMA can borrow up to 200 works a year during Eli Broad’s lifetime. And for now, there’s a bonanza, including “Tulips” and “Firetruck.” Broad also established a $10-million acquisition fund that allowed LACMA to purchase Serra’s “Band.”

Timeline starts today

To begin a LACMA visit at BCAM is to approach art history from the present. The first step back in time leads to the Ahmanson Building, which has a new entrance on the east side of the entry pavilion. “Smoke,” a huge abstract sculpture made by Tony Smith in 1967, fills the atrium -- at the base of a new grand staircase conceived as a gathering place akin to Rome’s Spanish Steps. At the top of the stairs, on the plaza level, is a new installation of modern art that places the recent $100-million gift of Janice and Henri Lazarof’s collection in the context of works already owned by the museum.

“This 22,000-square-foot presentation of art from 1900 to the 1970s gives the public a much firmer grounding in the revolutionary and avant-garde activities that characterize the 20th century,” Stephanie Barron, curator of modern art, said of the installation, which combines paintings, sculptures, works on paper and decorative arts. The spacious galleries, all on one floor, also offer a fuller picture of the museum’s German holdings, important developments in sculpture and a comprehensive view of Picasso’s achievements, she said.

Steven D. Lavine, president of CalArts and a longtime observer of LACMA, said that the installation including the Lazarof gift has “the stretch of a great museum” and -- in combination with many other changes -- makes the museum feel “fundamentally different.”

“LACMA has always seemed like less than the sum of its parts, except when some mega-show made you feel what it was capable of,” Lavine said. “Now it has become at least the sum of its parts and maybe more. I have always been skeptical of talk about the renaissance of the arts in Los Angeles. It usually sounds like a lot of hype. But when you put all the pieces together, at LACMA and other institutions, maybe it’s true. This is a very exciting moment.”

The Ahmanson’s plaza level also has a new gallery for African art with works selected by Polly Nooter Roberts, chief curator of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and a space for the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, one of the museum’s most important collections

The new look in the old buildings is part of a continuing effort to rethink all of the museum’s collections. The Greek and Roman art galleries in the Ahmanson Building and the American art galleries on the second floor of the Art of the Americas Building have been redone. A reinstallation of the Latin American and pre-Columbian collections in the Art of the Americas Building is expected to open in the summer or fall, followed next year by the Korean and Chinese collections in the Hammer Building. As well, Irwin is working with curator Mary Levkoff on a new version of the B. Gerald Cantor Sculpture Garden.

“We have a long way to go,” said Govan, who admits that the jumble of old galleries is “a mess.” But he isn’t just talking about rearranging art.

A concourse that he jokingly calls “a road to nowhere” leads to LACMA West, a former department store on the west side of the campus that’s awaiting renovation this year. Upgrading that building’s exhibition spaces and children’s center, adding an upscale restaurant and book shop and creating a rooftop sculpture garden is part of Phase 2. Budgeted at $200 million and funded by a 30-year bond, the project also calls for LACMA’s eighth building -- a Piano-designed exhibition pavilion with about 60,000 square feet of gallery space on top of the parking structure.

Then comes Phase 3, which will deal with the old buildings. Nobody is making public statements about whether it’s better to do a renovation or a tear-down. But either way, it will be a daunting project.

Keeping the momentum building

Phase 1, 2, 3 -- none of it comes cheap, and there’s plenty of room for skepticism about how long LACMA’s roll can continue. Govan’s high profile has made him an attractive candidate for other museums. Shaping LACMA’s collections into a coherent walk through history is an enormous challenge. And when it comes to raising the necessary money -- at a gloomy time for the economy -- L.A.’s largest art museum has lots of competition.

“LACMA is still an underfunded institution,” Govan said, “but I am extremely encouraged. I have felt a wellspring of support, not only internally but from the community.”

In large part, he’s banking on a new crop of wealthy trustees who have joined longtime supporters.

One of the prime examples is Andrew M. Gordon, head of Goldman Sachs & Co. Investment Banking Division West Region and the firm’s Global Media Investment Banking practice. A third-generation Californian who became involved in big-time cultural philanthropy at Walt Disney Concert Hall, he joined the board at LACMA in 2005 and chaired the finance committee that launched the $200-million bond offering for Phase 2. He became chairman of the board last October.

In an interview at his Century City office, Gordon characterized himself as a passionate member of a hard-working board at a museum that is “really for the people.” Recruited by long-standing trustees to help revitalize LACMA and guide it through a period of growth, he shares Govan’s optimism.

“We have trustees who care a lot about art, care a lot about Los Angeles, care a lot about what we are doing at the museum,” he said. “I think we are extremely well off in terms of our financial situation.” The board has raised more than $100 million on his watch, and he expects the trustees to help bring in an additional $50 million in the next few months -- all of which will help pay down the bond.

“A truth of the nonprofit world,” Lavine said, “is that success breeds success. Changing the perception of the museum will help generate resources for the future.”

But challenges loom. Operating costs rise as new buildings emerge, old facilities sprout leaks and the museum reaches out to new audiences. Although the development department has been enlarged, the curatorial staff has not grown and is not likely to do so soon.

Like most museums, LACMA derives support from earned income, including ticket and gift shop sales and memberships, donations and an endowment. In addition, the museum gets an annual infusion of cash and in-kind services, including some staff members’ salaries, from the county. In 2007, $19.4 million of the museum’s $54-million operating budget came from the county.

Govan estimates that the Broad building will increase LACMA’s operating costs by about 7%. To help make ends meet, the museum recently raised its admission fees for nonmember adults from $10 to $12, and it’s counting on boosting attendance, which was 616,491 for the year that ended June 30. The price of self-parking will rise from $5 to $7, and valet parking, a new service, will be available at $10.

Annual giving from trustees and other support groups has edged up too, but the museum’s endowment lags far behind those amassed by several comparable “encyclopedic” museums. Largely dependent on the county in its early days, LACMA has built its $170-million endowment over the last few decades. But the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has an endowment of $1.1 billion, the Cleveland Museum of Art has an $820-million endowment and the museum at the Art Institute of Chicago has an investment portfolio of $687.5 million.

Although Los Angeles County provides a steady stream of support to LACMA, a 1994 agreement requires the appropriation to rise in accordance with the region’s Consumer Price Index and limits the increase to 5% a year. LACMA leaders hope to change that, and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said it’s not out of the question.

“The county administration is going to take a serious look at it because there hasn’t been an increase in the appropriation in real dollars since 1994,” Yaroslavsky said. “There is going to be a significant increase in the patronage at LACMA, which is a good thing for the museum and the community, and the operating budget is going to go up. The museum wants to have a discussion about the county’s participation going up commensurately and we certainly are open to it.”

For Govan, building support for the museum’s long-term health is a work in progress. “At the opening of BCAM,” he said, “it will be clear how much we have left to do and how much there is for you to do. It’s a joint effort. Part of what we are trying to do is build community spirit. And I do think we have to seize the moment.”