Jori Finkel: Angels needed in LA

Packed with celebrities from Leonardo DiCaprio to Salma Hayek, the annual Art + Film gala of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) in November raised $4.1m for the institution. But don’t let the parade of Gucci gowns or glitzy red-carpet moments fool you. For all the buzz about the growing ranks of art patrons in Los Angeles, local museums are still waiting to see the big, New York-sized cheques.

Lacma’s director Michael Govan (far right) at the recent Art + Film gala with stars from both worlds

Now more than ever the city’s relatively young tradition of cultural philanthropy is being put to the test. With the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) engaged in a major capital campaign and Lacma preparing to embark on one of its own, we are entering what appears to be a do-or-die moment in fundraising for museums in Los Angeles.

A model of how Lacma could be transformed

Will the city’s established, would-be, and should-be cultural supporters—from Hollywood or elsewhere—rise to the occasion and help these institutions realise their potential? Or will those old jokes about the shallowness of culture in the city be proven true?

The stakes are high for both museums and for Los Angeles’s credibility as a world-class cultural destination. While the history of museum-building here has depended heavily on lone-wolf collectors (think J. Paul Getty, Norton Simon, Armand Hammer and, most recently, Eli Broad), its future clearly depends on a more diverse network of patrons working with existing institutions.

If everyone who ever complained about Broad’s tight-fisted control over local museums would step up and write a cheque, the museums’ futures would be bright.

Right now, MoCA is struggling to broaden its support base. Its core mission of collecting and showing first-rate contemporary art has been jeopardised not just by dysfunctional leadership but by chronic financial instability. And now that the clock has run out on Broad’s five-year, $15m-plus gift, fundraising is arguably even more urgent.

What few people realise is that the museum board is also facing a fast-approaching deadline of their own making. This spring the museum’s trustees, including Jeffrey Soros and Eugenio López, launched a campaign to grow its endowment from around $20m to $100m. The co-chair of MoCA’s board, David Johnson, explained that an endowment that size would provide $5m in income a year, supplying “a secure financial footing for the museum in the future by providing a portion of the annual budget”.

In April, MoCA reported reaching the $75m mark, thanks to pledges from more than 20 trustees. (So few come from the entertainment industry that the “serious love affair going on between Hollywood and the art world” recently touted by The Hollywood Reporter seems a one-night stand at best.)

Yet the museum has not released an updated total since, and that $75m figure is not as solid as it appears but conditional on the museum hitting its $100m goal by the end of 2013, according to several sources. In other words, if the museum misses its mark, donors who have already made pledges could drop out entirely. Asked about this possibility, Johnson’s response was firm: “We’re confident we’ll reach the mark.”

For now, MoCA is operating with a skeleton staff and anaemic budget while trustees search for a director to follow Jeffrey Deitch. Granted, it’s not easy to conduct an endowment campaign without a director, but it’s even harder to attract the most talented candidates in the absence of financial stability.

Let’s hope MoCA trustees put first things first and don’t once again pin all of their fundraising fantasies on a new director.

Meanwhile, Lacma is preparing to launch a major capital campaign. Its director, Michael Govan, recently unveiled Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s grand plans to transform the museum campus. With more precise costings to come, Govan has provided an early ballpark figure of $450m to realise a museum building on this scale and another $200m for operations and related expenses. (Lacma’s current endowment stands at $115m—a fraction of that of other major museums.)

Many see Govan’s reinvention of the museum so far as an extraordinary success story. Since his arrival in 2006 he has built up the collections, reorganised the Lacma board and courted new donors, including some major Hollywood players. More visibly, through large-scale public art and new buildings (including a swanky indoor-outdoor restaurant by Renzo Piano), he has transformed an architectural hodge-podge of a campus into a sort of expanded town square for eating and drinking, listening to music or just hanging out. But buildings on the eastern half of the campus, dating to the 1960s and 1980s, remain off-putting and run-down. Some galleries have had leaks and climate control systems are out of date.

Zumthor’s proposal for a new space to replace these buildings (all but the Japanese Pavilion) is radical and, fans say, beautiful. Instead of a Beaux Arts-inspired museum with a grand entrance and central spine establishing a hierarchy of experiences, the proposed exhibition hall has multiple entrances and no clear façade. Visitors could walk around and also under the main space, which is raised over 30 feet high on glass “stems”. These stems could hold staircases and elevators and also small exhibitions, visible from the campus grounds.

The Zumthor plans reflect Govan’s vision of Lacma as an indoor-outdoor cultural park, offering transparency, horizontality and, in the architect’s words, “a village of experiences”. And the eco-friendly icing on the cake? Solar panels on the roof would, he says, generate more energy than the museum requires.

In October, Lacma trustees voted to continue working with Zumthor, but there are still design and planning hurdles to clear. Approvals must come from Los Angeles County, which owns the older buildings. Feasibility studies need to be done, addressing concerns about the vulnerability of the La Brea tar pits, the fossil-rich prehistoric site next door. Then there is Zumthor’s reputation for taking his own sweet time with projects and not budging for client demands.

“If anyone can pull this off, Michael Govan can,” is the line you hear at dinner parties. And surely his years of working with demanding artists like Michael Heizer and James Turrell have prepared him for working with a famously uncompromising architect.

But the price tag would be extraordinary. If Zumthor’s plans fail to gain traction with donors (as Rem Koolhaas’s 2001 proposal for the museum did), not only would it leave the campus in a mess, but it just might see Lacma’s popular leader packing his bags.

More than anything else, the Zumthor building represents Govan’s legacy project—one he has been nurturing since his arrival at the museum. The director has rhapsodised about the proposed galleries as “sublime”, calling them “some of the most beautiful and diverse galleries ever envisioned for exhibiting artworks.”

And he has hinted that he doesn’t see a future for himself at Lacma without them, declaring that he can’t imagine raising an estimated $250m to $300m needed to renovate the existing buildings. He told a fellow museum director: “From my perspective it’s nearly impossible to raise the funds to restore the older buildings. (Or at least I don’t know how to do it.)”

Asked about this comment, which was published online, Govan says: “I wasn’t trying to threaten anything. I’m just asking everyone to go back and examine the options and think about what is really viable.” He says: “This is the time for LA to decide what it wants to be. Can Lacma become one of the great art museums in the country? In the world?”

The answer depends, like so much right now, on whether philanthropists here will be moved to action, inspired by that powerful blend of self-worth and civic pride that has worked wonders for other cities in the past.

The writer is an arts journalist based in Los Angeles

Published Thu, 21 Nov 2013 22:31:00 GMT

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Jori Finkel

Jori Finkel is the Los Angeles correspondent for The Art Newspaper and a contributor to the New York Times. You can follow her on Twitter @jorifinkel