Featured image: Shrunken gallery with low ceiling
IT’S MUCH WORSE than you think over at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and even worse than the Los Angeles Times reported late last year. In November, the Times wrote that the museum officially maintains the cost of replacing its four core structures with a controversial new building is $650 million but that, in fact, the real working figure secretly used in-house is $750 million.
However, in a January 2018 email just obtained through California Public Records Act disclosures from the L.A. County Treasurer and Tax Collector, a county official warned colleagues that the $750 million figure is really at the low end of the likely cost. At 6:00 p.m. on January 29, 2018, Antoinette Chandler fired the gun that is now smoking: “The LACMA project costs have increased from $675 million to a range between $750-900 million.” The rising costs so alarmed Ms. Chandler that she advised “capping the County’s contribution to $125 million and identifying additional security/sources of repayment for the proposed $300 million financing to ensure the County isn’t obligated to repay any portion of the transactions.”
Translation: Okay, so we give LACMA $125 million outright, and in addition we’re issuing a $300 million bond, but if LACMA can’t repay the bond or raise the shortfall, we need an agreement saying that we, the county, are off the hook, that LACMA is on its own to find the funds it can’t find. The county has to protect itself against an out-of-control project with a runaway price. She continued: “CEO needs to develop language in the Funding Agreement that protects the County from additional contributions above the $125 million.”
So, county officials with no axe to grind — but their asses to cover — were staring at a staggering and growing bill and getting cold feet. And that was nearly two years ago. Since then, with construction costs increasing five percent annually (per the Turner Cost Index), propelled in part by Trump’s tariffs, the range toggles dangerously between $820 million and $1 billion — and it’s likely to break the “B” barrier. The recent Keck Foundation pledge of $50 million hardly changes the equation. Per Ms. Chandler, fundraising is still hundreds of millions behind.
But the worst aspect of discovering the smoking email is that it took a Public Records Act demand to pry the information out of the county and the museum, both evidently co-conspirators in a league of silence to keep the damaging information from the public. Both institutions have hidden the galloping cost escalation, thus perpetuating the near total lack of transparency that has characterized the project since its inception — even though the public is ultimately the client, the museum’s principal financial supporter, and the owner of the institution’s land, buildings, and much of its art. With the apparent support of the county, Museum Associates — the body that runs the museum —has privatized a public trust and acknowledges no accountability.
But the cover-up is not only about costs. There’s also the deception about size. Stepping onto a slippery slope slanting downward from white lie to public fraud, the museum at first, back in 2009, sold the idea of a replacement building that would equal the square footage of the four structures to be demolished (three by William Pereira, finished in 1965, and the fourth by Norman Pfeiffer, completed in 1986). Parity of square footage was the deal, and even then it was a bad deal since it involved no expansion. But neither the museum nor the county fessed up to different, smaller numbers until this publication and the legally required Environmental Impact Report revealed that the square footage of the designs was drastically less. Even then, Michael Govan acknowledged only a 10 percent reduction in space, but an audit conducted independently for the Los Angeles Review of Books by two different architecture offices concluded that the proposed design had 33 percent less space for enclosed galleries and 37 percent less museum space overall.
Compounding cover-up with disinformation, the museum itself never admitted the loss of 54 percent of linear wall space for hanging artworks in this glass-wrapped building (again, according to the independent space audits). This simple, devastating statistic means that half the art hanging until recently on the walls is heading into storage and could never return, for the simple reason that the design eliminates half the wall space. Intent on pushing the design through at all costs, Govan is sending entire collections into the purgatory of storage, arrogantly dismissing the issue in an April op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. The piece, entitled “LACMA’s New Building is Visionary — and Big Enough,” basically claims that, as a visionary, Govan gets to determine how much space the collections deserve, and that Zumthor’s shrink-wrapped concrete amoeba is just fine: he doesn’t want any more.
Quoting Zumthor, Govan allegedly once said at a staff meeting that “large museums are not that great” — ignoring the MET, the Louvre, the British Museum, and LACMA itself. Govan and Zumthor arrogated to themselves the right to reduce LACMA, cutting it down to size. They wanted to make a major American museum small, and they weren’t telling anybody about their real intentions. Basically, they were like a demolition crew given the wrong street address, bringing a wrecking ball to the wrong place. They were at the wrong museum.
Even today, the museum has yet to make public a basic floor plan where the galleries are located — even though architects over a year ago were finishing design development drawings — intentionally keeping taxpayers in the dark about what the public is getting for the money being spent. Yet the museum has expected county and city officials to approve the plans unseen, donors to step forward, and the public to acquiesce without noticing the deception. This is the equivalent of Trump not disclosing his taxes or refusing to answer Congressional subpoenas. It’s the White House West over on Wilshire.
That the museum and the county never published a floor plan should have been an alarming signal pointing to rot in Denmark. Elected civic leaders refused to take notice, however, despite their own staff’s warnings, and the museum’s credulous Board of Trustees let its director charm them with cherry-picked information and chocolate-covered theories about the future that obscured the facts, just as he has packed erroneous, self-serving information into unchecked op-eds and interviews that the compliant Los Angeles Times cheerfully printed.
The smart and watchful Antoinette Chandler had every reason to ask the county’s CEO to off-load responsibility since fundraising has fallen way behind escalating costs, despite the recent Keck gift: the longer the wait for construction, the wider the gap. The 10 percent increases over the last two years alone wipe out 150 percent of the $50 million Keck pledge.
Leveraging celebrities, fusing art and film at galas to gin up buzz and generate money, just isn’t enough, and LACMA is running out of gullible billionaires. Other than Robert A. Day, Keck’s chief executive and a LACMA life trustee, big-buck donors have backed off what has emerged as a loser design. The billionaires Govan has assiduously courted for a decade have little reason for confidence in the financial viability of the project or even in its desirability, and public awareness is growing that LACMA is cheating citizens out of a museum by deep-sixing collections it has paid for and lived with for generations.
Just why was a 400,000-square-foot set of buildings housing the largest encyclopedic museum west of the Mississippi, its collections carefully curated for over a century, being downsized into a floating 230,000-square-foot amoeba designed for changing shows organized according to the themes du jour? Just why were the collections being torn apart and dispersed to proposed satellites in the far corners of the city, in a phony feint toward neighborhood outreach, which the museum will never be able to afford to build and operate anyway?
Collections of historic stature are being dismantled, demoting a nationally famous encyclopedic museum into a gallery of changing shows. This is a national loss that will impoverish everyone in Los Angeles.
But besides the fiscal problems revealed in Chandler’s email, there’s another equally devastating revelation that recently hit the fan. No less than the long-secret floor plan made a fleeting appearance in public when Govan, drumming up support for the project in a lecture at the USC School of Architecture, showed a diagram of the main floor that at last included the basic outlines of the galleries. Someone with a smart phone snapped an image and posted it online.
So, after a decade of iron-clad secrecy that still continues to this day, with the buildings at the brink of demolition, we can at last get an idea of just how shrunken the shrinking museum will be. The design shows that 27 galleries — this bears repeating in capital letters: TWENTY-SEVEN GALLERIES — will replace approximately 115 galleries in the Ahmanson, Hammer, and Art of the Americas wings. ONE HUNDRED FIFTEEN GALLERIES!!!
That reduces the gallery square footage from 138,000 net gallery space to 52,000 — a loss of 86,000 square feet, or 62 percent. Again, it’s worse than you thought. Pathetic, actually.
We’re deep into dysfunction. Deep into small.
What’s most appalling about this spatial swindle is that we are now facing a museum of corridors, many open to damaging natural light, especially in the glass-walled “Meander Gallery” that rings the amoeba. Peter Zumthor, the Swiss architect behind this sorry proposal, is at his best designing small, evocative pavilions; staying in his comfort zone, he basically organized the floor as a village of loosely aggregated, free-standing gallery pavilions, leaving the space between them residual. Unlike dedicated galleries, left-over corridors are pass-through spaces problematic for hanging art coherently in ways that tell a story or establish a community of images. Zumthor has not designed the floor as a whole but littered it with a collection of disjointed galleries with virtually no relationship to one another other than casual juxtaposition.
The design wouldn’t survive a final review by a first-year jury in architecture school.
Zumthor’s spendthrift plan is amateurish enough in itself, but the museum is irresponsible in accepting it. Not only is there far less gallery space, but the architect has been unable to fit critical functions within the building for the budget, requiring that the museum off-load all departments, including curatorial, conservation, photography, even the library. The office space once housed in the base of the museum has been sent to the tower on the other side of Wilshire, costing $5 million per year in rents that will rise in perpetuity. This, again, is irresponsible and unacceptable behavior on the part of the administration, in no small part because the curators will be exiled from the art for which they are responsible. The plan itself enshrines dysfunction as a daily operational fact.
No doubt the willful size reduction has been exacerbated by the museum’s desperate efforts to control costs that have inflated 44 percent during the decade since 2010 while the architect has been figuring out a design. But controlling costs by shrinkage has irreversibly degraded the museum in more ways than lost square footage. Quality, not just quantity, has suffered. The museum has lost the solar panels that were supposed to reduce the building’s carbon footprint and make it a net exporter of energy to the grid. The curved glass in the perimeter wall — a mistake to start with because the light levels limit the kinds of art that can be displayed — has lost its elegance, with flat-glass panels that fracture the promised smoothness of the curve. The contours of the building on the backside are now chopped into angles.
But the most glaring degradation occurs inside. The ceilings of the “chapel” galleries that were to admit so-called heavenly light through high, hidden clerestory windows in cathedral-like spaces — a major feature of Zumthor’s interior pavilions — have been eliminated, which reduces the ceiling heights from a lofty 45 or 50 feet to a mean 14 feet throughout the exhibition floor, for a 44 percent loss of volume. The reduced height compromises the museum’s ability to display big art. The interiors have now lost their grandeur and look more like convention rooms in an airport Marriott. From the outside, the whole structure spanning Wilshire could be confused for a freeway overpass topped with a motel.
The design is now completely degraded from a vision once touted as redefining museum culture. The architectural quality has been so reduced that there is no reason to build what has devolved incrementally into a major architectural let-down. The architecture that was to revolutionize museums now promises to embarrass LACMA, standing as a monument to the institutional failure and malfeasance of an administration and a board that didn’t know how to manage what should have been a no-brainer expansion in the heart of one of the wealthiest communities on earth. The administration and board of LACMA just didn’t know what they were doing. Or they were misled.
Which puts Los Angeles on course for a headlong collision with disaster, bringing us into the thick of LACMA’s self-inflicted wounds. LACMA doesn’t have the money to complete or really even start the Zumthor project, yet the museum is now closed, the art has been removed and very expensively stored, and construction fences have gone up in preparation for the imminent arrival of bulldozers. Work crews have started an abatement process to clear out the asbestos.
The museum has announced that it is starting demolition at the end of this month. Govan has already offered building parts to artists doing installations. Reportedly there’s a hole in the side of one of the buildings. Despite a gaping shortfall in funding, Govan will very soon be presenting the citizens of Los Angeles with an in-your-face fait accompli, indisputable facts on the ground: demolished buildings on a vacant lot and no recourse but to rescue a project that is already a failure before it’s built. Ms. Chandler, the Joan of Arc whistleblower in all of this, may be forced to shift her email about the funding agreement into reverse, putting the county back on the hook, unless more billionaires on the board bail out the director they have enabled all along and fund this egregious and embarrassing mistake themselves. In the case of this unpopular building, philanthropy is not philanthropy but an abuse of a public that does not like or want this building.
Govan, it turns out, has a documented history of bullying institutions financially. As head of the Dia Art Foundation in New York before he came to Los Angeles, he unilaterally took money from general funds to back a Michael Heizer project without prior board approval. As a 2007 feature in The New York Times Magazine concluded, “It was […] in keeping with Govan’s style to get something going first and then figure out how to pay for it later.”
Unless a couple of hapless, clueless, gullible billionaires come along, the museum will have to turn to trustees, who, in any event, deserve to part with their money since they coddled this disaster all along. Or it will be time to think the unthinkable: sell off a couple of Rembrandts. De-accessioning happened at the Guggenheim while Govan worked there, so he knows his way to the escape hatch. Despite the American Alliance of Museums rules, it could happen at LACMA.
Rushing into demolition before having money in the bank is a sleazy, transparently manipulative maneuver meant to put LACMA and the county over a barrel. The director is deliberately leveraging his out-of-control project into a must-build emergency by creating an empty lot, with the collections held hostage in storage and no satellites in sight.
LACMA is set to go rogue. This is a betrayal of the public trust.
Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc.