Santa Monica Museum of Art to leave longtime home at Bergamot Station

Elsa Longhauser, executive director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art. She will lead the museum in a search for a new home after its coming departure from the Bergamot Station art complex.

Elsa Longhauser, executive director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art. She will lead the museum in a search for a new home after its coming departure from the Bergamot Station art complex.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Santa Monica Museum of Art is suspending operations, calling a timeout to consider its options for a future away from its longtime but no longer hospitable home at the Bergamot Station art complex.

Two current exhibitions that close Saturday will be the contemporary art museum’s last shows at Bergamot Station, the former rail depot that the museum, which opened in 1988 at another location, moved to in 1998.

Its farewell to Bergamot will be May 2 and 3, when it will host an annual fundraising event called “Incognito,” in which L.A. artists, including such notables as John Baldessari, Mark Bradford, Raymond Pettibon and Ed Ruscha, donate small pieces for the museum to sell.


After that, Executive Director Elsa Longhauser and the museum’s eight full-time employees will pack up and, starting in June, work out of offices in Century City that will become the planning hub for whatever is to come next — with rent paid for by a donor.

The museum, which typically spends about $2million a year, has the flexibility to consider a variety of new locations because it has no art collection tethering it to a permanent spot that is specially equipped to store and preserve art.

It puts on temporary exhibitions conceived by Longhauser and guest curators, which it augments with touring shows. The main obligations going forward are four scheduled exhibitions that Longhauser said will be fulfilled, although the dates and locations are not certain.

The first, “The Hidden World: Jim Shaw Didactic Art Collection,” was to have opened this spring but will likely be postponed until next year. The others had been announced for 2016 and 2017, including a touring show of the visual art of Mark Mothersbaugh, frontman of the rock band Devo.

The decision to pull out of Bergamot, a 7.5-acre complex that the museum has shared with more than 30 commercial art galleries, stemmed from redevelopment plans for the site that, from the museum’s perspective, went badly off track.

Over the course of more than a year of wrangling involving prospective private developers and the Santa Monica City Council, the museum’s vision for the part of Bergamot Station that’s owned by the city was derailed, while its relations with the neighboring galleries soured.


Instead of choosing a private developer who proposed funneling $17million to the museum to double its size to 20,000 square feet and provide it with an operating endowment, the City Council opted for a proposal seen as a less radical reconfiguring of Bergamot Station — more intent on preserving its industrial-chic character and less likely to generate large rent increases that could displace current gallery tenants.

The rejected plan “would have been a major achievement for the museum,” Longhauser said, but now the focus is on moving forward.

“I want it to be very clear that we are not closing. We are moving. Our museum is all about agility and experimentation and being a collection of ideas, not being a permanent collection. Although this is not something we had planned, we realize we have to take the mission, vision and purpose to a next stage.”

Longhauser said that a special $350,000 fundraising campaign, and an additional $300,000 it hopes to raise from “Incognito,” will underwrite an indefinite planning period in which it will consider possible new sites while working to enlarge its board and boost its fundraising capacity.

“We will use this time very intensely and judiciously to examine all the possibilities and determine what makes the most sense,” Longhauser said.

The museum’s recent problems at Bergamot Station included an expensive tiff with its landlord, gallery owner Wayne Blank, that led to a temporary doubling of its rent and the need to raise $70,000 from donors to meet his demand for back rent (Blank himself contributed $30,000).


Longhauser said that as the museum’s position at Bergamot deteriorated and its problems were aired at City Council meetings, some feelers began to come in.

“None has led to something definite, but it has given us a lot of food for thought,” Longhauser said. “Because we have been staying pretty quiet about this, we haven’t gotten a huge influx of people saying, ‘We’d like to offer you this and that.’”

Longhauser said one objective is securing the kind of token rent enjoyed by most of L.A.’s leading museums, instead of the $8,500 a month it paid at Bergamot Station.

Blank, who founded the Bergamot complex, owns a share of it and leases the rest from the city, said he wishes the museum well but that the commercial galleries, rather than the nonprofit museum, are its most important magnets. “Bergamot did well before [the art museum] got here, and it will continue to do well,” Blank said.

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