Gala opens new L.A. museum

Times Staff Writer

The "spider" escalator of the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum was red, the fire escapes were red, Charles Ray's 46 1/2-foot "Firetruck" was red. And for one star-studded night, even the carpet was red. BCAM, as Italian architect Renzo Piano's travertine-clad creation is known, was all the buzz.

After years of operating in undeserved anonymity, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had its big moment in the sun -- or starlight -- Saturday night. More than 1,100 prominent entertainment industry figures, artists, executives and civic leaders gathered for the grand opening. Taiko drums heralded the first arrivals, and the guests mingled with stilt-walkers in elaborate costumes.

With the splashy gala, LACMA suddenly finds itself relaunched among the world's notable museums.

Maria Shriver, wearing a long gown in shades of gray, white and black with a tulle overskirt and a short charcoal gray jacket, praised the new building. "When you have a museum like this it becomes a destination museum," she said. California's first lady was later joined by her husband, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Saturday's festivities, featuring dinnertime entertainment by Lionel Richie, capped several days of kickoff events. As darkness fell, Hollywood luminaries began arriving with a fanfare akin to that of Oscar night.

Actress Rita Wilson, elegant in a pleated ivory Lanvin dress, said, "I think anything like this is great for Los Angeles. L.A. has amazing museums, but it's not what you come here to see. People go to Disneyland."

With tables costing $25,000 (silver), $50,000 (gold) or $100,000 (platinum), the event reportedly raised more than $5 million. The guest list included a who's who of museum directors: Nicholas Serota of Britain's Tate Gallery, Earl A. "Rusty" Powell III of the National Gallery of Art (and former LACMA director), Thomas Krens of Guggenheim Museums Worldwide and, from close to home, leaders of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Getty, the Hammer and other local institutions.

Mingling with them were artists from the local scene and elsewhere: John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Damien Hirst, Ellsworth Kelly, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Richard Serra, Ed Ruscha. All have works displayed in BCAM.

As LACMA director Michael Govan made clear last week to anyone within listening distance, this is certainly a museum transformed -- physically and artistically.

Where Ogden Drive once bisected the 20-acre LACMA campus between Wilshire Boulevard and 6th Street, visitors now stroll through Burden's "Urban Light," an installation of 202 restored and working vintage streetlights. The inviting outdoor "lobby" stands in sharp contrast to the imposing edifice and subway-like staircase that leads to the "old" central plaza.

Architect Frank Gehry said, "I think it's great. They finally made an entrance where you know where to go in."

Light is a suitable metaphor for a museum that is marking a rebirth after enduring years of very public disappointments.

"It's a rebirth because the museum experience is now going to be so much easier," said William H. Ahmanson, a LACMA trustee. "It's more accessible."

It was Andrea Rich, the museum's former director, who in the late 1990s first suggested adding a Broad building for contemporary art that would link scattered parts of the campus.

In 2001 the museum launched an architectural competition. The winner, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, advocated demolishing four of the six buildings and replacing them with a single, tent-topped structure for an estimated tab of $300 million.

Billionaire Eli Broad, with his wife, Edythe, was prepared to give $50 million to the project, but no other major donors surfaced. After Los Angeles County voters fell just shy of the two-thirds majority vote needed to approve a bond measure intended to raise a chunk of the money, LACMA scrapped the Koolhaas plan and went back to the drawing board. With Rich's blessing, Broad took charge of the contemporary art project and personally wooed Piano for the job.

The false start was the first in a string of highly public embarrassments for the museum.

In 2006 LACMA lost out on a great work of art. That year the museum had been displaying, to great acclaim, a handful of works by Gustav Klimt, including a 1907 painting, the so-called gold portrait of Vienna aristocrat Adele Bloch-Bauer, which had been looted by the Nazis and returned to a Los Angeles woman and her relatives. The museum scrambled to find the money to acquire the portrait, but its hopes were dashed when New York cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder bought the painting for the museum he founded, the Neue Galerie. The reported $135-million price tag was at the time the highest known price paid for a painting.

Then came perhaps the most bruising blow.

As LACMA was preparing last month for the BCAM opening, Broad dropped the bomb: He had decided not to give his 2,000-piece art collection to LACMA, as had long been anticipated, but rather to have his Broad Art Foundation keep all the artworks and lend them often to museums.

Although Govan and LACMA contemporary art curator Lynn Zelevansky maintained that Broad's decision was no surprise to them, it rattled the art world, which has seen LACMA stung by would-be donors, including Norton Simon and Armand Hammer, both of whom founded their own museums.

Still, Broad footed the $56-million cost of erecting the new building and chipped in $10 million more for artworks on the inside. BCAM opens with its interiors dominated by about 200 pieces borrowed from Broad and his foundation, as well as other collections, including LACMA's. At every preview and gala, LACMA's Govan has praised Broad's art savvy and generosity.

LACMA officials and trustees say the goal of the expanded museum is to bring in more people -- more tourists, more Angelenos.

Whether Los Angeles will emerge as the contemporary art capital of the world, as Broad hopes, remains to be seen. With the hoopla past, said Melody Kanschat, LACMA's president, "now it's going to be about the real people who use it."

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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