How to straighten this picture

Times Staff Writer

The spanking new Broad Contemporary Art Museum is now open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, featuring a yearlong display of mostly borrowed paintings, sculptures and photographs. Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown has just opened "Collecting Collections: Highlights From the Permanent Collection," a show that fills the building until mid-May.

Is something a bit odd here?

Let's see if I've got this straight. One major L.A. museum is celebrating construction of plentiful new gallery space filled with art it doesn't own, and another is celebrating 250 works of art it does own but can install in its galleries only for a short time.

LACMA: Lots of museum space, very little museum art.

MOCA: Lots of museum art, very little museum space.

This is a puzzle worth parsing because buried deep inside is one possible solution to several vexing problems in the city's cultural life. So let's parse. BCAM's jubilant debut was marred by the eleventh-hour revelation that, contrary to previously published comments, L.A. super-collectors Eli and Edythe Broad would not donate any of their art to the eponymous building, for which they picked up the $56-million tab. Plans are instead afoot to fold their personal collection (about 400 works by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.) into their foundation collection (almost 1,600 works by nearly 200 artists). The Broad Art Foundation has successfully operated as an art lending library for more than 20 years, and LACMA will get dibs on up to 200 loans at a time.

This frustrating news generated a bizarre flurry of public feints, dodges and weird claims. It was said that art museums don't really need art collections, museum collecting is actually more trouble than it's worth and perpetual loans from private collectors could be a new museum paradigm. Editorials in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, remarkable for their obsequious philistinism, effectively said, "Swell!"

When, exactly, did art collections turn into an insufferable burden for museums? When did the need for a new museum paradigm arise? When, in the wide-ranging cultural conversation about art museums today, did we lose our collective mind?

The answers to these questions, in order, are: never, never and last January.

Art collections are not a museum burden. They are the reason art museums exist.

Professional progress in museum management, such as putting art collection archives online or increasing public access, is helpful. But no new paradigm is needed.

And Jan. 8 is when the Broad bombshell dropped. The news that one of the world's great contemporary art collections would remain wholly uncommitted, except to itself, created shock waves. It caused otherwise sober people to hallucinate that, at the very least, rotating foundation loans would always be available.

"Always" is a long time, as Albert C. Barnes might say. Barnes, who died in 1951, was America's greatest, crankiest Modern art collector, who amassed a stupendous collection of Impressionist, Postimpressionist and African art. A rich Pennsylvania entrepreneur, he established an incomparable foundation to carry out in perpetuity his explicit artistic wishes. But lately Philadelphia's philanthropic establishment has banded together to wreck that legacy, dismantling what Barnes built. For the inimitable Barnes Foundation, "always" is turning out to be about 50 years.

The Barnes' cautionary tale is instructive. Fifty years of Broad Art Foundation loans would be nice, but 50 years of Broad Art Foundation gifts would be nicer. A fundamental difference distinguishes a private foundation from a public museum. One operates strictly according to the founder's wishes, as long as the founder is around to crack the whip; the other sustains its program, including collections, by virtue of institutional inertia.

Over at MOCA, the impressive show "Collecting Collections" is a marvelous pileup of 254 paintings, sculptures and other post-1939 art. Much of it was acquired from celebrated collections -- Panza, Lowen, Schreiber, Weisman, Lannan and more. One work, a sparkly 1999 painting of a shaman-like monkey by British artist Chris Ofili, was bought with funds from the Broad Art Foundation, which also helped underwrite the show.

Following the law of unintended consequences, however, the exhibition turns out to be less a noisy celebration than a quiet and wholly unexpected plea: MOCA is in desperate need of a bigger building.

Current gallery space is horribly inadequate. When MOCA opened in 1986, half the 25,000 square feet of galleries was pegged to permanent collection display. The allocation surely seemed brave for a fledgling museum with barely any collection, but today commercial galleries in Chelsea are bigger than that. (So is each of BCAM's three floors.) Given 5,000 collection works now, plus MOCA's hard-earned stature as the nation's most prominent contemporary art museum, the minuscule permanent collection space has become laughable.

The joke's on us. Take Mark Rothko (1903 to 1970), the great American artist who melded saturated color and compositional structure to create some of the 20th century's most powerful abstractions. MOCA owns one of the finest Rothko groups anywhere. At least six of the 11 works, which together tell a 27-year story, are among his best.

Three are included in "Collecting Collections." Looking at them I wondered: How did the curator choose which Rothko masterpieces to include and which to omit?

With the aforementioned puzzle now parsed a bit, let's turn to a possible solution. It has three parts.

First, the Broad Art Foundation should buy MOCA's building and move its art lending library there. The foundation has been looking to relocate from its cramped Santa Monica quarters, and MOCA's building already has the requisite art storage and maintenance functions. It's also adjacent to the proposed Grand Avenue redevelopment site, which Broad has guided, and near a subway stop. Long-term foundation installations could be mounted in the galleries and opened to the public.

Second, MOCA should use proceeds from the building sale as seed money for a serious capital campaign. The goal would be a new building with plenty of essential permanent collection space, preferably near the Geffen Contemporary warehouse, plus a decent operating endowment.

Finally, the Broad Art Foundation should invite LACMA and MOCA curators to make formal requests for specific gifts, complete with written rationales for why each particular work makes sense as part of the museum's permanent collection and restricted to the foundation's pre-1978 art. Make it an annual practice, with a rolling 30-year buffer. Museum gifts would yield a full generation of historical distance, and the foundation could continue to buy. Risk would shift away from the cash-strapped museums to the wealthy foundation, while leaving plenty of lending-library art.

The idea is a variation on a standard practice, such as the Ahmanson Foundation's long and magnanimous relationship with LACMA, in which the foundation has worked with curators to build an increasingly impressive European painting collection through annual gifts. A lending-plus-rolling-gift Broad initiative might not represent a whole new paradigm, but at least it's one that would make sense.


For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 28, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction L.A. art museums: In some copies of Wednesday's Calendar section, a caption with an article on the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art gave the name of a MOCA exhibition as "Collection Collections: Highlights From the Permanent Collection." The first part of the exhibition title is "Collecting Collections."
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