Last week the Ahmanson Foundation announced it is suspending its decades-long support of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). According to a press release, the Foundation said it is suspending its 60-year funding relationship “pending a clear understanding of how the works acquired over that time at a cost of more than $130 million will be displayed in the proposed new building.”
William Ahmanson, president of the Foundation, said, “It is with great sadness and much contemplation that the Foundation decided to suspend LACMA. In January 2019, we denied a purchase request because we could not resolve the issue of when or if the painting would ever be displayed.”
In a 60-year history of giving, this was the Foundation’s first-ever denial of such a request. Over the years, the Foundation has purchased at least one work a year for the museum. The last work acquired with funds from the Foundation was Alessandro Algardi’s Baptism of Christ, purchased inJanuary 2017 for $2,500,000, according to the release.
According to the press release, Ahmanson has sought information about future display plans from LACMA over the past several years, but:
“The museum has chosen to not address these concerns. If an understanding is not met, the suspension will become permanent and The Ahmanson Foundation may need to deepen its relationship with other museums if art acquisition is to remain a funding interest.”
“The Foundation’s greatest concern is that the public will have limited or no access to works carefully curated and collected over decades and that these works will be removed from the Wilshire Boulevard site which was championed by The Ahmanson Foundation founder Howard F. Ahmanson Sr.”
In response to the Foundation’s statement, LACMA said in a statement to the Buzz that the museum has never disregarded agreements to any donor, particularly not The Ahmanson Foundation.
“There were no requirements with the Ahmanson works, giving the museum the flexibility to showcase the art as the collection changes, and as scholarship shifts. LACMA has reassured The Ahmanson Foundation, in writing and in person from Michael Govan and Board leadership, on numerous occasions over the last several years, that their works will be cared for exactly as they have been. Over the last two years The Ahmanson Foundation has refused numerous meeting requests with LACMA leadership to address their concerns and to explain our exciting plans for the Ahmanson gifts. We continue, respectfully, to request a formal meeting — now as soon as the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
The new building referenced is a vast improvement over the old, where Ahmanson gifts have had to be removed from walls to protect them from leaks, and which had insufficient seismic engineering and no barriers to the dangerous methane on LACMA’s site. LACMA’s building program, with three new buildings built and in progress since 2006 (the David Geffen Galleries opening in 2024), will provide almost double the space for LACMA’s permanent collections, including European Art!
Additionally, it is not true that LACMA formally requested a gift in 2019. That request was made informally and unexpectedly by a curatorial consultant of LACMA’s. (It had not yet been vetted by the museum’s curatorial or conservation team, and had significant problems.) As generous as The Ahmanson Foundation has been, there have been rejections of requests over the years, and years when there were no museum-quality works to consider for acquisition We very much respect The Ahmanson Foundation’s current suspension of gifts, and are not requesting or expecting gifts during this period of construction and planning.
It is too early to give precise locations for any of the permanent collection in the new building. LACMA owns more than 140,000 artworks from every culture, time, and place. Our art installations are the product of the scholarship of over thirty curators that need to be responsive to every culture and every donor. In addition, it is impossible to predict how those installations will change in the future. Masterpieces gifted by the Foundation, like other parts of our collection, will absolutely be accessible to the public when the new building reopens, in new and ever better contexts.
As always, LACMA remains extremely grateful to The Ahmanson Foundation for all their generosity over many years. We have exciting plans and are thrilled to be able to put so many of the Ahmanson-gifted artworks on view again as soon as our new galleries open in 2024.
“Any change is always hard,” said Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Director in the statement. “But we’re certain that the public, and the Ahmanson Foundation, will see that all of the thought poured into our newest buildings will better highlight those beautiful artworks among the many masterpieces from many cultures in LACMA’s collections.”
Howard Ahmanson was instrumental in the creation of LACMA and it was Ahmanson who insisted the museum be located in Hancock Park, according to Suzanne Muchnic’s book “LACA So Far, Portrait of a Museum in the Making.”
In 1958, Ahmanson pledged $2 million (the entire fundraising goal with $5 million) to fledging museum in the form of loans over a twenty-year period at a 2 percent rate of interest, with no repayment of the principal for the first ten years. The money would be distributed in seven annual payments. At the same time, the Museum Associates, the founding group, would receive 80 percent of the stock of North American Savings and Loan, Ahmanson’s corporation that was making the loan, enabling Ahmanson to make a generous gift while divesting himself of an expendable asset, according to Muchnic.
In exchange, Ahmanson required the board be expanded from 15 members to 30 and that all the appointments be made by the private organization, not the County Board of Supervisors, a move meant to ensure the museum’s independence from county politics, explained Muchnic. Ironically, opponents of LACMA’s new building are calling for public representatives on the all private board. Ahmanson demanded the new building front on Wilshire Blvd and bear the name Ahmanson Gallery of Fine Arts and won veto power over the architect, ultimately nixing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who had won the support of the board, for William L. Pereira and Associates who was awarded the contract to design the museum in 1960.
Ultimately, it was agreed that Museum Associates would raise funds for two more buildings under the umbrella of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Bart Lytton, president and board chairman of Lytton Financial Corporation, pledged $500,000 and Anna Bing Arnold, widow of New York real estate developer Leo S. Bing, agreed to fund the third building. The Ahmanson Gallery would display the permanent collection and long-term loans, the Lytton Gallery would offer temporary exhibitions and the Leo S. Bing Center would house an auditorium, library and cafeteria, according Muchnic’s book.
This story has been updated.