Will Santa Monica Museum of Art leave the city?

Elsa Longhauser, executive director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art, in 2010. Longhauser recently said the museum -- with its future at Bergamot Station in doubt -- is looking to move, possibly outside Santa Monica city limits.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

If there’s an art world equivalent of the endangered species list, the Santa Monica Museum of Art is officially on it, at least in its current habitat at the Bergamot Station arts complex.

The Santa Monica City Council raised doubts at its latest meeting about the museum’s future as a Santa Monica institution anchoring Bergamot Station, which includes commercial galleries and a theater company.

“The Santa Monica Museum of Art is struggling and may not be viable,” Mayor Kevin McKeown said during a discussion about forming a citizens committee. The committee would advise city officials and a private developer who’s refining plans for updating Bergamot, the former railroad depot and freight yard that opened as an arts complex in 1994.

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Jason Harris, the city’s economic development manager, said the museum “has had a significant increase in its rent and is unable to find space it can afford in Santa Monica.”


That, the council decided, meant that the city should hedge its bets by revising project guidelines, which had specified “a permanent home for the Santa Monica Museum of Art.”

Under the restated guideline adopted at the council’s Feb. 10 meeting the art museum is the preferred candidate for space reserved for an arts nonprofit, but some other “museum or significant cultural institution,” not necessarily devoted to visual art, would be eligible.

The idea of the proposed redevelopment is to make Bergamot Station more alluring to more visitors without fundamentally altering its character or the rough-hewn industrial charm of its metal-sided buildings.

The impetus for the makeover is the expected opening next year of the light rail Exposition Line’s extension into Santa Monica, including a train stop at Bergamot that city planners expect will serve more than 3,000 riders daily.

The museum, which organizes and imports exhibitions of contemporary art but doesn’t have a collection of its own, seemed to have the inside track on reaping immense benefits from the makeover as recently as September.

A $92-million development plan recommended by the city’s economic development staff would have handed the museum a new $7-million building, doubling its size to 20,000 square feet, and provided a $10-million endowment courtesy of the favored developer.

But things quickly boomeranged for the museum. Amid opposition from commercial gallery owners who feared the recommended plan was too upscale and would price them out of the Bergamot complex, the City Council instead began exclusive negotiations with a different developer, Worthe Real Estate Group. Worthe’s $84-million proposal offered a much more modest $2.9-million building for the museum and no endowment.

In the fall, landlord Wayne Blank raised the museum’s rent about 58% to $15,525 a month, he said.

“I’ve subsidized them for all these years to the tune of close to $3 million dollars, and in December I gave them a donation of $30,000,” Blank said in an interview. “So I’ve bent over backward to try and keep that museum here, and now I’ve had enough.”

The museum said it would stay at Bergamot at least until this summer; its annual Incognito benefit will be in May. But it has been exploring new rental spaces in Santa Monica and elsewhere. It hasn’t found any desirable and affordable options yet, but the museum remains viable, director Elsa Longhauser said.

“We’re completely viable,” Longhauser said in response to McKeown’s recent statement. “We’ve been here for 16 years. We’ve always raised the money for our annual budget, and in the past several years, that’s been in the range of $2 million.”

The museum, established in 1988 in the Ocean Park district and moved to Bergamot Station in 1998, doesn’t necessarily want to stay in its current location, Longhauser said. Redevelopment isn’t moving fast enough to meet the increased foot traffic the area is expected to see with the rail line, she said.

“The landscape here has changed,” she said, adding that “at this moment, under the given situation,” she wasn’t sure being in Bergamot was desirable anymore. “But we are planning to prevail no matter who the developer is and no matter the location.”

If the museum does leave Santa Monica city limits, it will have to change its name and possibly expand its vision.

“The mission would stay close to what it is, but the vision might be expanded and enhanced if we were in another location because we’re responsive to the communities in which we reside,” Longhauser said. “But we’d remain a noncollecting museum with a determination to be agile and nimble and experimental and risk-taking. That would not change.”

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