L.A.’s biggest museum fan, 81, gets by with a little help from his friends

Ben Barcelona zips his jacket to take a walk from his to his daughter's apartment on his 81st birthday on March 22, 2020.
Ben Barcelona en route to his daughter’s apartment on his 81st birthday on March 22, 2020. His daily walks are opportunities to see art in the everyday.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Part of a year-end series revisiting the subjects of some of our most popular arts articles of the year.

We’re not gonna lie. When the pandemic first hit and nearly every cultural institution in California closed, we were concerned about 81-year-old Ben Barcelona, L.A.’s most devoted museum fan.

Since retiring as an architect at 73, Barcelona ritualistically visited a different art museum, gallery or public art installation, on a set schedule, every day of the week, never taking a sick day in eight years, he says. The outings were familial pilgrimages of sorts for Barcelona, who shares a small Koreatown apartment with two roommates. Museum employees were like family to him, and the galleries provided a veritable living room to which to escape. The art was his inspiration and salve.

Barcelona was resilient in the early days of the pandemic, self-quarantining while sustaining himself on art books, homemade sandwiches and walks to his daughter’s Koreatown apartment.


Nine months later?

“So far I think I am beating this virus,” Barcelona says. “It’s because I walk every day an average of 17,000 steps, about six miles, around the neighborhood. And everywhere, I see art.”

Barcelona looks for art in the quotidian. Wandering the sidewalks of Koreatown is a meditative practice for Barcelona, one in which he notices more detail than when riding the bus. A rundown building, to his eye, is shot through with beautifully abstract cracks in the concrete; cacophonous traffic noise is a symphony. The streetscape also conjures some of his favorite cultural figures.

“It reminds me of those great masters like Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham. They were inspired by the streets and now I fully understand,” Barcelona says. “For Merce, when you walk in a city and listen to the sound of construction, the honking, and you see people walking, to him, it’s a dance.”

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When art galleries began reopening for timed appointments, Barcelona ventured out, stopping at Steve Turner Gallery, Regen Projects and Bridge Projects. “With the Zoom, I’m not so happy; it’s too small and I have no chance to go deeply,” he says of online art viewing.

Barcelona was especially moved by an exhibition of Senga Nengudi’s large installations at Sprüth Magers gallery on Wilshire Boulevard. “She’s a feminist, it was inspiring,” he says.

Then Barcelona looked across the street, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — or where much of it used to be. “Not so inspiring,” he says of the vacant space left by recent demolition.


“Oh, my God — gone!” he says. “The old memories I have with that building. I’m very attached. Because that is my first museum membership. And to be gone, oh God, it’s unbelievable.”

Barcelona, who immigrated to Los Angeles from the Philippines in 1969, says weathering the pandemic has been made easier because his found family — the museum community — stepped up.

The Getty Museum mailed him books about 16th and 17th century art, he says; LACMA sent books on artist Yoshitomo Nara and photographer Vera Lutter; the Hammer Museum sent a book about choreographer Cunningham. Even strangers reached out. L.A. artist Judy Fiskin — after reading about Barcelona in The Times — sent him a book about Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.

“They’re all very good to me,” he says.

Barcelona says the exhibit he’s most looking forward to seeing, when museums finally do open up, is the Hammer’s “Made in L.A. 2020: a version.”

“I’m always there, every “Made in L.A.” he says. “That’s my No. 1.”

And to be certain, Barcelona will visit the Hammer on a Wednesday. Because post-pandemic, he plans to return to his long-held art-going schedule.

“But you know, all museums — the excitement will be very powerful for me,” Barcelona says of future reopenings. “Life is different inside the museum. Just uplifting and inspiring. When I leave the museum, I feel like a million-dollar man.”


81-year-old Ben Barcelona is L.A.’s most devoted museum-goer. But what happens when the coronavirus shutters culture in California?

April 23, 2020