Seven years ago last month, when Michael Govan was named the sixth director in the relatively brief history of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, his mandate was clear: overhaul the place.
The ambitious plan was to make LACMA the nation's only general-interest art museum to feature a major program in the rambunctious field of Modern and contemporary art.
Why? The place of the new amid the old was contentious from the institution's start, as it has been for every encyclopedic museum that collects art from nearly every global civilization in recorded human history. But history is dynamic, not static. The singular goal on Wilshire Boulevard has been to use what artists make now to frame what artists made in the high plateaus of ancient Mexico, the painting studios of 17th century Holland or the shogun-era workshops of Japan.
That transformation is a work in progress. It mostly adds up, however, on the plus side of the ledger — with at least one indispensable element, which we'll get to in a moment, left largely unfulfilled.
LACMA's first phase unfolded after the museum opened in 1965 — a nanosecond in the world of art museums, whose European origins date back hundreds of years. It represented an ambitious if frankly impossible dream: Starting virtually from scratch, build an L.A. variant on New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the nation's greatest assembly of world art dating from before the Modern era.
John Walker, the late director of Washington's National Gallery of Art, also sat on LACMA's board in the early years, and he explained the ambition. "Of course, the Met has a 100-year advantage," he told The Times in 1969. "But I believe Los Angeles to have the financial resources and the civic enthusiasm to build a great general collection [from] AD 1200 to our own time."
It was a promise that could not be fully kept, given the late start. But the notion of a "West Coast Met" did possess the virtue of audacity.
The result has been the growth of an encyclopedic art collection with numerous areas of remarkable strength — pre-Columbian funerary art from western Mexico, Dutch Golden Age paintings, Edo-period Japanese screens and scrolls, 20th century German Expressionism and more. The overall quality is in fact far better than occasional visitors might assume.
And LACMA no longer stands alone in the city. The Getty and the Huntington were modest or sleepy outposts when it started, while the Norton Simon, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hammer didn't exist. All five are now museums of national or international stature. The proliferation has taken a bit of pressure off LACMA to be all things to all people.
Still, if Met-style encyclopedic depth was a pipe dream, wasn't LACMA destined to be a perpetual also-ran?
Enter LACMA 2.0, designed to change the terms of the debate. "You can never be the Met," Govan told The Times shortly before moving here in April 2006. "You can't go back and get those artworks. Even the Getty can't." But other possibilities abound. Take a walk around the museum's 23-acre campus, and dramatic change is everywhere you look.
Permanent outdoor commissions, endlessly photographed, have drawn fanfare.
Chris Burden's imposing "Urban Light," a glowing car-culture temple constructed from mothballed city streetlights, is a virtual civic symbol. Robert Irwin's magnificent "Palm Garden," hugging several buildings at the site, merges a heavy industrial grid of Cor-Ten steel walls with a collection of primordial trees evoking the prehistoric La Brea Tar Pits nearby. Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass" became an international media star last year — a 340-ton granite boulder hauled by flatbed truck from the Inland Empire to balance atop a concrete channel cut deep into a barren desert expanse inserted along 6th Street.
Yet more change is found indoors.
Nearly all the permanent collection galleries in the Ahmanson and Hammer buildings have been reinstalled in handsome rooms of uniformly minimalist design; the ornamental Beaux Arts style of typical museums now merges with Midcentury Modern sleekness. L.A. artist Jorge Pardo fancifully redesigned the nearby pre-Columbian galleries. And as 2013 dawned, fully nine of 11 special exhibitions around the campus examined relatively recent art.
An enormous presentation of 206 Surrealist drawings began with the movement's origins in 1920s Paris and continued through the 1940s in Eastern Europe, Japan and the Americas. The first comprehensive show of its kind, it was the largest Surrealist drawing survey ever mounted at any museum.
Across the sidewalk in a second of LACMA's seven buildings, a big retrospective of sculptor Ken Price (1935-2012) secured the late L.A. artist's reputation as a major figure. The Price and Surrealist shows have closed, but an adjacent gallery houses a five-month presentation of a 2,000-piece sculpture by mercurial New York Conceptual artist Walter De Maria, on loan from a Swiss foundation.
Through June, a third building features a huge touring show of annotated scripts, production photographs, set models, costumes, props and clips from the distinguished career of the late movie director Stanley Kubrick, whose "Spartacus," "Dr. Strangelove," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Full Metal Jacket" are among his many classics. LACMA bills the extravaganza as representing a "commitment to exploring the intersection of art and film."
The Kubrick show anticipates what we might see in 2016, when the May Co. building on the LACMA campus opens as a museum for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, touted on last week's Oscar telecast.
Five smaller remaining shows are keyed to LACMA's own growing permanent collection — one that leaped forward with the transformative 2008 gift of the Lazarof Collection of 130 Modern works, crowned by seven Giacometti sculptures and 13 Picasso paintings.
Most notable among these five is "Robert Mapplethorpe: X, Y, Z." The once-controversial suite of photographs of African American male nudes, floral still-lifes and homosexual sadomasochistic acts is displayed in its entirety for the first time since becoming a target of right-wing culture warriors a quarter-century ago.
At the new year, pre-Modern art history was considered in just two exhibitions. One is a modest display of lovely French porcelain, a partial gift to LACMA. The other, recently closed, was a large and impressive painting exhibition about the impact of Caravaggio, the randy 17th-century Italian Baroque genius.
In fact, since Govan's arrival, about 60% of just over 100 featured exhibitions have been of Modern or contemporary art. Ditto three of the five shows opening in the next six months, including an exhibition of James Turrell's Light and Space art — unprecedented in its nearly yearlong duration. In June, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor will unveil a design proposal for the museum's campus, called "The Presence of the Past" — a title that italicizes the nature of the ongoing overhaul.
Of course, not everything has been up to the high standard of the Price retrospective and the Surrealist drawings show, both major achievements. Art audiences can be forgiven for scratching their heads to wonder why in the massive Kubrick show, a stock certificate for a production company the director started in his youth merits careful display in an art museum vitrine, as if it were an Albrecht Dürer woodcut or an early medieval Koran from Moorish Spain.
Memorabilia is fun. But as the huge, popular, wildly uneven 2011 retrospective of movie director Tim Burton also showed, sorting out how to present the art of film in art museum galleries remains a puzzlement.
Yet the main deficiency lies elsewhere, in an even more basic museum function. Permanent collection galleries form an essential backdrop for the exploratory adventure of temporary shows, and the greatness of any museum is measured first by its collection. Is LACMA's contemporary collection stellar?
Hard to say. With a few exceptions, it's not on view. The permanent display pretty much ends in the early 1970s.
LACMA presents art since then mostly in temporary installations. (The just-opened "Ends and Exits" surveys the so-called 1980s Pictures Generation.) But these rotating theme shows, changing every several months, have felt tentative at best, half-baked at worst.
The necessary solution: Move up the end date in LACMA's permanent collection galleries at least 20 years. A smart display of 1980s and '90s paintings, sculptures and other works the curators deem most important is essential. Gallery space exists for it in BCAM, the new Broad Contemporary building.
After all, art from the '80s and '90s is integral to the impetus for LACMA's overhaul. For those are the decades in which L.A., like London and Berlin, established itself as one of a handful of cities that are today primary global production centers for new art. The museum should chronicle that epochal artistic shift, which saw the city's artists play a central role for the first time in world history.
When it does, a post-Met-wannabe LACMA will really be in place.
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