Elsa Longhauser, who led the transformation of the Santa Monica Museum of Art into the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, will step down as director in mid-2019, the ICA LA board announced on Thursday.
“I just think it’s the right moment to pass the leadership to the next generation,” Longhauser said. “The museum is thriving, I have a wonderful staff who are experts in their field and I feel that it’s really time for a new generation to make their voices heard.”
From 2000 to 2015 Longhauser fashioned the non-collecting Santa Monica Museum of Art, which was located in the Bergamot Station arts complex, as a European-style kunsthalle, a flexible exhibition space. Rather than collect artworks, it collected ideas, Longhauser often said. It featured the first U.S. survey of American artist Al Taylor, “Wire Instruments and Pet Stains (2011),” as well as the 2005 “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle.”
The Santa Monica museum closed in May 2015 after disagreements over Bergamot’s redevelopment — or lack thereof — and a rent increase. Longhauser steered a $5-million fundraising campaign, revamped the board, hired new staffers including curator Jamillah James and oversaw the institution’s relocation to a renovated 12,700-square-foot warehouse in downtown L.A.
It debuted as ICA LA in September 2017 with an outsider artist exhibition, “Martín Ramírez: His Life in Pictures, Another Interpretation.”
Before coming to the SMMoA, Longhauser had been director for 17 years of the Galleries at Moore, part of the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia.
In a statement, ICA LA board President Laura Donnelley called Longhauser “a visionary leader with a master critical eye and much beloved by artists. She is a true alchemist, bringing art and community together in many manifestations. Elsa employs a democratic approach to what art can be and do — expanding the role of a traditional museum.”
A national search committee will begin looking for a new director with Koya Leadership Partners in January.
“We have a museum that is committed to showing important artists — established and emerging — and we have a very profound connection to community and a commitment to social action,” Longhauser said.
It’s a mission she plans to take with her.
“Being in downtown L.A. has made me poignantly aware of the tragedy of the homeless situation in L.A. and so I’m determined to find a way to work on behalf of those kinds of social justice issues.”