Every Angeleno, new and old, has that one friend from out of town who asks them to go to “those lights” — otherwise known as the Urban Lights. They know the Urban Lights from Instagram, but they don’t know the nuances of the building behind them. As of Nov. 12, LACMA closed its east campus, which included the Ahmanson Building, Art of the Americas Building, The Hammer Building and the Bing Theatre.
The museum will undergo a five-year transformation into a singular building designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Urban & Environmental Policy (UEP) professor Christopher Hawthorne critiqued the new building’s architecture when LACMA proposed it in 2017. Now, as students — one a former LACMA intern and another an art history major — we’re here to critique it as well. LACMA’s new structure is not educational or meaningful as museums should be because it demeans the museum’s employees, LA’s inhabitants and the art.
Underground Dwellings and Dealings of LACMA: Esmé Epstein
This past summer, I was a Registration Intern at LACMA through Intern LA. I wanted to work for a nonprofit, specifically one related to the arts. Last summer, I worked for a company so corporate that there were tunnels with restaurants underneath the building so you didn’t have to go outside. LACMA provided a hands-on opportunity to work with art in an educational setting.
However, while working in the underground dwellings of LACMA, I learned underground information about how LACMA runs like a unilateral business. My boss told me only the Board of Trustees and the director Michael Govan had a say in LACMA’s reconstruction. She said she wanted to work in museum registration to work with art, from receiving shipments to assessing its condition. The five-year reconstruction limits her ability to interact with art because it relocates her and many others to the corporate 5900 building across the street or to off-site locations in West LA. This makes their jobs more difficult and less rewarding. Registrars, curators and project managers at LACMA are willing to sacrifice the airy and vibrant work environment of a corporate building for the dark and chaotic environment of a museum. Many didn’t pay for Master Degrees in Museum Studies to be removed from art and each other.
The restructuring of LACMA also poses many problems for LA residents. Over the last year, the project was estimated to cost $550 million, then $580 million, then $600 million, then $650 million — and now it’s $750 million. Last April, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to release more than $117 million in taxpayer funds for the project. Think about what LA can do with $117 million — build more rent-controlled buildings, help families affected by wildfires or fund public transportation. Also, the LACMA Board of Trustees has money, so the museum doesn’t need taxpayer money as well.
Instead, the money is going toward funding a piano-shaped blob meant to attract international tourists. The economic impact analysis that LACMA parades on its website states that “this investment will be repaid in tax revenues to the County within just a few years given the multiplied economic activity generated by the investment spending and by the incremental activity of the transformed Museum.” Besides the convoluted language of this statement, the museum assumes that this plan will bring in more tourists and more money to repay the ridiculous amount of tax money they took. Although LACMA offers community partnerships, school outreach programs and creative digital initiatives, this redesign prioritizes gaining international visitors at the expense of LA residents.
No Cure For the Lack of Curation: Pablo Nukaya-Petralia
The decision to scrap LACMA’s old buildings in favor of the Zumthor-designed plan compromises LACMA’s role as an educational encyclopedic museum. Govan said the flat plan of the proposed building exhibits all art “on the same level — no culture privileged above another.” Instead of intentionally organizing the works, LACMA will arrange them freely so as not to prioritize any one artist, period or movement over another.
While the goal of equal representation in the museum is admirable, LACMA seeks to achieve it by tossing out art curation and the education that it can provide. For example, in a class on curation at the Getty, I learned how curators arranged works at “True Grit: American Prints and Photographs from 1900 to 1950” for educational effect. Curators organized works by themes and imagery to highlight the similarities and differences between the works and inviting discussions on gender, class and technique. Without curation, we cannot compare artworks in a meaningful way, which is a shame considering LACMA’s collection includes approximately 125,000 (and counting) works that range from South Asian sculpture to German Expressionism. The Piano building’s layout is like listening to music on shuffle, while a curated exhibit is like a setlist. The former randomly brings together pieces, while the latter organizes the pieces so that the total experience becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
The Zumthor plan and LACMA’s partial closure will also harm the LA art scene in immediate and long-term manners. Right now, only two buildings are open to visitors. The two buildings — the Broad Contemporary and the Resnick Pavilion — generally house temporary exhibitions with limited, focused scopes such as the current Betye Saar exhibit. Visitors hoping to find an encyclopedic institution will instead find something akin to a shallow genre novella for the same price they’d pay for the full museum.
Looking further forward, the new building will limit LACMA’s growth. The building itself cannot be expanded due to its elevated, single-floor structure. The design shrinks the gallery space from 120,000 to 110,000 square feet. What LACMA builds is what LA will get — and what they’re building is smaller than what they currently have. While the permanent collection continues to grow — LACMA added $35 million worth of art in 2018 — their exhibition space will only be able to display a fraction of it.
Last Notes for the Piano Building
Govan responded to critics by arguing that LACMA must eventually replace its older, structurally-unsound buildings and that rumors of the museum’s shrinkage have been overblown. However, the older structures don’t need to be replaced by a building that is flawed to its very (unexpandable) foundation. Govan and Zumthor could check their collective egos and pursue a design that considers the needs of both visitors, employees and art. In the meantime, LA art lovers can protest LACMA’s decisions by enjoying any of the city’s many free museums and galleries that represent an encyclopedic look at art and the people of LA.
Esmé Epstein is a junior history major. She can be reached email@example.com. Pablo Nukaya-Petralia is a senior art history major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.