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Entertainment & Arts

LACMA, the Incredible Shrinking Museum: A critic’s lament

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Peter Zumthor’s newest design for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shrinks rather than enlarges the size of its permanent collection galleries.
(Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner)
Art Critic

Within weeks, the County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on releasing $117.5 million in taxpayer funds to help build a much-needed new home for the imposing permanent collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The total price tag to replace four crumbling and inefficient buildings is $650 million, with the lion’s share privately funded.

I do not envy the supervisors their task. Once assured, viewed almost as a slam-dunk, the vote is now a gnawing puzzlement.

That’s because of some startling news that broke last week. We learned on the eve of the decision that the ambitious construction plan at the Wilshire Boulevard campus has been radically downsized.

What was once a project designed to add nearly 50,000 square feet of critically needed gallery space committed to showcasing the museum’s impressive and still-growing permanent collection of paintings, sculptures and other global works of art has been turned on its head. Now, rather than enlarge the capacity, the scheme is to reduce the existing gallery square footage by more than 10,000 square feet.

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Adding 50,000 square feet might not even have been enough. Subtracting 10,000 is absurd.

LACMA has become the Incredible Shrinking Museum. I couldn’t name another art museum anywhere that has ever raised hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on reducing its collection space.

Peter Zumthor, 75, the celebrated Swiss architect chosen almost a decade ago for the job by LACMA Director Michael Govan, is known as a slow, deliberate designer whose aim is to craft evocative, atmospheric spaces. The museum, his first building in the United States, is easily the largest he has tackled.

Zumthor’s building would replace three existing structures erected when LACMA opened in 1965, plus a fourth completed in 1985. Together, they contain 120,000 square feet of collection galleries.

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The size of new gallery space has been a moving target from the beginning.

  • In 2013, as a debut exhibition of preliminary building designs was being readied, a LACMA spokesman explained to The Times that the new facility would essentially replicate the existing square footage of what was being torn down, rather than giving the museum’s collection additional room.
  • The following year, in the run-up to the Board of Supervisors vote on earmarking project funds, Govan told a meeting of editors and reporters at The Times that the display area had changed. The design’s newest iteration would enlarge space for the permanent collection by 50,000 square feet.
  • Barely a year later, as LACMA prepared celebrations for its 50th anniversary, that number had already been trimmed. The expansion was pegged at an additional 40,000 square feet — 10,000 less, but still roughly the size of LACMA’s newly built Resnick Pavilion, the hall where temporary exhibitions are shown.

And there the number stood — until the completed environmental impact report was filed with the county on March 22.

Eagle-eyed William Poundstone, who writes at his ironically named blog Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, named for a famous Ed Ruscha painting, waded through the 577-page report. He discovered that the plan for galleries had shrunk to 109,900 square feet — a precipitous drop from the 170,000 square feet contemplated in 2014, and smaller than what’s there now.

From nearly 42% more gallery space when the Board of Supervisors gave preliminary approval to the rebuilding plan, there will now be about 8% less than LACMA has today. Frankly, that’s a disaster for adequate display of the permanent collection.

From nearly 42% more gallery space when the Board of Supervisors gave preliminary approval ... there will now be about 8% less than LACMA has today.

LACMA’s collection is something of a miracle, the bulk of its roughly 125,000 objects acquired just in the last six decades. Encyclopedic in range, with superlative holdings in Dutch Golden Age painting, South Asian sculpture, ceramics from ancient West Mexico, Korean ancestor portraits and Joseon dynasty vessels, modern German Expressionism, Safavid dynasty art from Iran and much more, it compares favorably when measured against encyclopedic museums of much older vintage.

That collection will continue to grow. LACMA last year reported adding art valued at more than $35 million, most of it from gifts.

But the new building cannot grow with it. Zumthor’s design is self-contained. A single-story, curvilinear structure is raised on massive piers to span Wilshire Boulevard at Spaulding Avenue. Additions are out of the question.

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Why the shrinkage? Sluggish fundraising is one speculation. However, a dubious shift in museum philosophy is just as likely.

Given vast L.A. sprawl, the museum has promoted developing satellite facilities. A small one is in place at the Vincent Price Museum at East Los Angeles College, and two more are planned for South L.A. Fine with me — except, not for the permanent collection.

An encyclopedic or universal museum is distinct from other kinds for its diverse global holdings. Uniquely valuable because that diversity is pulled together in one place, it reflects the cosmopolitan urbanity of a modern city.

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A rendering of the proposed museum interior
(Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner)

Creating such a collection has been labored over for half a century by countless LACMA curators. Balkanizing it into satellites defeats the purpose. Satellites only work for temporary exhibitions, not permanent collections.

LACMA, however, is also planning to remove permanence from its new Wilshire Boulevard collection galleries. Instead, works culled from the collection will be assembled as temporary theme shows. The strategic change was illustrated by a recently closed example at the Resnick — “To Rome and Back,” a thin and ineffective look at ancient Rome as an artistic inspiration over centuries. The show was an embarrassment.

Presumably those collection theme shows might someday circulate among LACMA’s future satellites — a local version of the Guggenheim Museum’s failed effort to franchise the New York institution in a host of global cities. Govan was deputy director at the Guggenheim from 1988 to 1994, when initial plans were drawn for its branded satellite in Bilbao, Spain.

Bilbao has a brilliant, now-famous Frank Gehry building and a generic, barely noteworthy art collection.

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The hapless Rome show, a sample of what’s to come, confirmed my skepticism about the unique and risky plan, which I expressed to Govan in conversation a few years back. Not to worry, he reasonably argued; if thematic collection installations don’t work out, nothing prevents a future return to standard encyclopedic displays based on simple geography and chronology.

Except, now something does. Diminished gallery space prevents it. There is no turning back.

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Another view of Peter Zumthor's revised LACMA building spanning Wilshire Boulevard, with the nearby high-rise providing rental office space for museum staff.
(Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner)

THROUGH THE YEARS: LACMA’s five decades on Miracle Mile »

Other practical problems plague the museum design, starting with the absence of curators offices. The collection’s custodians, along with most of the remaining professional staff, will be housed in a skyscraper across the street, occupying five full floors of rental space.

Curators in exile? Ideally, curatorial offices should open directly onto galleries, so that staff has daily interaction with the collection in its public domain.

It’s true that art museums are more expensive to build than routine office space, but rental expenses in perpetuity more than eradicate any upfront savings. The initial outlay is simply the cost of doing effective museum business.

The $600-million price tag presented to county officials in 2014 for their initial project greenlight soon bumped up to $650 million. With a reduced building plan now, LACMA is offering less art for more money. Is an Incredible Shrinking Museum really worthy of taxpayer support?


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