Ahmanson Plays Coy
|Guido Reni, Bacchus and Ariadne, about 1619-20. LACMA, gift of the Ahmanson Foundation|
I'd read the press release as a bargaining tactic, intended to convince the public that the Ahmanson is the more reasonable party in this divorce. LACMA certainly has a long history of patrons placing egregious conditions on the display of their collections. But to my knowledge the Ahmanson Foundation has been a model patron. It artworks were chosen by LACMA curators, and everything was bought to be museum-worthy. It has not placed restrictions on how the art is shown. LACMA's Zumthor building will indeed be smaller that the structures it replaces, but it has room to display all the Ahmanson gifts.
Meanwhile, and not unrelated, here's something you don't see every day: a critic praising Zumthor-LACMA and Govan's plans for it. The New York Times' Holland Cotter ponders the post-COVID future of encyclopedic museums, citing Zumthor's "restorative" design for LACMA. "Also, the museum's proposal for rotation and distribution looks, at least in the telling, like a sound and generous one. Its implementation will require continual work and experimentation. But if that results in more people seeing more art, in more variety, over time, some of it in places they might not have expected, that can't be bad."
In Cotter's view Govan and Zumthor would throw off the colonial past in ways impossible for long-established East Coast museums. Central to this is not privileging Europe art—which, of course, happens to be the kind that the Ahmanson Foundation favors.
I'm more skeptical than Cotter is about LACMA satellites. But I think there has been so much bad blood over the Zumthor project that Govan's idea for a fluid organization of the permanent collection, organized around 3-year rotations, has not gotten a fair hearing. Ideas about proper display of art change, and it's pointless to say this currently fashionable one is good or bad. It all depends on how it's done. The thematic installations could be gimicky and dumb, leaving masterpieces in storage. Or they could offer brilliant, original rethinkings of art history every three years, all orchestrated so that 95 percent of the most admired and representative objects are on view 95 percent of the time. Until we see it in execution, we won't know. The Ahmanson leadership is reluctant to take that leap into the void. Can anyone convince them otherwise?