Commentary: Fundraising for LACMA’s new building has stalled as costs balloon
Over the past 16 months, Los Angeles County Museum of Art fundraising to erect a controversial new building, replacing most of its Wilshire Boulevard campus, has virtually ground to a halt. Four-fifths of the $650 million needed had been pledged by summer 2018, but next to nothing has been raised since.
It gets worse.
Last spring, three people close to the project and with knowledge of the budget discussions have told me, LACMA switched gears: In-house, the museum stopped using the $650-million figure as the new building’s expected cost. For internal planning purposes, the people said, senior staff was told that the number now in play is $750 million.
LACMA’s crumbling infrastructure is a genuine predicament. But weak philanthropy, a longtime but misleading L.A. stereotype, is not the reason the museum’s funding campaign has stalled. Instead, the weakness is in a poor idea that has met escalating costs.
The new plan is to convert some of the permanent collection into temporary theme shows in a building that is actually smaller than what already exists — the Incredible Shrinking Museum — while outsourcing other parts of the LACMA collection to ill-defined future satellites to be scattered around the county. The distinctive value of an encyclopedic collection, which brings global art together in one place, gets undermined. What has taken half a century of curatorial and philanthropic labor to assemble is about to be dissolved.
To house the new program, a building was commissioned from Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The aesthetically uninspired design went through numerous revisions over 13 years. Now composed of a single story, organic form in concrete, raised on piers to span Wilshire, its periphery ringed in glass with curtains provided to control the California sunshine, it has garnered scant critical support.
The usual explanation for fundraising under-performance would involve L.A.’s hoary reputation as a tough town for large-scale cultural philanthropy. A $650-million or $750-million project is not small.
The actual explanation for the shortfall, however, seems to lie elsewhere. Before we get to the details, a few salient facts:
Just days before the museum’s recent Art + Film Gala, a glittery annual extravaganza held to raise money to underwrite programs, a LACMA spokesperson told The Times that pledges for the new building stood at $560 million. During the event itself, Michael Govan, the museum’s director, nudged the number upward a bit, saying the campaign is “pushing $580 million.”
Whichever number is correct, the accounting is grim.
In July 2018, the fundraising tally was reported to be $550 million. By the end of the year, just $10 million was added. Sluggishness had set in.
Because Govan had set a self-imposed target of having $600 million pledged by the end of 2018, those numbers were worrisome. He was $40 million short. A year later, he more or less still is — at the very least.
All three people who cited the larger $750 million cost were unauthorized to speak publicly, and all requested anonymity. None could say whether that big jump in the expected expense came before or after the April 9 vote of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which released $117.5 million in taxpayer funds for the project.
Either way, LACMA has not publicly announced an increased target. (In response to an inquiry from The Times, a museum spokesperson said the projected cost for the building remains $650 million.) If the new figure is correct — and one of the three people indicated that there had been some discussion about raising it considerably higher — the museum has at least $170 million to go.
What’s going on? Why has fundraising stalled?
The problem is not that money is scarce. At minimum, LACMA can claim 16 billionaires on its board of trustees. Sixteen.
For years, charitable giving by individual Americans has represented a modest 2% of total disposable income, according to surveys by Giving USA, an annual report on philanthropy compiled at the University of Indiana. The nonpartisan Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation also estimates that, thanks to the 2017 Trump tax cuts, wealthy families earning between $200,000 and $1 million saw their tax bills drop an average of 9% in each of the last two years.
Just the money the board’s billionaires saved would likely cover most of their museum’s fundraising gap. LACMA trustees have put up close to half of the pledged funds, and there’s no reason to think they lack the financial wherewithal to put the campaign over the top.
But they haven’t done it.
The clock keeps ticking. The months — and now years — go by. The building project keeps getting pushed back, today standing at well over a year behind schedule, even as the museum’s collection galleries were shuttered on Tuesday, the art packed up in crates.
The example usually brought up when sluggish cultural philanthropy in Los Angeles is claimed is the famous near-miss in building Walt Disney Concert Hall. Funding did indeed stall, but once revived, the building project went on to witness unparalleled triumph.
Disney Hall’s fundraising woes happened between 1994 and 1996 — which, if you haven’t noticed, was a generation ago. The “sluggish L.A. philanthropy” explanation is so 20th century. Here in the 21st, a different era has emerged.
The best example of just how much it has changed is, ironically enough, LACMA. The existing total pledge of $560 million for a new building is larger than any cultural fundraising tally I could name in the city’s history.
So the reason for today’s stall lies elsewhere. Almost three years ago, Govan himself put his finger on the more current governing dynamic in an interview with the New York Times.
“I can’t say it strongly enough: It’s not a question of whether there’s money in L.A for such a project: There is,” Govan said. “The question is, will people decide that’s what they want to do with it.”
He’s right. There is enough money. And not enough people who have enough money have decided they want to make Govan’s vision a reality.
I don’t blame them. Well-placed concern has grown over the uninspiring building and what it means for both the museum and L.A., starting with lost possibilities for future expansion at the site. Not only will the expensive new structure offer less gallery space than the old buildings it will replace, but the museum’s important collections will no longer be permanently installed.
The New Republic aptly dissed the costly, ill-defined scheme for future satellite facilities around the county as “little more than a convenient excuse for real estate investors to kick-start the all-too-familiar gentrification process.” Meanwhile, to make a half-baked idea for a ceaseless diet of changing theme exhibitions a reality, the budget has apparently ballooned.
The list of issues is long. In short, the plan radically transforms LACMA’s mission in dubious but irreversible ways that have become clear only in the last two years.
No wonder anxieties have been sent skyward. The plan is shortsighted, not visionary as claimed. When fingers are shaking, wallets just don’t readily open.
It started as a promising California art biennial. It’s now a partnership with a government linked to human rights abuses and the killing of a journalist.
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