Critic’s Notebook: Dear L.A. County: Reject the LACMA redesign plan and go back to the drawing board

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus is primarily in the district of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, left, and partly in that of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, right.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
Art Critic

The County Board of Supervisors meets Tuesday to vote on moving forward with a planned redesign of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They will have two primary decisions to make.

First: Should the county grossly overpay for a new museum building?

Second: Should the county overturn the museum’s original aim to encompass in one place all the cultures that make up modern Los Angeles County?

The obvious answer to both is a resounding no. Here’s why:

The cost per square foot of the plan is about $500 too much. And the plan destroys the vital concept of an encyclopedic art museum, which has successfully guided LACMA for half a century.


I blanched when LACMA Director Michael Govan told my colleague Deborah Vankin in a Times interview published online Saturday that the new building, designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, is “about $1,873, plus or minus” per square foot.

Downtown, the flashy, 4-year-old Broad art museum came in at around $1,260, when adjusted for inflation. The complicated new Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, which opened last fall, came in just above that, at $1,327 per square foot. Three years ago this month, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened an elaborate new building at an inflation-adjusted cost of $1,384 per square foot.

The Broad and SFMOMA are in dangerous earthquake zones, while the Menil is in an area that must be cautious about the potential for epic flooding. All three faced paying an unusual building premium, just as LACMA does. They coped with the budget, but it seems LACMA can’t.

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

The $500 difference is astounding. On a 347,500-square-foot new building, that’s a premium of more than $170 million. Building costs do vary from city to city, but that disparity is more than steep. It’s precipitous.

Some love Zumthor’s design, a single-story building lifted on piers to span Wilshire Boulevard. Others hate it. But aesthetics are not the big problem.


This is: The proposed building is smaller than the buildings it will replace, and it cannot be expanded. When it is done, LACMA is done.

That is a very big deal. A vote to approve doesn’t just affect the future look of the place. It wrecks the invaluable idea of an encyclopedic art museum.

An encyclopedic (or “universal”) museum brings together art from any and every culture, from any and every historical moment, together in one place. It’s a reflection of the polyglot metropolis in which all Angelenos should be able to discover a reflection of themselves — of their history and their connection to their neighbors. The form is crucial to the contextual understanding of the vast diversity of global art.

But the self-contained new building, which cannot grow with the collection, represents the launch of a different museum philosophy. Govan declared it to LACMA membership in a mass-email last week.

“Our future expansion might be best pursued not on our Wilshire campus,” he wrote, “but rather in the communities throughout Los Angeles where we intend to bring our art collection to future satellite locations.”

Sounds nice, bringing art to the people. But a balkanized museum offering mere fragments instead of a cosmopolitan, encyclopedic whole is not a recipe for salvation. Satellites are an old and costly boutique-museum idea that has been tried — and failed — elsewhere.

Satellites pledge access to the artistic inheritance of humanity, and access is indeed crucial. But if access were the priority, the museum wouldn’t be charging adults $16 to $25 a pop to get in. Better that LACMA should put its shoulder to the wheel of making admission to its Wilshire campus free for every county resident, rather than chop up the universal art collection and spread it around over the county’s 4,751 square miles.

PERSPECTIVE: Troublesome signs in a risky LACMA reorganization plan »

A “yes” vote from the supervisors means that more than 50 years of the county project to build the last great encyclopedic art museum in the United States is over. It has driven five former LACMA directors, scores of curators and professional staff, countless past benefactors, an array of trustees and untold others in building the institution, virtually from scratch, since 1965.

Their collective aim — exciting in its audacity, achieved in fits and starts with varying degrees of success — was that LACMA would be the last great encyclopedic museum to be built in the United States, given the rapidly shrinking pool of available major art. Other illustrious American examples — in Boston or Cleveland; St. Louis or New York; Philadelphia; Kansas City, Mo.; Toledo, Ohio; or Chicago — have been at it far longer. Encyclopedic art museums are a rare accomplishment, but that remarkable achievement for Los Angeles County will grind to a halt.

There will be no getting it back. The final environmental impact report that the supervisors have in their hands makes no mention of that, even though it is the defining environmental impact of the plan on which they are about to vote.

Money does matter. (So far, about $36 million has been spent, according to county figures.) Fundraising is stuck below targets, although Govan has pulled in far more in pledges than any past director. He’s unusually good at that. Future directors better be too.

That’s because the planned new building has zero “back of the house” services — no curatorial offices, no conservation studio, no art storage, no library, etc. Like the needless satellites, those essentials will be farmed out. LACMA will be tied to the ongoing annual expense of paying commercial rents off-site, all while servicing the project’s hefty debt load over coming decades.

Honestly, it’s irrelevant whether the form of Zumthor’s design looks like a coffee table or a small-city airport terminal, as critics have said, or whether the concrete is black or beige or that the naming opportunity for one of two planned cafes has gone to Ryan Seacrest. (The “American Idol” host is a museum trustee, and although LACMA officials haven’t yet announced it, he has signed a $2.5-million pledge to underwrite the restaurant. Good on him.) Those concerns draw lots of chatter, but they pale beside the encyclopedic issue.

I suspect the supervisors have no idea, either about encyclopedic museums or the looks-good-only-on-paper satellite “solution.” They shouldn’t have to know. Supervisors not in District 2 or 3, overlapping the site of LACMA’s campus, might figure that a satellite coming their way would be just the ticket. The whole topic is as rare as the 50-year achievement that’s about to be squandered.

County Chief Executive Officer Sachi A. Hamai has endorsed the plan, but the recommendation is wrong. It should be rejected — and not only because of that boggling $1,873-per-square-foot cost.