Reflections on the Decade: A Game-Changing Architectural Competition

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

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