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Los Angeles’ booming art scene faces a changing landscape

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an open pit these days, surrounded by 12-foot-high wooden fences, with cranes towering into a now-open sky. Most of its mid-century Modernist complex on Wilshire Boulevard was quietly demolished during the Covid shutdown to make way for a light-filled, wavy, $ 650 million building spanning the boulevard and designed by architect Peter Zumthor.

LACMA, as it is called, has long been a cultural anchor for Southern California, extraordinarily popular and as responsible as any institution in helping to define the region’s cultural identity. “New galleries. More art. Opening 2024 ”, promises a sign in the courtyard. But the success of its next incarnation is hardly assured as the museum seeks to redefine its mission in a smaller building whose design, while adventurous, is not universally acclaimed.

It is not only LACMA that is in a moment of transition. Before the pandemic froze California in a wave of closures and disease, Los Angeles had established itself as a cultural capital with its galaxy of museums, galleries and performing arts institutions, defying outdated stereotypes of a Hollywood superficial with little interest in art. It now faces uncertainty in its cultural landscape.

Los Angeles institutions share many of the same challenges their peers around the world face as they attempt to recover from the pandemic: bringing back a suspicious public, dealing with the expense and technical challenges of securing their spaces. and fundraising from philanthropists and the government of the country. in the face of competing demands at a time of economic struggle. They are in dire financial straits after a calamitous loss of income forced many to lay off staff and abandon leases for theaters and galleries.

But they face the additional complications of healing without the help of many of the old guard philanthropists who have helped establish the civic and cultural scene here. This was underscored by the death last month of Eli Broad, 87, a billionaire philanthropist who has played an outsized role in establishing many of the area’s renowned cultural institutions, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Broad , the Museum of Contemporary Art and one of the buildings left standing at the LACMA complex.

There is cautious optimism that the region will return to its upward trajectory as the virus recedes.

“Los Angeles, like New York, is a resilient city full of enterprising creatives who will get back on the horse,” said Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum, who was also in the midst of an expansion project in Westwood. when the pandemic struck.

But in many ways, the challenges here are more intense and complex, in large part because the virus struck at a time when so much was on the move. The next steps – by cultural institutions, wealthy philanthropists, government and the public – may well determine whether Covid has derailed, or simply delayed, the city’s rise as a cultural destination.

For all its wealth, Los Angeles has always been a difficult fundraising environment. Michael Govan, the director of LACMA, struggled to raise funds to build the Zumthor building. The project took a turn after David Geffen, 78, an entertainment mogul turned benefactor of the arts, agreed to donate $ 150 million.

Mr. Broad’s death has rocked an arts world in Southern California already worried about whether donors will come forward to help at a difficult time. Although he left public life in 2017, leaving the field to a new generation of benefactors, Mr. Broad used to be there when needed – getting the Walt Disney Concert Hall project back on track afterwards. stalling in the 1990s, and offering a $ 30 million bailout to the Museum of Contemporary Art while it was on the verge of collapse in 2008.

Mr. Broad was a singular figure in many ways – part billionaire philanthropist, part civic bulldozer – and it’s unclear who can (or even should) step in to fill the void he left. “It’s a little scary to imagine Los Angeles without Eli Broad,” said Donna Bojarsky, founder of Future of Cities: Los Angeles, a civic nonprofit group.

The pandemic has been economically ruining for many cultural organizations. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has cut its annual budget from $ 152 million to $ 77 million. Museums have lost millions of revenues. The Wallis Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills had to lay off 30 people.

“It will probably take us 12 months to 3 years to get back to the same level of operation,” said Rachel Fine, General Manager of Wallis.

In addition to the challenge of philanthropy, the sheer difficulty of getting around this city – a sure sign that recovery is at hand is that traffic has returned to the roads and highways – has long made it more difficult for theaters, music halls and galleries that seek to attract crowds. The transit system is in the midst of a dramatic expansion, funded by a $ 120 billion transit plan. But it will take many years before it is completed.

“It’s a wonderful place to live and it’s a wonderful place to work,” said Deborah Borda, who was president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years before becoming president of the New York Philharmonic. “And it really is a great place for the arts. But if you want to be there for a concert at 7:30 p.m., you really have to leave at 6 a.m. I knew people who came but stopped: that would be one reason they would give.

Los Angeles has long been a cultural magnet, and not just for the creative classes that have flocked to Hollywood. It attracted composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, writers like Thomas Mann and Joan Didion, architects like Frank Gehry, and artists like David Hockney. It took the city longer to build institutions: Mr. Broad, who played a key role in founding the Museum of Contemporary Art, recalled in a 2019 essay that if Los Angeles has long been home to brilliant artists , great art schools and great galleries. , he lacked a museum of modern or contemporary art when he arrived.

And pandemic or not, the next three years promise to be transformative, with a string of major project openings that Los Angeles officials say will dramatically expand the cultural offerings here.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a $ 482 million complex designed by Renzo Piano next to LACMA, is expected to open by the end of the year. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a sprawling futuristic billion-dollar building funded by George Lucas, is slated to open in the exhibition grounds in 2023.

“We are slowly coming back up,” Govan said. “I think the big institutions will survive. It was hard. But I cannot be anything other than an optimist. “

Chad Smith, general manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said just three weeks ago he resigned himself to hosting a handful of concerts this season at the Hollywood Bowl, expecting to be unable to host that 4000 people out of 18000- seat amphitheater. Today, the Bowl is planning 50 events and hopes to fill 65% of its capacity, reflecting the virus’s dramatic decline and the lifting of regulations.

This is essential because the Bowl, with its diverse mix of outdoor programming – from Beethoven to the car seat headrest – is a major source of income for the Philharmonic Orchestra.

“At this point, we see ourselves coming out of that, with these 40 or 50 concerts at the Bowl,” Mr. Smith said. “Our financial situation will improve. It needs to improve. We are completely dependent on contributions. “

The arts scene here is driven not only by large institutions, but by around 500 small, non-profit arts organizations. Many have been forced to give up leases on performance or exhibition spaces over the past 14 months, and some are now in danger of disappearing.

“We consider a lot of art, especially the performing arts, to be the last to recover,” said Kristin Sakoda, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture. “We know the road to recovery is long.”

In response, a group of philanthropists created the LA Arts Recovery Fund to help theaters, music halls, museums and galleries survive the transition. “For Los Angeles to regain its prowess as a leader in the arts, we must come together,” said William Ahmanson, chairman of the Ahmanson Foundation, in a letter requesting contributions.

The Stimulus Fund has set a target of $ 50 million and has already raised $ 38.7 million. But even before Covid hit, cultural institutions struggled to compete for philanthropic dollars, and there are fears that this trend may continue.

“The demand for social services and social justice funding is increasing so significantly, somewhat at the expense of the performing arts,” said David Bohnett, philanthropist and board member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “It was already happening. But we are emerging from this learning of the value of the performing arts for social service and social justice initiatives. “

Still, arts leaders are hopeful that a booming stock market has created a new category of donors. “There are enough of them to support both social services and the cultural sector, and we just need more people to move forward in the civic spirit,” Ms. Philbin said.

Mr Geffen, an art collector, said he hoped the young people who got rich and bought art would eventually become donors, although arts professionals said the transition had been slow to Los Angeles. “I think the young people who make incredible amounts of money in technology,” he said, “will be generous in the future.”

Still, he acknowledged the difficulties LACMA faced before issuing its check for $ 150 million. “LA deserves a world-class museum,” he said. “And it didn’t look like someone else was taking over.”

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