Museum of Neon Arts breaks ground in Glendale

Five years, so far, in the making — and facing many obstacles along the way — the Museum of Neon Art had its official groundbreaking Wednesday morning in Glendale, incorporating a fitting touch, a neon shovel.

The museum, which has bounced around Los Angeles since 1981, is one step closer to putting down roots across the street from the Americana at Brand. Once it opens, it will become Glendale’s first full-fledged art museum.

“It’s been a long haul moving from place to place and finally we’re going to have a home here in Glendale,” said David Svenson, president of the museum’s board of directors.

The plan for a $5.2 million museum project has been brewing since 2009 when city officials offered to subsidize the majority of the project. It was a controversial decision at the time, requiring the city to purchase a former arcade in the 200 block of Brand Avenue and pay for external design work and improvements.

Officials tout the subsidy as a symbol of the city’s dedication to arts and culture and an important piece to Glendale’s plan to revive downtown, which is in the midst of a massive housing construction boom. Opponents, though, billed the project as a handout to a struggling nonprofit. The museum reported budget deficits in 2009, 2010 and 2011, according to the latest IRS forms publicly available.

Despite the naysayers, Councilman Frank Quintero said he quickly got on board with the project.

“When I was approached on this project, it took me about a half a second to say ‘Yes, what a great idea,’” Quintero said.

Glendale inked a final contract with the museum in 2011, agreeing to construct a gleaming building featuring large glass windows and a red neon sign on the roof of a swimmer in the midst of a dive.

In June 2011, the museum shut its doors in downtown Los Angeles as officials prepared to move to Glendale, but museum plans stalled when a state law dissolved the city’s Redevelopment Agency, which was going to be the source of the project’s funds.

The end of redevelopment put the museum at risk of being quashed. A redevelopment-related oversight committee made up of officials from the city, Los Angeles County and local school discussed pulling the plug on the project last year, but opted to keep it alive.

Then, the state Department of Finance, which makes final decisions about which former redevelopment projects can move forward, gave it a green light.

“They didn’t stop us with the end of redevelopment,” Councilwoman Laura Friedman said. “The city of Glendale said, ‘We want this museum.’”

Friedman added that even though new apartments and retail shops are springing up in downtown, a blossoming city center must also have arts amenities, such as the museum.

While Glendale is paying for external improvements, museum officials have to foot the bill for internal changes, such as office space and programming. Museum officials plan to raise $1.5 million to cover those costs.

Construction of the building’s shell is set to be complete in the spring of 2014 and a paseo to the nearby Central Library is expected to be finished by next winter.

Kim Koga, executive director of the Museum of Neon Art, said the museum may open in late 2014 or early 2015, but an exact date has not been selected.

“I’m very excited,” Quintero said. “Let’s work quickly. Let’s get it done.”

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Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.

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