LACMA and city of L.A. try to resolve Watts Towers hang-up

The city’s bid to enlist the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a key player in conserving the Watts Towers has hit a snag as LACMA seeks a guarantee that it won’t be held financially liable for any damage to the folk-art masterpiece that might result if its work on the towers were to go awry.

As a matter of policy, when LACMA takes on an art conservation project for an outside owner, it requires insurance or a legal guarantee relieving it of any financial responsibility for damage, Barbara Pflaumer, the museum’s spokeswoman, said Wednesday. Until now, she said, the city has asked that LACMA be “fully liable in the event of damage caused by our work” on the towers.

Olga Garay, who heads the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, said Wednesday that she hopes to satisfy the museum’s requirement, possibly by bringing the Watts Towers under the insurance umbrella that already covers L.A.'s 2,000-work municipal art collection.

But such a deal, she said, would require the OK of both the state of California, which owns the towers and has contracted with the city to operate and maintain them until 2028, and the insurance carrier that provides up to $10 million (for earthquake damage only) or $13 million in coverage for L.A.'s art collection.

“We’re willing to come up with an agreement [LACMA] can work with. I think we’re almost there,” said Saul Romo, the cultural affairs department’s assistant general manager, who has been involved in the negotiations. But he said the outcome depends on the city’s legal and insurance experts being able to nail down contract details that work for all parties.


Aside from the liability issue, the terms of an agreement on the towers appear to be mutually acceptable: The museum would provide its know-how free; the city would pay other costs and has budgeted $150,000 this year for labor and materials. That’s down from $300,000 a year before the current municipal budget crunch, and according to a rough estimate Garay issued last year, it would take $5 million to restore the towers to prime condition. To address that cash shortage, LACMA, whose director, Michael Govan, is a longtime admirer of the Watts Towers, would also provide marketing advice and connections to potential donors who might help underwrite the towers’ restoration and upkeep.

The towers, which Simon Rodia built single-handedly from 1921 to 1954 on a small triangle of land on East 107th Street near Santa Ana Boulevard, have a skeleton of steel that’s coated in a concrete skin. The highest tower is just shy of 100 feet tall. Colorful bits of pottery, bottle glass and seashells that Rodia embedded in the sculptures create the fantasy-like effect that helped them gain recognition in 1990 as a National Historic Landmark.

Citizens’ groups that are devoted to the towers often have criticized the city’s conservation methods and what they see as a lack of resources and know-how. Hopes are that LACMA’s expertise would ensure that the towers get the best care possible.

Garay said that no restoration work has been done on the towers since July 1, when a new fiscal year began and austerity measures left the site without a regular worker to carry out fixes. With the department’s longtime in-house towers conservator on extended sick leave for nearly a year, Garay said, Jeffrey Herr, curator of Frank Lloyd Wright’s city-owned Hollyhock House, inspects them two or three times a week to see if repairs are needed, and Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the next-door Watts Towers Arts Center, checks them daily for damage.