What L.A. County Supervisors Should Do on Tuesday (IMHO)

Ed Ruscha, Study #1 for Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1968 (gunpowder and pencil on paper)
On Tuesday the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors is set to vote on whether to release most of the county's $125 million commitment to Peter Zumthor's LACMA building. I believe the Supervisors should put off the vote, pending further research. The reason, of course, is the downsized design. The changes were revealed in an Environmental Impact Import that was released 17 days ago. It's a big change on short notice, and neither the public have had time to digest it.

County Supervisors are generally pragmatists. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good, and all that. From that standpoint, there are least two compelling cases for Zumthor-LACMA. One is the cash match. The Supervisors committed $125 million towards the Zumthor building, now expected to cost $650 million in all. That means that every dollar the County puts up is to be matched by $4.20 of private money. The County and its taxpayers would be in a lot better shape if its other pressing needs came with such a generous match.

That match didn't come out of nowhere. It's due to LACMA director Michael Govan. He has raised $560 million for the Zumthor building (about $435 million from the private donors). Anyone who's followed LACMA's history knows what a staggering feat this is. Before Govan and Zumthor there was Andrea Rich and Rem Koolhaas. Rich couldn't raise the cash (put at $200–$300 million). In fact, William Pereira's 1965 LACMA campus almost didn't happen because no one could herd the 1960s cats to raise the staggering cost of… $11.5 million.

You can say the Zumthor building is too expensive for its size. But the big-money private donors don't think so, and they're paying for most of it. The taxpayers are getting a deal. If the Zumthor project is cancelled, that $560 million will go back into everyone's pockets. Now sure, LACMA could come back in 10 years with a new director, a new architect, and a new design. But that would entail building relationships from square one, and there's no guarantee that today's big donors will be on board or even be around.
Ed Ruscha, Study #2 for Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1968 (gunpowder and pencil on paper)
A second consideration is the Jerry Perenchio bequest of Impressionist and modern art, the most important of its kind in LACMA's history. We are given to understand that it is contingent on LACMA constructing the Zumthor design. If that is accurate, then that alone makes a slam-dunk case for proceeding. I know, it's bizarre to have a donor exerting such apparently great influence on a public's museum's architectural future. But wherever Perenchio is, he can't read our tweets. His estate planning is presumably irrevocable.

In short, you would really, really have to hate the Zumthor building to be willing to forfeit $1 billion-plus worth of pledged money and art, and incur a decade or more of delay in replacing the seismically compromised east campus. Clearly the Supervisors bought into Zumthor's general design and indeed Govan's vision for the museum. I don't see them switching course at this late date.

That doesn't mean that they don't have a responsibility to cut the best possible deal for the public. In my opinion Zumthor-LACMA would be a better building with more gallery space—say, the 121,050 sf in the version of the design that the Supervisors originally approved. No, that's not as much as I'd think is ideal. But the Supervisors have every right to ask why the building was downsized from the estimates they approved, and what can be done to restore the lost space.

There's a pragmatic case for that too. A larger building will offer a more comprehensive display enhancing educational opportunities and cultural tourism; defer obsolescence as the collection grows;  encourage future gifts of art that might ultimately worth more than the building's cost.
Ed Ruscha, Study #3  for Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1968 (gunpowder and pencil on paper)

The public remains in the dark about crucial information. One is the terms of Perenchio's will. Without knowing the presumptive Perenchio deadline, it's impossible to know what options exist.

Another pertinent question is how much more a bigger building would cost. The museum must already have these figures, and they would help the Supervisors make an informed decision. As far as I can tell, the only thing standing in the way of a moderately larger Zumthor building is money. The Supervisors might consider whether to allocate more County money (from future budgets) to make possible a larger Zumthor building. Few of the County's cultural initiatives are as important as this one.
Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1968 (graphite on paper)
The supervisors can request this information immediately. But it's probably too late to get complete answers by Tuesday's meeting, and for that reason they should put off a vote until they do.

I've sent the above to my Supervisor, Mark Ridley-Thomas. Should you be so inclined, feel free to send a link to your Supervisor (you can find them there). Whatever you do, do it soon. The meeting is tomorrow.
Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1965–68 (oil on canvas)


Anonymous said…
You're trying to put proverbial lipstick on the proverbial pig.

The only possibly bad thing about the Govan/Zumthor plan being dropped is the loss of the Perenchio bequest. But that assumes his gift really came with strings attached. Given Govan's sleight-of-hand in running LACMA during the past few years, it's questionable if Perenchio really stipulated that his artworks, should Govan's slash-and-burn tactics not go through, be sent elsewhere.

The poor judgment, irresponsibility and disingenuous nature of Govan now make it doubtful about lots of words coming out of his mouth.

His ego and arrogance are going to wreck the museum. Govan is setting up LA's main art institution for a world of hurt, embarrassment and humiliation for decades to come.

Anonymous said…
I just read LA Times art critic Christopher Knight's formal opinion of the Govan-Zumthor debacle-in-making, and writer Joseph Giovannini has done another one for this source:


Michael Govan would serve himself and the city of Los Angeles, and environs, well if he did what the LA Philharmonic's long-standing, well-respected executive, Deborah Borda, did two years ago. As with Borda - who returned to her former home turf of New York City (but who left the LA Phil in good standing) - Govan should seriously consider moving on to other challenges and leave LA (and LACMA) alone. Otherwise, his legacy will be a disreputable, even disastrous, one.

Anonymous said…
Holy hell! Another angle - a more financially oriented one - in analyzing this black hole in the making:


I can just hear Michael Govan (and his circle of supporters) reacting with, "And other than THAT, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"

mughound said…
No question, LACMA is in need of a razing of the Pereira buildings. They’re falling apart. The criticisms of Govan over this project are valid, but you have to be delusional if you say his history as director isn’t successful. It includes raising countless millions for the museum, landing the Lazarof collection, and nearly tripling attendance figures. He may have personal career ambitions, but it was in line with turning LACMA into the world-class institution it is today.

And no doubt, Michael Govan may be the only person in the LA art world who is able to raise this type of money. He’s shown to be very persuasive with the LA elite. The new building has to go through, if only to land the Perenchio collection. But I agree, this new downsizing just won’t work. I really doubt it’s a question of this or nothing. LA County needs him and Zumthor to go back to the drawing board and increase the size. Or increase LA County’s contribution to subsidize an increase in space.

Also, I have a hard time seeing how interactive art can exist in this museum. How would the Damascus room or a Rain room work in this new building? It is adaptable enough for art?
Anonymous said…
The taxpayers are getting a deal?!

You do realize the county will lend LACMA $300M, which, when added to its existing $343M of debt will make it the most indebted museum in the nation, right?

And what about the increased costs due to everything this design leaves out and which must be paid for from upfront costs above the $650M figure that no one is mentioning? And the increased operating costs to support all of that which is not included in the building? Where will that come from? The EIR tells us it won't come from increased attendance.

A reminder of the only things this design contains (not at all what a museum needs to actually function):

Galleries, at great loss of the current wall surface and square footage
- A theater that is half the size of the current one
- A restaurant and cafe
- And a museum shop.

That's it. A disaster in the making.
Anonymous said…
When all said and done what does it come down to? Another LA real estate hustle.