With a unanimous vote yesterday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors certified the Final Environmental Impact Report for the proposed LACMA redesign project, and opened the door for the project – including construction of a new exhibition building by Pritzker-prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor – to move forward.
In the days leading up to the vote, there had been a flurry of outcry from people and entities opposed to the project as currently outlined – including the Miracle Mile Residential Association, the Los Angeles Times, CurbedLA and even some nationally-focused art and architecture publications. But when the public comments began at yesterday’s hearing, it was clear that even more locally-based heavy-hitters supported both the project and the larger vision of its chief advocate, LACMA Director Michael Govan.
Praise for the project
Over the course of the almost-three-hour meeting yesterday, more than 30 people spoke in favor of the effort, which will replace four older buildings on the museum’s campus with a new, but slightly smaller, space that will keep all exhibits on one level and flow across Wilshire Blvd. to museum-owned property at Wilshire and Spaulding. Those who spoke in favor of the project included Los Angeles County Chief Executive Sachi Hamai, Govan himself, Lori Bettison-Varga, Director of the Natural History Museum, each of the individual County Supervisors, LACMA Trustees David Bonnette and Allison Berg, Academy Museum Director Kerry Braugher, Miracle Mile Chamber of Commerce President Stephen Kramer, former City Council Member Tom La Bonge, actors (and architecture aficionados) Brad Pitt and Diane Keaton, and a number of other neighbors, community members and art experts.
In general, the day’s speakers lauded the new building plan, Govan’s ongoing redevelopment of the museum’s spaces, (which includes several already-completed projects that have added large amounts of square footage) and Govan’s more extensive vision for the future, which imagines a less centralized museum and one which moves both its mission and its collections further out into both the local community and the wider world.
Also, while the $650 million cost of the new building, and the recent revelation that it will be 10% smaller than the spaces it replaces, were chief among the criticisms in the days leading up to the vote, most speakers at yesterday’s hearing agreed with Govan’s position that the proposed new building is “the right size for LACMA,” and that the cost per square foot (which he put at around $1,400 but others have said might be as high as $1,800) is “normal” and firmly in line with other major museum projects around the country, which have cost between $1,250 and $1,500 per square foot.
“I know $650 million is a lot of money,” acknowledged Govan, but he reminded people that most of the funding has already been pledged or committed from various sources, public and private, and that much of it will be firmly in hand before construction begins.
“I am a builder,” said Govan, and when it comes to the new Zumthor-designed building, in which all art will be presented on one level, without a physical hierarchy, he said “I think it’s visionary and I think it anticipates the future of art museums.”
Each of the five county supervisors also expressed their enthusiastic support. Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes the property on the south side of Wilshire Blvd.,where the new building will extend, called the project “vital and important,” and said the support it has won from other local cultural institutions “speaks to collaboration and not competition.” It’s a “prime example of public and private partnerships,” he said. Ridley-Thomas also agreed that “LACMA must be allowed to chart its path” and noted that the new facility will complement the growing number of cultural institutions along the Miracle Mile. “All of these assets conspire to make something very special happen in this area,” he said.
Supervisor Sheila Keuhl, whose district includes the LACMA property on the north side of Wilshire, also lauded Govan’s vision for a more decentralized LACMA, likening older, more traditional museums to “temples” where people had to make special pilgrimmages to visit. “We do not expect that you will worship art at this one museum,” she said. “Art is something people should be able to experience withuot visiting the temple.” So when it comes to Govan’s vision for moving more of LACMA’s collections out to the local community rather than maintaining a more traditional and more “encyclopedic” style of museum, Kuehl said, “”I’m not reluctant, I’m not dragged in – I like it.”
Among other commentors, actor Brad Pitt spoke in particular favor of the project’s architect, Peter Zumthor, whom Pitt says “builds for the soul.” “He’s an architect who builds moments,” Pitt said, urging the board to “take the leap of faith” and commit to the project and its design.
Among more local voices, Miracle Mile resident Henry Van Moyland also lauded the changes the new, lower-profile building will bring to LACMA’s campus, saying “new vistas will be revealed” without the current, more monolithic buildings blocking views north toward Hollywood and the hills.
And former City Council Member Tom La Bonge talked about his longtime efforts to revitalize the Miracle Mile, which are finally coming to fruition. The LACMA project, he said, is a “great revitalization.” “It takes time,” said La Bonge, “but its time is coming.”
Finally Diana Thater, chair of the ArtCenter College of Design’s graduate school, agreed “this project is visionary,” and said “the creative communty of California is ready to support this vision.”
Voices of dissent
But while most of yesterday’s speakers were in firm agreement with Thater, and there were only five people who spoke in opposition (objecting to the cost and size, as well as a “half baked” design that does not yet include full models or any interior plans, and the “behind closed doors” process through which the project was developed), the objections continued to roll – outside the hearing room – in from various publications, locally and nationally, which took issue with Govan’s less “encyclopedic” vision for the future of the museum..
For example, Fine Art Globe recounted a Twitter thread in which Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jerry Salz cried out: “This will cripple one the the best encyclopedic museums in this country” and “This will be the most damaging museum renovation since @MuseumModernArt 2004 self-destructed shortchanging its space.”
The Architectural Record went on the record saying, “LACMA’s proposed shrunken building is perhaps the most counterproductive project undertaken by any museum in America over the last generation; in terms of space lost for the price paid, it’s highly questionable whether Los Angeles can afford the cultural cost of building it.”
The Art Newspaper called the plan “a train wreck in slow motion,” lamenting the loss of space in the new building, as well as a lackluster design that the publication contends won’t create spaces specifically for certain kinds of collections.
And, finally, a bit closer to home, architecture blog CurbedLA ran a conversation between Curbed’s “urbanism editor” Alissa Walker and architecture critic Alexandra Lange. The piece, titled “LACMA should scrap its watered-down redesign” concluded with the cautionary message that “this project is going to play an outsize role in this part of the city and we need to think about how it will serve the community.”
Meanwhile, Ken Hixon, Senior Vice President of the Miracle Mile Residential Association, which sent a lengthy letter of opposition to the Supervisors on Monday, told the Buzz today, after the vote, that even though the project will now move forward, the MMRA will continue to advocate for its members during the development process:
“We are disappointed the the County Board of Supervisors were more interested in expounding on the values of a “non-hierarchical” museum philosophy than in discussing how to help the Miracle Mile community mitigate the very real intrusions on our residents, whether it be construction related disruptions and noise or plunking down a 5-story parking garage on a densely populated residential street. Obviously, LACMA and the Board of Supervisors consider our concerns to be a trivial matter. But the MMRA will not back down on these very problems. So, Tuesday’s hearing was not the end of this battle, it was the beginning.”
About Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
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