6 Unforgettable Moments From LACMA’s Half-Century in L.A.

As the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary, we found several causes for celebration

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art split from what is now the Natural History Museum and opened to the public in 1965, it heralded a watershed victory for L.A. Already home to a thriving art scene, we now had a museum to prove it. In 2013, LACMA announced plans for an architectural overhaul and an ambitious new cultural role. “Los Angeles is the most creative city on earth,” says Michael Govan, who has been CEO and director of LACMA since 2006 and has seen the museum’s attendance double during his tenure, climbing to 1.2 million patrons last year. “The city will never have one center, but we’re the museum of record of the local art scene, and we have been a major force bringing together the diversity of the community through the diversity of art.” Here’s a look at some significant milestones along the way.


A sexually suggestive sculpture gives the museum some art-world mojo

Photograph courtesy LACMA
Photograph courtesy LACMA

LACMA’s first well-publicized spat was with L.A. County supervisor Warren M. Dorn. The reason? An assemblage sculpture by Edward Kienholz, a cofounder of Ferus Gallery and a key shaper of L.A.’s avant-garde movement. The work featured two figures posed in the throes of a passionate backseat tryst. The Board of Supervisors declared the work obscene, insisting that LACMA pull it from the exhibition or risk losing funding. “It was a fairly conservative period, and they reacted in a strong way,” says Nancy Thomas, the museum’s senior deputy director of art administration and collections. Eventually the two sides compromised. Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge ’38 (above) would be shown, but the car’s door had to stay closed during public viewing hours. However, a docent could open the door on request, provided no minors were present. The 1966 show was a smash, giving LACMA-and the city’s edgy reputation-sizable exposure.


A dismissive comment by a curator catapults Chicano art

Photograph courtesy LACMA

When artist Harry Gamboa Jr. asked a LACMA curator why the museum didn’t exhibit any Chicano art, the curator replied with movie-villain derision, “Chicanos don’t make art. They join gangs.” Gamboa returned that night with Guglio “Gronk” Nicandro and Willie Herrón III-all were members of the Chicano art collective Asco-wielding cans of spray paint. “They felt that their work was being ignored and they should have a rightful place inside the museum,” says Thomas. “They spray-painted the entranceway with the name of Asco and their own signatures to make that proclamation.” LACMA quickly painted over the signatures, but the controversy drew public attention to the work of L.A.’s burgeoning Chicano art movement. Today Chicano artists are celebrated in exhibitions around the world, and in 2011, Asco (which means “disgust” in Spanish) was the focus of a retrospective at LACMA. Among other subversive works, the show featured a 1972 photo titled Spray Paint LACMA (above), with Asco member Patssi Valdez posing casually above the names of her colleagues.


Meet the first (and possibly last) museum security robot

Photograph courtesy LACMA

With the museum Director’s chair vacant in the early ’90s, stewardship temporarily fell to Ronald Bratton, chief deputy director for administration. Concerned that thieves would make off with LACMA’s precious holdings, he commissioned a one-of-a-kind robot to patrol the galleries and send video footage to the guards. However, “Ron’s Robot” (left), as it came to be known, had faulty navigation sensors, crashed into things, and threatened the artwork. LACMA soon retired Ron, but it’s giving artificial intelligence a reboot: LACMA grant recipient Annina Rüst is building bots that make pie charts (on actual pies) to underscore gender imbalance in the tech world.


LACMA acquires an Islamic collection

Photograph courtesy LACMA

In 2002, the same year Congress passed the Iraq War Resolution, a donation from Los Angeles Times publishing scion and museum trustee Camilla Chandler Frost made possible the purchase of about 775 pieces of Islamic art, nearly doubling the museum’s existing holdings and creating one of the largest and most significant collections outside the Middle East. “Over the last decade or two, this region has been an area of great focus but is quite unknown to a lot of Southern Californians,” says Thomas. “This collection expanded that geography in a way that’s helped us tell a better story.” At the same time LACMA has worked to strengthen its connection with the Muslim community, hosting Nowruz (Iranian New Year) festivities. The main Islamic collection is on tour in Chile, but LAC-MA is displaying the work of contemporary Middle Eastern artists such as Shadi Ghadirian (below).


The city gets the public piazza it deserves

Photograph by Spencer Lowell

Urban Light is arguably LACMA’s most recognizable piece of outdoor art. In 2000, artist Chris Burden began collecting and refurbishing the 202 cast-iron street lamps that would make up the dazzling monument (above) on the edge of a new pavilion. Situated in the open, his cathedral of light affords Mid Wilshire a space that teems with pedestrians, picnicking families, and tourists who are disgorged from double-decker buses during the day. At night couples flock to the 2008 installation for wedding photos or to take a romantic stroll. “The intention was to create a monument externally that people could interact with and enjoy 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Thomas. “It’s very satisfying to us that it’s become such an L.A. icon.” Along with Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, Robert Irwin’s Primal Palm Garden, and Alexander Calder’s Three Quintains (Hello Girls), Urban Light is changing the perception of what a museum can-and should-be to the taxpayers who provide a portion of LACMA’s funding. With new landmark buildings in the works, the museum seems committed to maintaining beautiful gathering spaces around art. “It’s a dialogue between art and architecture,” says Govan. “We want to put people in the museum before they’re in the museum, and that’s something I’m very proud of.”


Recovered art inspires a film

Photograph courtesy LACMA

In 1907, at the height of austria’s Jugendstil (art nouveau) style, Gustav Klimt painted two portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Viennese patron. Nearly 100 years later, these masterpieces and three landscapes would be at the center of a lengthy legal battle between the Austrian government (which claimed ownership of the paintings) and Los Angeles-based Maria Altmann, Bloch-Bauer’s niece, who argued that the Nazi-looted paintings still belonged to her family. Altmann won in 2006. While LACMA did not have direct involvement in the restitution arrangement, the museum showcased the reclaimed Klimts (including Adele Bloch-Bauer I, left) in an exhibition that year. Altmann’s battle generated global interest, including the attention of director Simon Curtis, who turned her story into a movie. Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren as Altmann, premieres April 3.