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L.A. at Center : Museum Mania Grips the Globe

May 23, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

Present culture has been compared to the American Renaissance of the turn of the century. Then, overnight millionaires built beach houses rivaling the Pitti Palace, filled them with art, then endowed public museums to house their treasures.

Now another century approaches apogee, and once again the view of the universe is spectacular and over-scaled. Once again the panorama is crowned with a frenzy of museum building that seems to acquire larger meaning as a symbol of a social renaissance or--perhaps--decline. Opinions vary.

"The fancy new museums come from people on boards of directors who need that kind of symbol," Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry said. "Rich people want rich symbols. I don't think that marble palaces talk about a way of life we should be living. Too much money is being spent on building that would be better used to buy art to go in them."

'Like the Religious Act'

Arata Isozaki, who designed Los Angeles' nearly completed Museum of Contemporary Art on Bunker Hill, views the museum boom in practical, witty and philosophical terms.

"In the past, religious buildings had a strong role in the society," he said. "Now art is coming to take over the position where the gods are no more. Making art is something like the religious act. Even the activity of raising funds and collecting art for the museum is like the religious activity of the past."

Historically, American museums have drawn significant aspects of their character from three separate models: the European repository of royal treasure; the educational institution for the common man and P. T. Barnum's carnivalesque American Museum of the 1850s.

In Victorian California, the impulse to artistic pomp took the form of Sacramento's Crocker Museum, established in the family's Italianate mansion with railroad money in 1885. The state's first art museum, it set a pattern of early cultural dominance in Northern California.

L.A. at Center of Boom

Today it is the southern part of the state that rides the crest of a new surge in a two-decade museum building boom. Los Angeles seems to twinkle at the center of a worldwide museum epidemic. This is undoubtedly due in part to the presence here of the J. Paul Getty Museum. In 1982, the Getty Trust took control of a $3.6-billion endowment left to the museum by its oil-baron founder. Something about having the world's richest museum in its backyard has focused planetary attention on Southern California's version of museum mania.

It is a fever unlikely to abate before the Malibu-based repository opens a second museum and research facilities in Brentwood. Being designed by architect Richard Meier, it is expected to materialize in the 1990s.

But late this year, international attention will galvanize on Los Angeles' launch of what amounts to two major new museums, Isozaki's new Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Bunker Hill's California Plaza development, and the Robert O. Anderson Building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The latter will crown a $52.4-million expansion at the county museum and fulfill its master plan's intention of creating a proper forum for modern and contemporary art. The $20-million MOCA building will provide a long-sought focus for both Los Angeles' highly reputed innovative art and the concoctions of the international circuit.

That, however, is only the curl of the wave. Recently, Beverly Hills decided to transform the Greystone Mansion into a museum to house the contemporary collections of Frederick Weisman (a move reflective of a growing number of private museums such as the Saatchi Museum in London). UCLA's excellent Museum of Culturang its own free-standing campus museum. The Laguna Beach Museum of Art is under reconstruction. The Newport Harbor Art Museum is considering its third expansion, and San Diego has plans for two museums of contemporary art.

Widespread Expansion

It appears that every museum that isn't expanding either just did so, or is brand new anyway. The Afro-American Museum of Cultural History in Exposition Park is new. In 1984, the Southwest Museum, dormant for decades, was brought sparklingly back on line. The same year, San Marino's Huntington Art Gallery opened an American wing (they are now making the best of a recent fire to refurbish smoke-damaged galleries, art and objects). Since 1962, about 15 new art museums or significant special exhibitions galleries have been built in California, as many as in the previous half-century. By conservative estimate, California has some 50 active, professional art museums and public galleries, plus scores of smaller venues and commercial showplaces.

"L.A.'s time has come," said New York architect Norman Pfeiffer, whose firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates is transforming the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "The city reflects the Pacific Rim and Asia the way New York reflected Europe 200 years ago. It's very international."

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