People Opposed to the New LACMA Plan Never Stood a Chance

A critic’s take on the County Board of Supervisors’ unanimous approval of a controversial museum redesign

Even before last week’s hearing was called to order, there was little question how the County Board of Supervisors would vote on Michael Govan’s plan for a redesigned LACMA. Prior to the proceedings, the museum’s director opened a little gate into the inner sanctum on the dais to schmooze with the supervisors in what effectively turned into a garden party minus the grass and mango margaritas. Govan and the supervisors chummed it up without embarrassment, much to the chagrin of onlookers waiting to voice their opposition to the plan, which will replace the four existing buildings on the Miracle Mile museum’s East Campus with a single building.

In open-mic preliminary remarks before Supervisor Janice Hahn opened the floor for public comments, several supervisors announced that they were going to vote in favor of certifying an environmental impact report and releasing a $125 million grant for the construction of the redesign project, and a $300 million bond once LACMA has $180 million cash in hand for Govan’s $650 million pet project.

The supes went through the motions, but the hearing turned out to be a pro forma exercise in hearing without listening, a “love fest,” as one attendee put it.

For a decade, the director has pushed a supposedly visionary scheme by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, one that erases the existing quartet of buildings (three by William Pereira and one by Norman Pfeiffer) in favor of an elevated amoeba-shaped structure that starts north of Wilshire Boulevard and jumps across the street to land on a corner parking lot owned by LACMA. The building’s blobby shape was inspired by a large, inky pond in Hancock Park, which actually turns out to be the remains of a 19th-century asphalt quarry rather than what Zumthor took as an ancient, mastodon-trapping tar pit, and the inspiration of his design.

So much for vision.

The hearing played out like a well-scripted studio picture, and Govan played both its director and leading man. The suave, 56-year-old released an avalanche of statistics that gave the impression that numbers couldn’t possibly lie. And the Supervisors didn’t question his fuzzy math or the fact that the square footage he quoted didn’t square with the square footage recently revealed in the environmental impact report, even though that was supposed to be the actual subject of the hearing. According to the EIR, the museum was shrinking as a result of his proposal, not expanding, as everyone had anticipated, including the misled public.Govan told the supervisors and the public that if you look back and include space from the Resnick Pavilion (planned by Govan and opened in 2010) and BCAM (the Broad building, opened in 2008, which his predecessor planned and funded), there was a net gain of space. While looking back, however, Govan neglected to mention the 266,000 square feet the campus lost when it offloaded the former May Company building on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, leasing it for a farthing to the Academy Museum for a century in order to meet museum debt payments (which Govan had incurred).

But that tiny factoid would have contradicted his plot point. Smiling as Govan submitted his slanted figures, the rapt supervisors let the cameras roll (the hearing was being streamed live).

Govan then ceded the floor to a cast of witnesses carefully selected to represent L.A., all of them in favor of the project, incidentally. The cast included a couple of artists to whom Govan had actually given exhibitions, a school bus driver, and a well-coiffed trustee who came from a pool of guests sitting together in a corner, the women with expensive handbags and the men in tailored suits.

Brad Pitt and Diane Keaton both gave star turns as architecture fans, drawing on their architectural “expertise” as groupies. Pitt noted that Zumthor’s architecture was “from the soul.” Keaton took another tack, equating Zumthor, winner of more than a dozen architecture prizes, with an actor who’s won 14 Academy Awards. (Actually, Diane, only his 2009 Pritzker Prize comes close.) It was impossible to tell whether her nose grew when she uttered the line with a straight face because she was wearing a low-lying hat that crowded her big sunglasses so that there wasn’t much of her nose left to see. The director of the Academy Museum, Kerry Brougher, claimed, without getting very specific about the evidence, how “fantastic” the building will be for everybody and everything for all time.

Notably absent were any of the LACMA curators whose dedicated departmental galleries will be eliminated by the Govan-Zumthor design. Maybe they fear for their already shrinking jobs.

Without a similarly accomplished director shaping the scene, the half-dozen speakers who represented the opposition didn’t a movie make. They came as individuals and were drowned out by Govan’s chorus. Some looked cowed, gaslit even.

Still, in the face of the pro-LACMA onslaught and the obvious predisposition of the supervisors, they put forward their arguments, generally trying to present hard facts about the total loss of space in the new scheme (absolutely unprecedented for a museum anywhere); the uselessness of bridging Wilshire when there was plenty of land on the north side of the boulevard; and dismay at the decision to wipe out the tradition of curatorial departments on which the museum was founded and developed. The opponents pointed out serious flaws in the project, on which they could not properly elaborate in the single minute allotted.

Eduardo Agurcia, a vocal defender of the museum’s old film program, which was decimated when Govan took over LACMA, opposed the closed-doors cronyism that allowed an architect to be chosen outside of any public selection process. The larger implication was that the whole process lacked transparency. Oscar Peña pointed out the inconvenient truth that back-of-house facilities are missing in the design, making it dysfunctional. Author Victoria Dailey cited an investigative article I wrote, “Suicide by Architecture” in The Los Angeles Review of Books, in which I point out that the amount of space lost to the new building is 143,500 square feet, or a full 37 percent, not the EIR’s claim of 10 percent. She also pointed out that no floor plan has ever been presented.

The thrust of the opposition’s argument was that a vote shouldn’t be rushed and that,the proposal’s underlying facts should be studied more closely, especially in light of recently published, not-yet-examined figures. Facts had been slow to emerge because of an opaque campaign of non-disclosure that the museum had conducted for nearly a decade.

Sheila Kuehl, the relatively new supervisor on the block, took the lead in summarizing the proceedings, and brusquely pocketing any discussion, snapping the hearing shut like a purse, she announced that she had already studied all the issues sufficiently: “We have all the information we need to make this decision.” The discussion was over even though Kuehl had failed to acknowledge Ms. Dailey’s point, which was that the museum has yet to produce a floor plan of the one and only gallery floor. Kuehl couldn’t possibly have “all the information” she needs since the most fundamental element of the building’s design has not been made public. It may not even exist.

For years, I have been asking the museum to see a basic floor plan, and for years I have repeatedly been told that it’s still being worked on. Would any of the supervisors be irresponsible enough with their own money to buy a house without knowing the floor plan? At this point, nobody knows what the county is actually getting.

Though the private non-profit Museum Associates operates LACMA, the museum is a public institution run as a public trust. The supervisors were elected as protectors and advocates for the county’s taxpayers. The buildings in Hancock Park—existing and proposed—belong to the citizens of Los Angeles County, as does the land and part of the collection. County taxpayers give $32 million a year for its operation.

Shamefully, none of the supervisors asked the dissenting speakers to elaborate on their points despite the fact that in a 2014 meeting, they had officially gone on record stating that the project to which they agreed would be 400,000 square feet, the rough equivalent of the existing four structures. The new museum, as presented in the meeting last week, was nowhere near that square footage; the design is over a third smaller. The public was being rolled

The motto of the County Board of Supervisors is “To Enrich Lives through Effective and Caring Service,” but the supervisors’ oversight role was compromised because they were having too much fun at the celebrity lawn party. They had joined the country club they were investigating.

Supervisor Hahn opened the floor to the actual vote, and the supes carried through their preordained vote unanimously, by acclamation.

Now the project faces city approvals and the potential hurdles of public opposition. Of course, Govan has yet to finish raising the the money needed to build, which gets ever more difficult as construction prices rise the longer the project drags on (Zumthor, after ten years, hasn’t finished the design). He does not yet have the required cash in hand to trigger the $300 million bond.

After the vote, the supervisors adjourned for photo-ops with Brad and Diane. According to a source, Govan was later overheard summarizing the proceedings, saying that there was some dissent by minor people who don’t matter.

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