The killing of George Floyd, the tens of thousands of protesters in the streets, and the demands of Black Lives Matter organizers and other civic leaders around the country had an unexpected impact in the summer of 2020. On museums.
Cultural institutions accustomed to the drowsy if inexorable march of history and the artists who have responded over the centuries in paint, ceramics, textiles, or steel were suddenly forced to respond to a long-simmering slew of challenges and demands: What is their purpose? Who decides? How are they funded and why? Will they respond to cultural and demographic changes and when?
All of these questions have been stewing—unresolved—in scholarly articles, at conferences, and in university curricula for decades. For reasons both legitimate and not, the questions gained urgency last summer and led to the resignations of museum directors, curators, and board members nationwide. Some museums stonewalled, some fought back, and some responded with surprising resilience.
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has done the latter. After more than a year of being shuttered owing to statewide restrictions, it opened last spring with one of the most diverse presentations of any museum in Southern California: a survey of Japanese neo-pop artist Yoshitomo Nara’s work, a multimedia installation by Afrofuturist Cauleen Smith, a 1992 installation by video art pioneer Bill Viola that’s owned by the museum, huge negative images of original LACMA buildings taken by conceptual photographer Vera Lutter, and an augmented-reality piece by Indigenous artist Mercedes Dorame about the Tongva people’s heritage and the tribal land where the museum now stands.
Such shows did not come about as a result of instantaneous soul-searching. Michael Govan, the CEO and director of the museum, believes that big changes in thinking and action are essential to the relevance of all museums: “I think the most beautiful thing about the present, which some people find the most shocking, is this awareness that has caught fire in the general public.”
Relaxed in a crisp black suit and white shirt, Govan settles on a bench in one of LACMA’s modern art galleries, next to the ordered chaos of a Kandinsky watercolor. As usual, he is quietly passionate: “We are always rethinking histories, plural. And if you see that as a dynamic process, then you can also see the role that the art history museum plays in projecting the values of a future.”
In practice, temporary shows by contemporary artists are flexible, even though they’re prepared years in advance. The permanent collection of a museum is a record of decisions made over the course of decades, objects acquired for their value in an ever-changing history. Whether Van Gogh, Kahlo, or Mapplethorpe, an artist and their work are perpetually subjected to shifts in perception and taste.
UNTOLD ART HISTORIES
LACMA is a general museum with an encyclopedic collection spanning East, South, and Southeast Asian and Islamic art, premodern European and American art, Latin art, costumes, decorative arts, and more. With about 142,000 objects, it is the largest museum in the West. Events of the past two years have magnified attention on the holdings of museums worldwide. How did these objects come to be in a museum at all instead of, say, in an ancient temple, in a cathedral, or at a holy site? The uncomfortable answers involve war, colonization, and plunder. Still, plenty of criticisms are leveled at curators of modern and contemporary art.
Keenly aware of these issues was Stephanie Barron, senior curator and department head of modern art, who spent her pandemic year thinking about the coming reinstallation of LACMA’s modern art. When it opened to the public in June, that preparation was striking.
Barron, who has reorganized the modern collections four times since joining the museum in 1976, approached her task with a certain clarity. About 250 pieces by some 200 artists were to be moved to the top floor of a building previously dedicated to contemporary art. Older buildings were being razed to make room for a new Peter Zumthor–designed structure, slated to open in 2024. That meant an exhibition space temporarily reduced from 21,000 square feet to 16,000 square feet. It also meant altering stark white galleries with high ceilings and skylights.
Barron called on a friend, architect Frank Gehry, who has designed exhibitions at LACMA since the mid-1960s, to create soffits that dropped the ceiling height and filtered the impact of the skylights. Walls were painted soft colors in keeping with the way paintings or sculpture would have been displayed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Twenty Picassos line a spacious dove-gray gallery; nine Giacometti sculptures stand on pedestals against aubergine walls.
The information about the art, however, is very summer 2021. Every wall label or explanatory text has been rewritten. Explicit audio tours were recorded to replace the docents whose work was made impossible by the pandemic. There are even period-based soundtracks created by Dublab’s Mark “Frosty” McNeill for many of the works on view.
In a rose linen jacket and slacks, Barron negotiates her way through the museum crowds to take her place on a bench in one of the modern art galleries. She reflects, “The last time we hung the collection, which was in 2008, we had texts about the works of art, but the questions that we use now were very different. We were more interested in looking at provenance or examining questions about the artist’s biography as it related to war, migration, exile, social and political issues.” She mentions one of her areas of personal expertise, the German expressionists, who worked in the perilous decades before World War II. Paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann line the walls of the first gallery. Like Picasso, Matisse, and many others who broke away from realism, they were influenced by what they considered to be the unconventional shapes of tribal art. Until recently, this was an accepted fact of modern art history, and in places it continues to be.
Barron explains the shift in perception regarding the role of tribal art: “The discourse now is that these materials were looted, brought back by colonizing countries like Germany, France, Belgium, or the Netherlands. And those works were then put into ethnographic museums where they were totally out of context. But they became inspirational to Western artists. That’s not something that, 10 years ago, was routinely seen in museum labels.”
Fresh perspectives mean that modern art is no longer confined by specific geography or category. Latin American modernists are intermixed with Europeans from the same period. One gallery is dedicated to the works of artists in Paris from the 1900s to the 1920s, so it embraces the fact that men and a noteworthy number of women from Russia, Mexico, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and Italy were involved in the evolution of movements like cubism, expressionism, surrealism, and futurism.
Concentration such as this has enhanced the effect of LACMA’s modern collections, much of which came from six significant and dedicated museum trustees: David E. Bright in 1967, Michael and Dorothy Blankfort in 1999, Robert Halff in 2005, and Janice and Henri Lazarof in 2007. “We have many individual donations that are extremely important,” says Barron, “but I wanted to highlight people who gave dozens, sometimes hundreds, of works, which really helped to enhance the depth and the breadth of our holdings.” With the market for modern and contemporary art soaring, such donations seem even more generous. Think of the record $179,400,000 paid in 2015 for a single Picasso.
This level of philanthropy, albeit enhanced by attractive tax deductions, contributes to the cultural foundation of a city. Yet most museum visitors barely register such details. Barron says, “The permanent collection is really the core of what a museum is, but a lot of people are so accustomed to exhibitions that come and go that the notion of a permanent collection that one can revisit is not always so immediately apparent.”
The modern art galleries are arranged more or less chronologically. Spacious galleries are devoted to a candy-box assortment of art from 1950s abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko and Franz Kline and 1960s pop artists like Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha. One outlier is a mural-size abstraction by Chilean surrealist Matta (Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren), Burn, Baby, Burn (L’escalade), which was made in response to the Vietnam War and the 1965 Watts Rebellion.
Moved from a gallery of Latin American art to the context of art of the ’60s, it makes a stunning impact, taking up a whole wall with painted bursts of mechanical violence. “Many people are seeing it for the first time, and it now has an adjacency with other works responding to the Watts uprising,” explains Barron. “Matta, though working and living in France, responded to an event happening in Los Angeles prompted by visual images that he saw on television.”
LACMA opened as a museum in 1965 and from its early years sought to respond to criticisms that it did not represent enough women or people of color among its artists. Works by numerous women are present in the modern galleries, and even before last summer’s protests, LACMA had been adding works by Black artists to its collection, such as the bazooka-shaped 1970 sculpture by John T. Riddle Jr., America’s Problem Solver.
At the entrance to the galleries, a lyrical 1971 wire wall sculpture, Sea Anemone, by Maren Hassinger, a Black female artist active in L.A. in the ’70s, is hung opposite a modern masterpiece, the soaring 1927 bronze Bird in Space, by Constantin Brancusi. The unconventional juxtaposition itself is a statement of commitment.
Nearby hangs a canvas with mousetraps in the shape of a cross, as well as a little doll hand, painted all black, by Daniel LaRue Johnson. Titled The Big Steal #1, the 1962–63 artwork is especially relevant. Overlooked in storage, it had never been shown at the museum and, fortunately, was never sold or deaccessioned. Its survival brings attention to a worrisome development at U.S. museums.
Taking advantage of pandemic-related easements on traditional restrictions on selling art from their collections to pay their operating costs, some museums sold irreplaceable works in the past year. The Palm Springs Art Museum sold a large 1979 abstract painting by Helen Frankenthaler for $3.9 million. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego sold several significant works, including a 1972 black-and-white geometric abstraction by the preeminent Southern Californian John McLaughlin for a modest $118,750. These decisions were made to pay the bills, not to refine or enhance the museums’ collections as required by the American Alliance of Museums.
When works are sold, it underscores the fragility of art history. LACMA’s Johnson painting now has a meaning to viewers that’s similar to when he painted it as a Black artist in L.A. during the political tumult of the ’60s. In the intervening decades, it may have seemed less relevant, but traditionally a museum holds on to a work rather than being swayed by the opinions of a single time. The word curator—now devalued to mean someone who organizes a closet or a dessert menu—stems from the 14th century; a church curate was the person who cared for documents and relics and preserved them for the future.
Govan notes that there are reasons to deaccession art, but “that’s not the go-to place for money.”
“I understand the crisis in COVID,” he adds. “But in general, it should never be to raise money to pay the bills. It would mean we’re unsustainable [as museums].” Despite the pressures, LACMA did not sell any work from its collections, nor did it furlough any of its 464 staff members.
None of this can be easy on Govan and his team. While the museum receives a portion of its operating funds from L.A. County, LACMA needs about $100 million to cover operating expenses and ancillary costs related to a year of lost revenue and COVID-19. It’s an amount that “LACMA’s trustees and leadership are currently raising,” a spokesperson said in a statement. This at a time when the museum is spending $750 million on the construction of its new building—over $525 million has been raised through private donations, and $125 million came from the county, which will own the completed structure.
Govan believes that it is healthy for museums to reorganize art from their collections. He wants the LACMA of the future to be “nonhierarchical,” a notion that contributed to his hiring of Zumthor for a long, horizontal biomorphic building as opposed to a vertical box. Instead of galleries telling a continuous yet familiar story like Renaissance to Romantic to modern painting in six centuries and four countries, there might be connections to parallel developments in other regions, such as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Govan’s curatorial vision and his architectural choices are intertwined. He explains, “This is why the architecture is so impor-tant. The new museum is intended to create a more…transparent and mobile institution.”
“If you fix art history, you’re telling a story that’s never been true of art,” he adds with a laugh. “There are many, many stories. We say art history is like a bunch of crisscrossing lines and cul-de-sacs. That’s why the architecture of the new building looks like a village that is crisscrossing lines and cul-de-sacs. It’s not a story of a line.”
To accomplish this, despite controversy and vociferous condemnation by various critics, LACMA’s original 1965 William Pereira building, irretrievably altered in 1986 with additions by the firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, was demolished last year.
When Govan joined the museum in 2006, this process was underway. The museum had been made up of distinct pavilions, a pleasant arrangement in L.A.’s climate, one that is echoed at the Getty Center. Before Govan was hired, architect Renzo Piano had been contracted to design what is now the Resnick Pavilion for temporary exhibitions and the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA. (The latter is not to be confused with the Broad in Downtown L.A. Though Eli and Edythe Broad funded the LACMA building, they declined to donate their collection, citing its size of more than 2,000 pieces. Instead, they decided to house the art in a museum of their own.)
Together, the Resnick and BCAM provide 100,000 square feet of exhibition space until the new Zumthor-designed structure opens in three years. While a rich array of modern and contemporary art is on view, you can’t see most of the museum’s popular Old Masters. Some are on loan, some are in traveling shows, and a lot are in storage. It’s a common decision made by museums while under construction, but it’s hardly a universally popular one, so in the reduced galleries, curators are charged with combining art from various departments, from Zen watercolors to Renaissance oils to Mayan clay figures.
Drolly addressing the challenges facing LACMA and many museums today, curator José Luis Blondet organized a show last spring called Not I: Throwing Voices (1500 BCE–2020 CE), selecting pieces from global cultures and several millennia. With these dozens of works—including a 1739 painting by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Mayan clay pipes, and a 1976 video by Hannah Wilke—Blondet made unprecedented, even random, connections. He says, “I wanted to include artworks from as many LACMA collections as possible, to bring the strategies of the ventriloquist close to the ‘universal’ profile of the museum and the flawed ambition to represent all cultures, all ages, and all artistic manifestations of humankind. The subtitle of the exhibition…wants to be serious and humorous at the same time.”
The fall exhibition schedule maintains the museum’s commitment to diversity, with shows of Indigenous and pre-Mexican art, Chinese contemporary work from the Yuz Museum, and photos of cabinet cards from the late 19th century. The big draw will be the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald and organized by the Smithsonian Institute, to be shown with works drawn largely from LACMA’s permanent collection. The exhibition, Black American Portraits, opens November 7 and is overseen by curators Christine Y. Kim and Liz Andrews. (It recalls the museum’s groundbreaking 1976 show Two Centuries of Black American Art.)
Naima Keith, vice president of education and public programs, will host ambitious events in communities throughout Los Angeles. Even before the recent social and political protests and structural changes, LACMA had started using its exhibitions to create ties in communities outside its Mid-Wilshire neighborhood. With limited space in the galleries, LACMA has sent its shows on the road. Golden Hour: California Photography from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opens October 16 at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College. Cauleen Smith created a satellite version of her LACMA show in galleries at Charles White Elementary School near MacArthur Park (it closed September 25).
Govan says, “I think there are so many fundamental issues, and for every fundamental problem, there’s a fundamental opportunity. It’s never been a more exciting time for new art historians because there are so many new horizons, so many ways to look at things. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the problems because therein lie all the opportunities for this next generation of thinkers.”
Perpetually undaunted, Govan shrugs slightly and adds, “Listen, I’m just a transitional figure trying to mediate a more mobile, open structure for the next generation of scholars to do the work that it will take over a long period of time. If it took all this time to embed the colonialism and all these other issues, you’re not going to change it overnight.” •