The Los Angeles County Museum of Art set an urgent goal this past summer: Hit $600 million in its fundraising campaign for a new Peter Zumthor-designed building by the end of December or the project could be in jeopardy.
Now the campaign, which had been at about $550 million in July, has grown to only $560 million. And the Zumthor project on the whole is behind schedule.
Is LACMA Director Michael Govan concerned? Not at all, he said.
He set the self-imposed December fundraising deadline largely because building costs, other expenses and general inflation all can rise while fundraising drags on. But in retrospect, those concerns haven’t been an issue, he said.
“Nothing seems to have changed significantly. Obviously, we’re in a volatile economy — people don’t know if there’ll be a downturn or anything like that — but we’re not worried,” Govan said. Construction costs are not rising fast enough to cause major problems, he said, “and we have lots of contingencies in the budget.”
But LACMA still has its work cut out. Not only must it continue to amass money toward the $650 million project, but it also must pack up its collection to prepare for construction. And it faces lingering questions about whether an increasingly uncertain economy will hurt fundraising in 2019, whether the museum’s long-in-progress environmental impact report will further delay the project, and how much competition, if any, it will face from construction campaigns at other museums, including the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures next door.
Slowing economic growth, a volatile stock market, trade wars and fears of a global recession would, it seem, present new challenges for fundraising. But Govan seemed unfazed.
"We feel our current pledges are very strong in any economic environment,” he said. “While we can't predict the economy, there's great confidence in the project, and we don't expect anything to deter us, given how far we've come."
Uncertainty might even provide an opportune time for fundraising, said David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy, a leading website covering charitable gift giving nationwide.
“It seems to me that this is an excellent time to sell shares in the stock market. If a downturn is coming, why not liquidate some stock or other assets and make a big gift?” he said. “I haven’t seen any signs of jittery donors, and major gifts have continued flowing to top universities and major cultural institutions.”
The $560 million raised by LACMA so far includes a $150 million gift from entertainment mogul David Geffen, more than $250 million from museum trustees and other donors, plus $125 million in promised funds from Los Angeles County, which will own the museum building. But the county won’t release the funds — or issue a building permit — until the museum’s environmental impact report is approved by the Board of Supervisors. It’s “the big hurdle,” Govan has called it.
The EIR — initiated in August 2016 — is behind schedule. The museum had hoped the process would be completed this year.
“But it’s nothing that’s extremely negative,” Govan said, “and I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be complete by the first quarter of next year.”
The EIR addresses traffic, noise, seismic concerns, and other ways the new building and its construction project temporarily and permanently impact the community and surrounding environment. The consultancy firm Eyestone Environmental is executing the report for the county.
LACMA has tweaked its design, whose span over Wilshire Boulevard has sparked polarized reactions. Zumthor has slimmed the building’s silhouette and further opened the view under the building to the park.
The EIR process is behind schedule, said Brad Bolger, a senior manager in the county’s chief executive office, because LACMA’s new building “is a large and important project with many complexities, including a design that spans Wilshire Boulevard.”
By comparison, the EIR process for the future Academy Museum of Motion Pictures took two years.
Los Angeles is something of a fundraising derby these days. The Academy Museum has raised more than $300 million toward its $388 million campaign. The Hammer Museum has raised more than $130 million toward a $180 million capital campaign for a major expansion.
The Colburn School downtown is raising funds for an expansion that includes a Frank Gehry-designed concert hall. And the Orange County Museum of Art plans to break ground in 2019 on a 52,000-square-foot home at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. Like Govan, OCMA Director Todd D. Smith isn’t concerned about an uncertain economy. “We have not seen any direct impact on our fundraising efforts,” he said.
Once LACMA’s EIR process is complete, the museum will start a more public phase of fundraising, reaching out beyond board trustees and museum insiders through mailings, phone calls and events. Since late summer, LACMA has received three unsolicited gifts of $1 million each from community members not on the board.
“That’s an incredibly strong indicator of community support,” Govan said.
Groundbreaking on the building has been pushed from late 2019 to early 2020 — and the museum expects fundraising to continue throughout the construction process. It aims to have the building “substantially complete” toward the end of 2023, with a planned opening date in early 2024.
In the meantime, LACMA has been packing up more than 120,000 objects from its collection before demolition of four buildings. In June, about half of its permanent collection galleries had closed. On Jan. 6, the part of the Ahmanson Building containing 17th century painting and sculpture will close. On Feb. 3, the area housing Medieval and Impressionist works will close.
During rolling gallery closures, as well as throughout construction, LACMA will show rotating exhibitions from its permanent collection in its Resnick and BCAM buildings — more than 100,000 square feet of combined gallery space. That’s as much exhibition space as LACMA had a decade ago, before those buildings were added in 2008 and 2010, Govan said.
“We’re using it as a chance to show the permanent collection in different ways,” Govan said, “and the ways we’re showing it is an indication, and tangibly answers the question, ‘When you have this new building, how will you show the collection?’ One answer to that is the ‘To Rome and Back’ exhibition, which is on view now.”
Santa may not bring LACMA all the gifts it wants by Christmas. But Govan’s spirits are still high.
“I have no worries or concerns other than continued progress,” he said. “Everybody on the board is fully confident. There’s not an ounce of wavering.”