Reflections on the Decade: LACMA Partners with Artists and LAUSD

December 31, 2009

Artists Mark Bradford and Ruben Ochoa with students at Charles White Elementary School

LACMA has a long tradition of creating exhibitions specifically for children and families. When we opened the Boone Children’s Gallery in 1998, it was an experiment that proved to be a godsend to parents all over Los Angeles. Through the generous support of George and MaryLou Boone, the gallery became highly acclaimed as an interactive art space for kids.

With this experience in mind, in 2007 LACMA embraced the opportunity to create an exhibition for children and families at Charles White Elementary School (formerly the original site of Otis College). This was part of a larger education initiative with the schools and libraries in LAUSD District 4, begun in 2006 and funded by an extraordinary endowment from a former trustee, the late Anna Bing Arnold.

LACMA Educator Elizabeth Gerber discusses artwork with students in the Charles White Elementary School Gallery

The opportunity to use the former Otis College gallery space that was left intact when LAUSD turned the site into an elementary school was unprecedented. We chose artists Mark Bradford and Ruben Ochoa and embarked on a journey that included the creation of new artwork by them, the installation of work from the museum’s collection, and the opportunity for young children to interact with two amazing artists. It was a collaboration that presented all kinds of challenges: the sign painter they hired got locked into the school and had to call me and the principal to be let out at midnight—on several occasions; the artwork they created couldn’t fit through the door; and we had soccer balls flying toward us as we came in and out of the gallery.

LACMA Educator Sofía Gutierrez discusses LACMA artwork Año Loco XIV92 Por Dios y Oro in the Charles White Elementary School Gallery

For LACMA and the children who go to Charles White, this was the beginning of a tradition and the creation of lasting memories, and in the process we’ve invented another space for parents to take their children to experience art.

Jane Burrell, Vice President of Education and Public Programs

Reflections on the Decade: Los Angeles 1955–1985 at the Pompidou

December 30, 2009

The art of Southern California has taken a long time to find its rightful place in the (art) world. Despite the consistently high quality of work made here, the art and artists of Los Angeles undeniably languished in the shadow of their East Coast counterparts for many years. In 1984, when I moved to L.A. from New York—which in those years was generally acknowledged to be the center of the contemporary art world, both domestically and internationally—I remember being told that art in Los Angeles almost came into its own after LACMA opened in 1965 as an independent art museum on Wilshire Boulevard (rather than as a division of the Los Angeles Museum of Science, History and Art in Exposition Park)… but that it never quite happened. Then in late 1986, with the opening of both LACMA’s new building for twentieth-century art and Arata Isozaki’s signature building for Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the buzz was that—finally—art in L.A. was going to come into its own… but again, that never quite happened.

During the 1990s, as the art schools in and around Los Angeles (notably CalArts, Art Center, UCLA, and Otis) gained prestige, the gallery scene and the number of serious collectors of contemporary art in the city grew exponentially. Equally important, any number of young artists chose to stay in or move to Los Angeles rather than heading to New York as had previously been typical; many of these artists went on to forge successful international careers. During those same years, London, Berlin, and Tokyo also emerged as significant contemporary art centers, as not only the business world but also the art world became increasingly globalized and decentralized. And yet even still, Los Angeles was not quite a first-class art-world citizen, despite such important shows devoted to the art of Southern California as MOCA’s Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s (1992), and Sunshine & Noir: Art in Los Angeles 1960–1997, organized in Denmark in 1997. The final validation came only in 2006, when the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, aka the Pompidou, organized Los Angeles 1955–1985: Birth of an Art Capital, shining from afar a true spotlight on the City of Angels and its phenomenal art scene over the course of three decades.

Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Art Capital, Centre Pompidou (2006)

Despite the fact that LACMA’s permanent collection will never be quite the same, “the Pompidou’s Los Angeles show,” as it tends to be called, was the boost that finally put Southern California art over the top. Organized in Paris by a major museum with a large and international audience, it could not be considered local or boosterish but rather was seen as the fourth in a series of major, critically acclaimed Pompidou shows that focused on international centers of cutting-edge artistic activity earlier in the twentieth-century: Paris-New York, Paris-Berlin, and Paris-Moscow. Finally, it can now truthfully be said, the art of Los Angeles has come into its own.

Carol S. Eliel

Reflections on the Decade: A Historic Acquisition for LACMA

December 29, 2009

From the perspective of the American Art Department, LACMA’s story of the decade is the museum’s acquisition of Wrestlers by Thomas Eakins (1844–1916). What made this particular acquisition for the museum so historic? The story begins in 2006 with the dream of a longtime, devoted LACMA donor to acquire for the American art collection a work of profound and lasting significance and the serendipitous, simultaneous availability of such a masterpiece with an art dealer in New York. Painted in 1899 by the outstanding realist painter of the late-nineteenth century, Eakins’s Wrestlers instantly met the criteria. In fact, when Bruce Robertson, former chief curator of American art at LACMA, first saw the painting, he admitted he got “weak in the knees” in the face of this great work and the rare and superlative opportunity it represented for LACMA.

Thomas Eakins, Wrestlers, 1899, gift of Cecile C. Bartman and the Cecile and Fred Bartman Foundation

Wrestlers is Eakins’s last completed genre painting, his last consideration of the male nude, his last sporting picture, and the painting the artist chose in 1902 as his diploma picture for the National Academy of Design in New York. Monumental in scale, Wrestlers would be united with the artist’s preliminary oil sketch for the painting, which had been in LACMA’s collection for more than fifty years.

Thomas Eakins, Wrestlers, c. 1899, Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection

The acquisition of the finished canvas also would eliminate a serious gap in the American art collection, which had no major work by Eakins, a canonical artist within the history of American art. Most important, however, is the inherent quality and character of the painting. As Robertson explained, “a work of the magnitude and significance of Wrestlers unfolds itself to us constantly and always in different ways. Everybody will take something different away from it.”

Not surprisingly, the acquisition of Wrestlers at LACMA has reinvigorated the American art collection and American art history more broadly, inviting new interpretations of the artist and his career. Soon after it arrived at LACMA, it was lent to the international exhibition Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. In the Fall 2009 issue of the journal American Art, Robertson and LACMA curator Ilene Fort each published essays of their differing interpretations of the painting in a special feature entitled “Paired Perspectives.” Wrestlers also inspired and will be centerpiece of Fort’s forthcoming exhibition at LACMA: Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins, opening this summer—the first exhibition on Eakins and his art to be held on the West Coast since the 1940s and the first in Los Angeles since the mid-1920s.

Austen Bailly

Reflections on the Decade: A Game-Changing Architectural Competition

December 28, 2009

As the first decade of the new century comes to an end, we asked a handful of LACMA staffers for their thoughts on the biggest stories of the last ten years, as they pertain to LACMA or to Los Angeles. We’ll share their answers over the course of the week. First up, museum president Melody Kanschat.

With twenty-plus years under my belt at LACMA, coming up with a long “best of ” list of great moments at the museum should be a piece of cake… but zeroing in on that “game-changing moment” is a little bit tougher. There is plenty of competition for the number one spot… the Klimt painting exhibition, the opening of BCAM, raising $200 million in the first phase of our capital campaign, serving nearly 1 million visitors to the King Tut exhibition… all great moments but none quite as institution-changing as the 2001 architectural competition to create a master plan for our campus.

If you knew LACMA in 2001 you’ll remember that it was loved locally, had a growing collection, was known as a player nationally on the art exhibition circuit, and that it ranked fairly low when it came to its architecture and its international appeal. The Board of Trustees decided to take on architecture and international recognition all at once by hosting a highly publicized architectural competition. We set out to attract some of the world’s foremost architects to look at our campus, buildings, collections, staff, and visitors and propose a master plan that would provide world-class facilities for a world-class collection and a growing world-wide audience.

I was lucky enough to be the staff person in charge of the competition and to witness firsthand how it was a game changer in LACMA’s growth as an institution. The competition required that the staff begin to work together at an in-depth level to evaluate our facility needs and the growth potential in our programs and our collections; the Trustees had to investigate their own capacity regarding leadership, campaign donations, and their desire to promote LACMA on the worldwide stage; and the international art and architecture community had to begin to notice that the thirty-five-year-old encyclopedic art museum in Los Angeles had the potential to “run with the big dogs.”

As the process unfolded, I saw architects Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Thom Mayne, and Jean Nouvel wrestle with LACMA’s problems and its tremendous potential, and I watched our staff, trustees, donors, members, and visitors energized with the spirit of self-awareness and of institutional change. In the end we did not build the building competition winner Rem Koolhaas envisioned, but we did build the collective vision (and a little buzz) that makes LACMA so compelling today. For me, that moment in 2001 will remain LACMA’s best of the decade.

Melody Kanschat, President

Bus Tour of the Urban Oilscape with CLUI

December 24, 2009

I find it very fortunate that, as an East Coast transplant living in Los Angeles for the last ten years, there are still things that surprise me about this city and its environs. Last Friday, December 18, for instance, I was taken on a tour that pretty much blew my mind—a tour of something integral to everything from house paint to bicycle tires, ice cube trays, and the incessant driving that goes on in this town, and yet so often deceptively hidden under urban guise in relation to its massive scale and influence. I went on A Bus Tour of the Urban Oilscape of Los Angeles, hosted by the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI).

We found out at the end of the day that this bus actually runs on desalinated sea water! Just kidding! Let’s just say, the irony of driving around all day in this bus that probably gets about six miles to the gallon was not lost on us.

2009 is the sesquicentennial of the discovery of oil, and the CLUI is taking a long, fascinating look at this fact with a triad of explorations into this slippery industry across the country. They started with a study of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, were invited down to Houston for a bit of Texas Oil, and landed back in Los Angeles with the current exhibition at their headquarters in Culver City: Urban Crude: The Oil Fields of the Los Angeles Basin, as well as an installation of “landscans” going on right now as part of LACMA’s presentation of New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (closing on January 3). Here at LACMA they present hypnotic aerial views in high-definition video of vast areas of oil production and processing—a Houston petrochemical processing plant as well as our very own oil-producing neighbor, the Kern County oil basin.

Matt Coolidge introduces the day, mentioning that CLUI likes to explore how we humans interact with the top layer of the ground.

We piled into a big shiny bus at 8:50 am after being served coffee and donuts at the CLUI HQ and headed off for a day of “edutainment,” as Matthew Coolidge called it. The CLUI’s methods (or madness, as some may say) of research, extrapolation, educating, and art-making are as non-didactic as you can get. “Isn’t this interesting,” they seem to be saying, “what do you think of this?” There is a self-proclaimed wide-eyedness about what they do that invites you to come to your own conclusions about whatever it is they unearth. Among their vast land-based interests, they have studied and exhibited on dumps, parking lots, and show caves; they host artists in residence at the CLUI’s Wendover Complex in Wendover, Utah, and they have a massive online land use database.

Our tour took us from pump jacks in downtown Los Angeles to man-made oil-rich islands off of Long Beach, with lots of stops along the way. Oil, as defining a historical resource as the film industry in Los Angeles, runs far and wide underneath us—thousands of feet deep. Los Angeles is the most urban and developed oil field in the world. Can you imagine?

Sally of the Venoco Beverly Hills West field on Olympic next to the Beverly Hills High School, where there are fifteen active wells. She was very informative, explaining how water and oil are pulled out of the ground, with water being re-injected into the earth to prevent collapse as well as disposal. She also told us about how oil wells are drilled in a telescoping fashion. Here she showed us a subterranean map of the Beverly Hills Oil Field right underfoot.

This was the cutest little pump jack ever, behind a church close to downtown Los Angeles. It produces about 3–4 barrels of oil a day.

Lunch was in Signal Hill at Curley’s Café, complete with pump jacks. I had a turkey French dip sandwich.

Whereas much of the urban oil production in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills is hidden behind walls and disguised as office buildings, there are still plenty of pump jacks and oil derricks right out in the open in Signal Hill. At Curley’s we picked up real estate developer and oil entrepreneur Brady Barto of Signal Hill Petroleum, Inc., and he guided us to some of the hot spots of his oil and real estate industry down there.

Petroleum geologist Don Clark met us on the hilltop at Signal Hill and explained continental shift, fault zones, and, you guessed it, underground oil fields. He informed us that Signal Hill has possibly the most oil per acre in the world—there are billions of barrels of oil underfoot. And there could be even tens of billions—they won’t know unless permission is given to explore the possibilities. A mystery that, for reasons one can imagine, many people would prefer to leave at that.

A bit further south in Long Beach, Bill of THUMS Long Beach Company (contractors for Occidental Petroleum Corporation) met up with us on the pier at Marina Green Park and explained the history and design of the four man-made islands off the coast that produce about 11.7 million barrels of oil annually from the Wilmington Oil Field, fourth largest in the continental United States. That structure with palm trees in the background is one of the closer-to-shore islands, called Grissom Island.

Waterfalls, lighting, and sculptural soundproofing camouflage the two closest-to-shore THUMS islands. Occasionally, Bill gets calls from high-rise condo dwellers onshore having cocktail parties or special dinners wondering if THUMS can turn the lights and waterfall on an hour or so early for their visual entertainment. THUMS always accommodates their requests.

Sarah Bay Williams, Ralph M. Parsons Fellow, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department

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