Ten years is a lifetime in the art world, where the vicissitudes of trends and tastes can befuddle the most experienced. Yet Elsa Longhauser by many accounts has been able to scope out the creative zeitgeist of this city as she completes her first decade at the helm of the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Tucked into a corner of the Bergamot Station arts complex, it is a small museum that seeks to speak with a big voice.
She has a clear vision for the mission of her institution, conceived as a kunsthalle, or space for showing rotating exhibitions without establishing any collection of its own. The museum has a large main gallery and a smaller projects room that are programmed throughout the year. Early on Longhauser decided to focus on Southern California artists, including those who once worked here for a time, such as the Italian artist Alberto Burri, recently featured in the exhibition “Combustione: Alberto Burri and America.” Another strength, as witnessed by those who have worked with her, is an openness to new ideas and new ways of presenting visual art.
“When I came here,” says Longhauser, “I was taken with the fact there were so many important artists living here, working here, teaching here whose work wasn’t so well known within the larger context of contemporary art, so that became the focus of this program.” Thus in the last decade she’s shown Michael Asher, Allen Ruppersberg and Kim MacConnel. She’s also been quick to call on the curatorial expertise of others, such as the late Walter Hopps, a founder of the seminal Ferus Gallery. “One of the first things I did was to invite Walter Hopps to curate an exhibition,” she says, “and he wanted to organize a George Herms show, and he did. Walter Hopps actually gave his very last lecture here, at this museum.” That was in 2005.
However, the museum doesn’t limit itself to the regional. It also sometimes features the national and international, especially when outside curators are involved. In 2001, for example, Thelma Golden brought a group show of emerging African American artists, “Freestyle,” from the Studio Museum in Harlem, and in 2003 Lynne Cooke curated a show on the diagrammatic paintings of Alfred Jensen. More recently, Longhauser heeded a recommendation from impresario Peter Sellars to present the assemblage and sculptural work of Ethiopian artist Elias Sime — an exhibition was eventually put together by Sellars and Meskerem Assegued. It dovetailed nicely with the production of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” and “Symphony of Psalms” that Sellars staged for the L.A. Philharmonic — conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s farewell program. Sime’s custom-made thrones were incorporated into the set.
“She’s just incredibly personal and alive to what’s moving, both emotionally and in the culture,” gushes Sellars. “She really comes to things without ideological bias. Her freshness and ability to move on impulse, freedom and daring from moment to moment, it’s what art is about.”
Today Longhauser celebrates her 10th anniversary as executive director of the museum, in the form of a fundraiser with works donated by 25 artists, including John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Kim McCarty, Betye Saar and Peter Shire. The event is called “The Power of Ten: Take a Chance on Art.” Fundraising is a preoccupation for the museum, and over the years it’s received support from foundations (including the Annenberg, James Irvine, Andy Warhol and Good Works foundations) as well as funding from individuals and Santa Monica and Los Angeles to cobble together an annual budget of $2 million.
In the L.A. art scene, Longhauser stands out for her deliberate, slightly formal manner of speaking and for her Bohemian dress — she often wears a head wrap and long dresses or skirts. “She’s an original, including the outfits she wears,” says artist Mark Bradford, who has been in two group shows at the museum. When included in “Freestyle,” he suggested bringing in a large marching band to open the show. And they did, inviting a Watts high school marching band, the Mudtown King and Queen Drill Team and Drum Squad, to perform.
Though previously aware of California artists, Longhauser says she has learned about them in greater depth after moving here with her husband, William Longhauser, a graphic designer.
When she is asked if her institution can flourish in a city dotted with museums, she replies, “This is an enormous city, and it has a number of museums with very diverse missions, but you can never have enough. Having a number of museums makes a city great.” What’s more, she knows she must reach out to share her programming. “We are always doing audience building and trying to meet audience needs,” she says. "We are absolutely focused on making this a more prominent destination, but the truth is it’s on many people’s list already.”
Longhauser became intrigued by art and art history while attending the University of Pennsylvania. “When I got to graduate school, I realized I didn’t want to be an academic, but I wanted to give back in a sense, to give to people what I had learned from art.”
She tried out the educational world as director of exhibitions at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and then the world of commercial art as director of the Max Protetch Gallery in New York. The former seemed to suit her better, and she went on to serve for 17 years as director of the Galleries at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia.
“I feel strongly it’s my job to demystify the experience for the public so that art is not something forbidding or elusive,” she says. “When you walk into this museum and you’re confronted with a body of abstract work, I feel compelled to give you a road map if you will to look at and to try to understand.” For her that means wall labels that are clear and succinct as well as lectures, panel discussions and other educational programs in conjunction with the exhibitions. The museum runs with a lean staff of 10.
Longhauser is proud of their Burri show for which Lisa Melandri, deputy director of exhibitions and programming, traveled to Italy to do original research; education director Asuka Hisa put together a program of speakers and panel discussions. “People in the art world have seen Burri works in Europe and a few in the United States, but very few people connected Burri with Los Angeles or knew he had lived here 25 years for half the year or that his wife was American or that many of the works were inspired by his life here.” She points out that Burri will be included in shows at MoCA and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. “We were the first if you will to distill the information about Burri, so it has sparked people’s interest.”
Later this year the museum will feature a show about the ceramicist Beatrice Wood, conceived as part of the citywide Pacific Standard Time initiative of the Getty Foundation. “She lived for an entire century, and she’s the embodiment of the artistic spirit of the 20th century,” Longhauser says. “She had an incredibly interesting life. She started as an actress and then she met Marcel Duchamp.” In the early 1930s she bought some luster-glaze plates and wanted a teapot to go with them. A friend suggested that she make one herself, so she enrolled in the adult education program at Hollywood High. In her autobiography “I Shock Myself,” Wood writes, “I became infatuated with clay and glazes....”
Later Wood moved to Ojai, following the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti, and set up a pottery studio where she perfected her luster-glaze work. " Though the Santa Monica show (opening Sept. 10) will focus on her ceramics, it will also include drawings and paintings.
“Ten years is not a long time when you are fulfilling an artistic vision,” Longhauser says. Her job, she feels, “is always changing, always evolving. I feel like my work is not finished and that Los Angeles itself provides very rich and fertile possibilities for creating exhibitions and ideas.”