The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is probably the last of its kind to be built in the United States — an encyclopedic museum that dares to collect art from antiquity to the present, from prehistoric Near Eastern ceramics to Richard Serra's graceful, monumental sculpture, "Band." Established in 1965 on seven acres of county land along mid-Wilshire Boulevard, it has expanded from three mid-century modernist buildings by architect William Pereira to a campus of seven buildings, a collection of 120,000 objects and an annual attendance rate of 1.2 million visitors.
Now the museum stands at a crossroad — ready to replace its faltering original buildings and a fourth 1986 structure with a dramatic new one that architecture critics say will be a landmark on the level of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Under the leadership of its energetic and creative director, Michael Govan, LACMA hopes to erect a building by the Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. With its undulating form, the new building is designed as an homage to the oozing murkiness of the La Brea tar pits next door. Its glass walls will offer visitors a glimpse of what's inside before they ever get inside. The overall square footage will remain the same, but the layout will allow 45,000 more square feet of exhibition space.
But to build it, Govan says, LACMA needs $125 million from county taxpayers. And that raises a complicated and reasonable question: Should the county — which is responsible for a dysfunctional foster care system, troubled county jails, seemingly intractable homelessness and last-ditch financial relief for the indigent, among other programs — really spend such an enormous sum to improve its art museum?
Yes, it should. And when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors votes Wednesday on whether to give the museum a $125-million infusion of cash via a revenue bond to be repaid by the county over 15 years, it should approve it without hesitation.
While it is true that human services are at the heart of the county's mission, they are not its only responsibility. The county also maintains beaches, supports libraries and offers annual subsidies to numerous cultural institutions (including a yearly allotment of $29.7 million to LACMA). It recently paid to rebuild the Hollywood Bowl's band shell, and it was the second largest contributor to the construction of Disney Hall (behind the Disney family and Disney corporate interests) with a $116-million bond, most of which went to build the parking garage. No matter how fundamental is L.A. County's mission to provide help for the poor and to solve social problems, supporting culture is also a crucial part of defining and enriching and enlivening a great global city.
And it's not as if Govan — who is a prodigious fundraiser — is asking taxpayers to bear all or even most of the financial burden of the new building. This is a $600-million project, and Govan and the LACMA board have committed to raising the bulk of it — $475 million — privately. But they need the county's support. Without a clear commitment to the project from the Board of Supervisors, Govan says, he can't convince wealthy arts patrons to invest as much as necessary. Los Angeles does not have the deep multi-generational philanthropic bench that New York and Chicago and San Francisco have. As it is, he says, he is pushing the edge of what Los Angeles donors are willing to do today.
If the project is successful, Govan argues, it will take civic Los Angeles to a new level of philanthropy — a level that could inspire more giving to other local institutions. (We wonder if perhaps it might even help wean LACMA off its dependency on the county's annual subsidy.) Govan hopes it will also encourage collectors to leave their works in L.A. after they die, rather than sending them off as gifts to more venerable museums out of state.
With interest, the bond will cost the county nearly $10 million each year for 15 years, a not insignificant amount. And it comes with an opportunity cost — the money could, theoretically, be spent on other programs instead of on LACMA. Nevertheless, it is important to put the amount in context: $10 million is not an extraordinarily high, bank-breaking cost for a county with an annual budget of $26 billion.
Another argument for county participation: The four existing buildings are in need of a new climate system, new waterproofing and wiring, and, once renovation is underway, that will necessitate substantial seismic retrofitting under state law. The price tag merely for making the buildings safe and legal, according to two consultants' studies, is a whopping $300 million — and because these are county buildings, the county is on the hook for that cost. That work must be done or the museum risks the well-being of its collection and won't be able to attract new works from donors who fear putting their art in a building with structural problems. Surely it makes more sense to invest $125 million in an extraordinary new
building than, potentially, $300 million in retrofitting the old ones. As for the Pereira buildings, they have been altered since they were built, and are not so historically significant that they should be preserved at all costs.
The Zumthor project will create construction jobs. It will increase tourism, bringing in new sales tax and other revenue along the way. Govan predicts that attendance will climb from 1.2 million to 1.7 million visitors a year. If all goes as planned, the new museum would open in 2023, when the Metro stop near it also opens. The museum and the Metro stop could conceivably spur the creation of hotels, residences, restaurants and shops in that area, all of which boost the economy of the region.
Public art museums are not merely institutions for elites — or they shouldn't be. In recent years, LACMA has proved to be a major cultural force across the county. It hosted 74,000 students on school tours and brought programs to 65,000 students in 800 schools and libraries across the county in the last fiscal year. About 40% of all visitors to the museum get in free of charge. LACMA should continue — and expand — its commitment to inspiring L.A.'s public school students and its outreach to parts of the city that lack cultural amenities.
You don't have to go to the museum frequently. But it needs to be there for you and everyone else — to enlighten, to provoke thought, to inspire. Los Angeles County government should be commended for having had the vision to create a museum 50 years ago. Now it needs to carry that vision into the future.