We’re inured to all the lies coming out of Washington, but we would prefer not to believe that similar deceptions are emerging from an internationally famous museum, an institution we presume to be scrupulously honest, down to the authenticity of a brushstroke. But calling black white is no longer just a DC disease; it has also infected the LACMA stretch of the Miracle Mile. In a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, art critic Christopher Knight pointed out that Michael Govan, its director, is ethically challenged because he wears multiple hats as a director of a nonprofit moonlighting for a commercial gallery and other art projects. As Knight wrote,
A commercial exhibition conceived and assembled by a nonprofit museum director who is the head of a county department subsidized by taxpayers […] creates an ethical swamp of considerable depth. Neither LACMA’s board of trustees nor the L.A. County Board of Supervisors should stand for it.
Knight didn’t need to look outside LACMA to commercial galleries to find a swamp where anything goes and nothing matters. One deceptive pronouncement about the Zumthor project followed another in a stream of distortions and untruths that became the Ponzi scheme on which this failed project is founded.
Perhaps the most flagrant deception in LACMA’s long trail is Govan’s claim that the museum has gained lots of square footage on his watch, which cancels out the loss of square footage in the Zumthor building. But if you count the 260,000-square-foot May Company building that Govan, pressed to meet his bills, lost to a fire-sale lease to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (along with the fact that Broad Pavilion was initiated and funded by his predecessor), and if you then factor in the reduced square footage of the Zumthor building, you find that LACMA will have lost a whopping 364,000 square feet during Govan’s tenure. The graph of lost square footage shows red ink gushing beneath the water line.
Regardless of what you think of the Zumthor design as architecture, the way that LACMA has managed itself and developed its proposal for a new campus over 12 years amounts to an abuse of public trust perpetrated by the very agents who should be protecting it: LACMA’s Board of Trustees, the LA County Board of Supervisors, and the city councilpersons. Guardians of the public good have willfully overlooked the proposal’s failure to protect the collections, accommodate museum functions, and respect its historical legacy. The result is a public project privatized by a wealthy, out-of-touch board that has overlooked the public good, public opinion, and public pride. Twelve years of opacity have blocked the disinfectant of sunlight. The museum cannot in good faith say it has operated in good faith when it hasn’t even made public the plan of the main gallery floor. The museum is blatantly hiding critical information necessary to inform the public.
Last week, Michael Govan denied all this in a LACMA memorandum:
I would like to assure you that we have completed the entire public process appropriately and with extensive community outreach. As you know, there were opportunities for broad public participation at every step throughout the environmental review process. Working closely with County and City leaders and with their guidance, LACMA has met and continues to meet with neighbors and other stakeholders to provide information and solicit comments on the project.
However, Eduardo Agurcia, a concerned Angeleno who canceled his LACMA membership in protest, recalls the supposed outreach differently:
LACMA announced several meetings to encourage input from LACMA members and the general public. Two if I recall correctly. I went to both. They took place in the Resnick Pavilion. Seats were set up. Govan was introduced. He screened a short video. Then he spoke. Then he exited without taking any questions. The public was told to go over to about seven tables manned by LACMA employees to answer questions.
At the second meeting the same thing happened. Govan was announced. He spoke about 15 minutes. Then he quickly began to exit without taking questions. At this point several people stood up and began to shout questions at him. In response he increased his speed without looking back, and literally ran away. “Who is going to pay for this?” someone yelled. A number of furious, exasperated people were left open mouthed and frustrated, including me. Again the audience members were directed to the seven tables manned by LACMA employees to ask questions. Each table was designated for a specific subject.
The whole thing was a grotesque parody. It was clear that the meetings had been staged so that LACMA could claim that its members’ and the public’s input had been solicited. It was all a sham, a Potemkin village event.
I followed up with e-mails to Govan complaining and requesting that he call a public meeting on a weekend in Bing Auditorium, requesting that he and the LACMA trustees sit on stage and take questions from the audience. LACMA members, the general public, the press, relevant constituencies and architectural critics should be invited, with each person being allowed to ask a question or make a three-minute statement. I never heard from him or his staff.
In the context of today’s national debates in Washington, Alexander Hamilton’s words come to mind — that an abuse of the public trust is an impeachable offense.
The Zumthor design should be impeached and shelved because LACMA has exhibited bad faith developing a project that has resulted in cost overruns and dysfunction that the museum hides. The project wastes massive amounts of money to shrink, and it wastes a large amount of land, also to shrink. Worst of all, this building devastates the collections that form the soul of LACMA.
Even in the 11th hour of this ill-advised scheme, as workmen finish performing abatement on the interiors, there are three corrective measures that can be undertaken now, and each would prove a better solution for fulfilling LACMA’s promise as one of the United States’s great museum.
First, the existing buildings can be restored for adaptive reuse. If LACMA simply completes the process of asbestos removal now ongoing, the museum can proceed with a seismic upgrade of buildings — the whole reason Govan started the project. This upgrade in no way necessitates the demolition of the buildings or the construction of a new building. Govan used the upgrade as an excuse to build his avant-garde Taj Mahal, arguing that, for a little more money, you can get a new, state-of-the-art building. However, the Taj he is proposing is costing three or four times more than the $250 million cost of a seismic upgrade he once quoted to me in conversation, while the design yields only a quarter the number of galleries and no offices to replace a whole floor of offices. Govan’s recent assertion on KCRW that the buildings cannot be salvaged and upgraded into a state-of-the-art museum is yet another deception in LACMA’s cascade of disinformation. The buildings are only 50 years old, and they were built to last.
In the face of this insane waste, the adaptive reuse of renovated and seismically upgraded structures is sensible, feasible, and preferable, especially for environmental reasons: reusing the existing buildings conserves their already embodied energy and obviates new expenditures of energy on materials and construction. Though few people have liked the exteriors of the Pereira and Pfeiffer buildings, the facades can be upgraded. But the great overlooked feature of the existing buildings is their spatial infrastructure: the interiors have high ceilings, generous volumes, and noble proportions, making them the ideal gallery spaces they have always been. Just keeping the existing buildings gains the museum some 143,000 square feet over the Zumthor proposal, and it would retain the entire floor of offices on the first level, along with the auditoria and their 716 seats. The Dia-like art warehouse that Govan is forcing onto the Wilshire campus can be built in one of the warehouses he has identified elsewhere in Los Angeles. The Resnick is already the kind of Kunsthalle Govan wants, so another is redundant anyway.
The solution to all this is actually in plain sight. Renzo Piano’s 2003 master plan for the LACMA campus could be resurrected as the armature for linking the Broad and Resnick pavilions and the Academy Museum into some version of the existing buildings on the East Campus. LACMA could be saved from the Zumthor project with a simple call to Piano: “Renzo, remember that plan you did 15 years ago?” Piano’s master plan makes far more sense than the plan currently on the table.
A second eminently viable possibility is that after seismic upgrading, the four buildings can be expanded. Perhaps the simplest way would be to link the buildings into a unified whole by filling in the gaps between them with galleries and turning what is now the outdoor plaza into an interior atrium fitted with stairways or ramps inviting visitors to the upper floors. This simple schematic plan, already published in LARB, would result in a museum of approximately 500,000 square feet, with the built-in gaps alone exceeding the entire square footage of Zumthor’s gallery floor. The price of this solution promises to be competitive with the Zumthor project and would result in a museum more than twice as large.
A third possibility is a completely new design that replaces the existing structures on the East Campus, but with a new building that, unlike the Zumthor, actually works and might prove more inspirational than his deeply compromised design. The Page Museum recently held a smoothly run competition that resulted in a brilliant scheme by the New York firm of Weiss/Manfredi. The whole process, conducted with exemplary transparency and efficiency, lasted less than a year, with the public kept abreast of developments at all stages. Contrary to Govan’s unfounded theory that a museum should be on a single floor, the winning design at the Page shows how an inventively ramped circulation system can invite visitors to all levels of a multi-story museum. The Page’s process of how to run a competition stands as a role model and object lesson for LACMA.
The conventional thinking about where LACMA now stands is that plans have gone too far, that demolition is inevitable and the process irreversible, that we have to accept the inescapable conclusion, the Zumthor scheme. That may be what Govan wants you to think. It’s not true. When the abatement concludes, the museum will simply find itself at a stopping point, a time during which the museum can press pause, regain its sanity, do the books, and recalibrate the whole venture.
There is no reason to go forward with what we already know will be a failure, a building that will be hated — the building that killed LACMA. This ocean liner can be turned around.
Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc.
Featured image: "Los Angeles County Museum of Art" by InSapphoWeTrust is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.