Govan Is Serious About Satellites

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting. Photo via Matt Stiles (@stiles
There were celebrities but not much drama at Tuesday's Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting. After Brad Pitt, Diane Keaton, and Thomas Houseago spoke in favor of LACMA's Peter Zumthor project, a few less-famous citizens spoke against, and then the Supervisors, who had already made their intentions clear, voted unanimously to approve the project and release $117.5 million for construction.

To me the takeaway was the degree to which the Supervisors—and Michael Govan himself—really believe in the satellite museum concept.
Proposed LACMA satellite (buildings in background) in Wetlands Park, South Los Angeles
In case you missed it, Govan has been speaking of opening five satellite museums in Los Angeles County over the next decade. The first may be in South L.A.'s Wetlands Park; Govan has also mentioned the San Fernando Valley as a likely site. Each of the five satellites would have 50,000 square feet, adding up to a total of 250,000 sf.

That makes the 109,000 sf of gallery space in the Zumthor building look small. (Which it is.)

There aren't many details on what these satellites would be or do. I vaguely envisioned a little bit of storeroom-sourced art plus a lot of the public living room that museums have become. With a hip café and some music performances, LACMA could franchise its brand to the burbs without diverting too much A-list art from the Wilshire mothership.

I now think Govan is talking about something a lot more ambitious. In the board meeting both Govan and the Supervisors spoke of the satellites, not as afterthought or a platitude, but as something central to their understanding of future LACMA and where the Zumthor building fits into it. Govan vowed to "do more to push [LACMA's] art into the far reaches of the county." Supervisor Shelia Kuehl said that we wouldn't expect everyone in the County to worship at the Los Angeles Cathedral, so "we do not expect that you will worship art at this one institution."

The running theme was that Angelenos should not have to travel freeways or subways to see art. The art should come to them. Why should some parts of the county, and some buildings, have so much art when so many buildings have so little? From that perspective, Zumthor's LACMA downsize is a bug, not a feature. 
Sputnik model at The Wende Museum of the Cold War
Govan has long described the Zumthor building (the David Geffen Galleries) as a museum without hierarchies. As the LACMA press release says,

"The horizontal design of the David Geffen Galleries will place art from all areas of LACMA’s encyclopedic collection on the same level, with no obvious facade or front or back, offering a non-hierarchical display of art—a fresh, Los Angeles perspective on the experience of a big art museum."

That's one feature of Zumthor's 2013 "Inkblot" design that I liked then and which has survived all the many iterations. I'm not saying it's the most practical notion, for the horizontal design eats up expensive real estate in the urban cores that have big cosmopolitan museums. But the gesture is appreciated, and it certainly was at the Supervisors' meeting, where such speakers as Kuehl and USC's Architecture Dean Milton Curry connected Zumthor's design to L.A.'s inclusive and progressive values.
Russian museum exhibit of tragic satellite dog "Laika"
Museum satellites are not a new concept. They've gone in and out of fashion. MOCA just closed its Pacific Design Center satellite, and the Met is closing the Breuer. But if I read him right, Govan's vision is without precedent. He is proposing a museum that has about as much space in its scattered satellites as in the main building, and those satellites would show important art.

It's not easy to imagine how that would work. Would LACMA really pack up its Rembrandts or panels from Ashurnasirpal's palace and send them on a mission to the far side of Burbank? Would big, painstakingly orchestrated loan exhibitions go anywhere but to the terra firma of Hancock Park?

As the Supervisors talked up getting art to other parts of the county, it occurred to me that LACMA already has an impressive chain of readymade satellites. What about the Norton Simon, Hammer, and Broad museums—whose collections were once coveted by or pledged to LACMA, and are now dispersed to Pasadena, Westwood, and Bunker Hill?

Between that and the Huntington, Getty, and Marciano, it could be said that L.A.'s art is already too spread out (albeit in wealthy neighborhoods) and could use a little more concentration.

That's Christopher Knight's point. A universal museum is "uniquely valuable because [its] diversity is pulled together in one place… Satellites only work for temporary exhibitions, not permanent collections."

But even temporary shows can raise tricky issues. There's a great Charles White show up now at LACMA Wilshire. The museum already has a mini-satellite at Charles White Elementary School (the former Otis Art Institute, where White taught). Surely the big, traveling exhibition demands to be at the Wilshire museum, not a satellite. White was marginalized his whole career. He needs to be seated at the big table, as he was in Chicago (Art Institute) and New York (MoMA). The Zumthor building may not have a less privileged side, but L.A. County does.
ESMoA showing street art murals and rare books from the Getty Research Institute
Let me close by making a modest case for neighborhood museums. When the El Segundo Museum of Art opened 2013, I thought it was a really stupid idea. We do not need museums on every corner, like 7-11s! El Segundites should count themselves lucky to be freeway-close to so many world-class museums.

But the thing is, ESMoA is free, and it brings museum-quality art to a walkable Main Street. It draws in people who probably wouldn't have set aside an afternoon to go to LACMA.

Much the same applies to such institutions as the Underground Museum (which often shows works from MOCA's collection) and the Wende Museum. All bring serious art and ideas to neighborhoods that don't have big museums.

So I think there is a place for neighborhood museums that show art from much bigger institutions. I'm  just not sure there is added value in having them be affiliates of the big museums. The quirkiness of ESMoA, UM, and Wende is part of the charm.

At the Supervisors meeting, one earnest citizen announced, "I'm glad that other parts of this diverse county will get satellites." For the moment Govan has his plate full building the Zumthor. Ten years (it would inevitably be longer than that) is a long time in museum director tenure. The satellites are best regarded as an aspiration, not a promise. Still, if LA County gets a few more neighborhood museums that are free, that would be a worthy experiment in bringing art to the people.
Underground Museum showing works from MOCA


Anonymous said…
This blog should change its name to "Los Angeles County Museum Burned Down."

Every aspect of what the irresponsible director of LACMA is doing - from size-space, design, finances/budget, logistics, programming, transparency, honesty and ethics - is disgusting. He is committing cultural malpractice.

I feel bad for the thousands of donors, volunteers and members through the decades who've worked to convert LACMA from the level of an embarrassment (What's that saying about 19 suburbs in search of a city? What's that joke about a cultural desert, a cultural wasteland?) into an institution of some repute and respectability.

Considering the thinking and reactions of the supervisors, the mayor, the ditsy celebrities and Govan's hanger-ons - and the transplanted director of LACMA himself - the old stereotype of LA as a land full of philistines appears to be still evident in 2019 as it was well before 1965.

The old is new again.