The Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened in March of 1965. For the most part, the structure was enthusiastically welcomed. Early reviews embraced it as a gesture of high civic pride in what Los Angeles could possess, present, and preserve. It was seen as a monumental step for a city still acquiring a sense of itself as a major cultural presence. But not everyone was happy. Just three years after the opening, Ed Ruscha’s “Los Angeles County Museum on Fire” expressed a counter position — that William Pereira’s design served already dying notions of what constituted art and its promotion.
Anyone wanting to recapture the shock Ruscha’s painting initially registered need only drive by LACMA now. Bulldozers, jackhammers, and a wrecking ball have made rubble of what was the Leo Bing Center. Three other buildings of the Museum’s earliest days will soon follow: the Ahmanson, the Hammer, and the Art of the Americas. The Japanese Pavilion will be significantly altered. And the Broad Contemporary Art building will find itself changed by its new surroundings.
There has been much written in anticipation of what is unfolding now—most of it apocalyptic in tone. A recent Los Angeles Magazine piece closed with “Goodbye, LACMA.” The Peter Zumthor building to be has been routinely described as “amoeba like” or a “blob.” The display space in that building will be smaller than the old LACMA. Perhaps even more important, familiar reference points of historical period, “school,” or department will be reconceived in the new galleries. Curators and museumgoers will be asked to rethink how works can be selected, grouped, contextualized.
For these reasons and more, controversy is keen. Still, now seems a good time to step back from sticking points in the arguments and start fresh conversations about future of museum life in our city. Facts before us encourage that, for there is no undoing the work of the demolition crews or, for that matter, the corona virus. The train has left the station, even if the destination remains uncertain.
We might clear the way for such conversation by first reflecting on how preservationist instincts are sometimes misguided. As mentioned above, Pereira’s LACMA had critics from early on. Its late and lightly ornamented modernist vibe was a safe — not inspired — choice for a ’60s institution. Much praise that came its way reflected the self-conscious seriousness of a culturally insecure city. And even the most ardent supporters of the Pereira’s original design would concede its greatest charms have been destroyed by additions and renovations completed over the years. All this is to say that preservation has never been the focus of LACMA’s “improvements.”
We should also remember historical context when we think of shifting points of cultural reference. Museum director Michael Govan’s eagerness to challenge categories, to rearrange established notions of tradition, significance, and even beauty doesn’t come out of the blue. Much such thinking was broadly emerging just about the time LACMA opened in 1965. A parallel to literary studies serves to make the point. The editors of Major Writers of America, a large 2 volume anthology widely used through the ’70s in college literature courses, could find only one woman (Emily Dickinson) worthy of inclusion. All others represented were white and male. New England and then New York writers dominated the selections. By the ’90s, such a narrow notion of the “major” had been exploded. Cultural diversity and interconnectedness once acknowledged could not be explored within old categories. Such widening and re-ordering has affected not just literary studies, but music, dance, and art as well in the years since LACMA’s opening.
Finally, the tumult apparent in the cultural and museum scene throughout Los Angeles should provide some reason for excitement even as real concerns remain. The tearing down and rebuilding of LACMA comes as the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures nears completion. And precedes what will be more tearing down and rebuilding at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum next door. And unfolds as work continues on the Metro Purple Line extension. And happens as the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art begins building in Exposition Park. And coincides with the second century of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The LACMA of 1965 was important partly because it was a major new venue in a city that claimed little that was major. The LACMA to be won’t carry the burden of claiming status for the city. It will, though, be challenged to meet what has become a very high standard.