Thursday, April 18, 2013

Museum News

 By Charles Kessler

Ed Ruscha, The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1968, oil on canvas, 53 ½ x 133 ½ inches (collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC).
Art museums have been in the news quite a bit in the last month, much of it about the turmoil at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). First the Los Angeles Times reported that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which has its own problems) proposed a merger with MOCA. (A botched article by Carol Vogel about it in the New York Times resulted in one of the longest and funniest corrections ever.) Then MOCA board member and biggest donor, the billionaire Eli Broad, who opposed the partnership, announced a possible partnership with the National Gallery of Art (which turned out to be merely a possible sharing of programming) or with the University of Southern California. Ultimately the MOCA trustees decided to remain independent and, finally showing some responsibility, promised to raise the money needed to stay open. The Los Angeles Times has just reported that happily MOCA already raised $75-million toward their $100-million endowment goal.

I don’t think this particular fiasco should be blamed on Jeffery Dietch, MOCA’s controversial new director. Roberta Smith called it correctly when she wrote: “From the start, the Los Angeles art world and news media have heaped abuse on Mr. Deitch, who has certainly made some missteps. But his main mistake was to be the only person optimistic or naïve enough to take the job in the first place.” Stay tuned!

MOCA isn’t the only California museum in turmoil; the Fine Art Museum of San Francesco is also having problems, also due to an irresponsible board of trustees. You can read a good summary here.

For an object lesson on how a great museum can be destroyed, read “Pasadena's Collapse and the Simon Takeover: Diary of a Disaster,” John Coplan’s February 1975 article in Artforum now reproduced in PDF form here and republished here. It’s a well-written, extensively researched, very long and informative article by someone in the know.
The beloved old Pasadena Art Museum, located at 46 N. Los Robles Avenue, 1960s (courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History).

Here are some highlights:
... Los Angeles is a highly urbanized but nonetheless diffused area. Unlike New York, common meeting grounds are virtually nonexistent. Consequently firsthand contacts across generations and professions are extremely rare. The museum’s openings were more than social events. They brought together a large array of people from all over Southern California who normally had little contact with one another, but a strong common interest. The openings engendered a rare intimacy, which broke down, if only for a single night, the sense of isolation that the L.A. art community felt.
... In spring of 1966, the plan and model for the new building was to be presented by the director and the president of the board of trustees at the museum’s annual general meeting. Hopps, exhausted, in the midst of a split with his wife, felt unable to face the membership and explain why the plan was a disaster. He had flown from New York for the meeting, but when he arrived at the L.A. International Airport, he wandered aimlessly, suitcase in hand. He felt himself about to have a nervous breakdown from the accumulated pressures and the difficulty of his relationship with Rowan. Phoning a psychiatrist friend, he had himself admitted to a hospital, and rested up for a couple of weeks. The new building was enthusiastically received at the meeting. Not long afterwards, Rowan told Hopps he doubted his capacity to handle the directorship, and fired the man who had virtually single-handedly lifted the little museum into international prominence.
... The history of the ambitions, and the decline and fall of the Pasadena Art Museum, reveals many of the problems that have retarded the development of effective museums in California. It is a history of compromises, conflicting goals, egomania, and private greed that has acted against the common good, and has ended finally in a violation of the public trust. This chronicle of pathology reflects more diffuse, hidden, and complex workings in larger institutions. But what has happened to the Pasadena is only an extreme instance of the outcome of predicaments that afflict museums from one end of the country to the other.
And one other bit of California Museum news: The Getty Museum, as part of its Pacific Standard
Time survey of Los Angeles art, has organized a massive exhibition called “Overdrive," a survey of Los Angeles modern architecture from 1940 to 1990.
Michael Light, Highways 5, 10, 60, and 101 Looking West, L.A. River and Downtown Beyond, 2004, archival pigment print, 40 x 50 inches (collection of and © Michael Light, courtesy of Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica).
In other museum news, philanthropist Leonard A. Lauder gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art one of the best collections of Cubist art in the world, thereby single-handedly filling a major hole in the Met’s collection.
George Braque, Trees at L'Estaque, 1908 – one of Leonard A. Lauder's gifts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The donation includes 33 Picassos, 17 Braques, 14 Légers and 14 works by Gris — in total worth an estimated $1-billion. Lauder’s gift was made without restrictions so curators can display it however they think best. Compare the philanthropy of a mench like Lauder with that of say … Eli Broad.

And there's more good news from the Met: beginning July 1st, they will stay open seven days a week — the first time since 1971. Not to be outdone, the Museum of Modern Art, beginning May 1st, will also open every day. Staying open an extra day is comparable to increasing their capacity by more than 14%. Given how crowded theses museums have become, it’s a wonder it’s taken this long. Can we look forward to more late nights?

And speaking of MoMA, they bought the adjacent American Folk Art Museum building which the Folk Art Museum couldn’t afford. The building was designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and got rave reviews when it opened just 12 years ago. MoMA intends to demolish the building to make room for yet another expansion.
Interior of the American Folk Art Museum.
Needless to say this demolition is controversial, but I never thought the building was a good place to display art anyway. It was too narrow, too dark, and it had too many distracting architectural conceits.

The biggest museum news world-wide is the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum after a ten-year (not a typo) renovation costing almost half a billion dollars.
The fireworks and smoke bombs go off to celebrated the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands (photo: Getty Images).
Originally built in 1885 to handle an estimated 200,000 annual visitors, they now expect two million visitors – double the number they had before the renovation. The renovation mainly restored the building back to its original Gothic-Renaissance state, doing away with the modern "improvements" that had accumulated over the years. They of course updated the lighting and climate control, but they didn't add much space. There’s a good article about it here, and you can see a good collection of photos here.

This isn’t really news, but I thought I’d stick it in anyway since I went there yesterday for the first time in years. The American Museum of Natural History, right off of Central Park West at 81st Street, has an excellent collection of Northwest Coast Native American art – some of the best, most dramatic art ever made – but it's displayed in shamefully poor, shockingly old-fashion, conditions.
Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, first floor, American Museum of Natural History. It really is this dark!

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