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LACMA: Positive News for a Change : Art: Board of Supervisors supports a 99-year contract that assures funding and reopens a path for expansion.

January 29, 1994|FREDERICK M. MUIR and SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Paving the way for what officials said would be a major expansion of L.A. County Museum of Art, the Board of Supervisors on Friday agreed in principle to a new 99-year contract that would assure continued public funding and provide interim financing for an expanded arts complex.

The agreement with the non-profit Museum Associates, which manages LACMA, would restore some of the county's funds that have been taken from the museum and make possible the long-awaited purchase of the vacant May Co. facility adjacent to the current museum complex on Wilshire Boulevard.

The $25-million purchase and renovation project would allow the museum to expand and to act as a hub to attract other cultural organizations, said Robert F. Maguire, president of LACMA's board of trustees.

Maguire said he has spoken with other arts and cultural organizations--including the Children's Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Southwest Museum, Art Center College of Design and Otis School of Art and Design--about utilizing space in the May Co. facilities or building their own structures on the site. No firm plans have been made, but the concept has met an enthusiastic response, he said.

The 8.6-acre May Co. site includes a 290,000-square-foot building and a separate 22,000-square-foot retail facility, in addition to a 1,400-car parking garage. Maguire said Metro Rail is planing to build a subway station at the site, adding to his hopes that the area will become a magnet for arts patrons.

"This will allow us to build a major center for education and it opens possibilities for establishing a center of the art of the Americas, a center for Asian art or an expanded area for decorative arts," he said.

Regardless of how the expansion develops, the existing museum will be enhanced by a planned outdoor sculpture garden that will surround LACMA and the nearby George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries, he said. The sculpture garden, to be funded in part by a $5-million bond issue, will be open free to the public.

The agreement, if signed by the board and the museum trustees in the next several weeks, would end years of bickering and uncertainty about county contributions to the museum's budget.

The county board, which is mired in budget difficulties, cut back its support of the museum from a high of $16.3 million in 1991-92 to $13.3 million in 1993-94, leaving the trustees to pick up the slack. At the same time, the museum has suffered losses in private donations and membership revenues, reductions of staff (including eight curators) and decreased hours of operation.

Maguire said fund-raising efforts have been more difficult as the county cut back because of the uncertainty it created. Many potential donors, Maguire said, feared the county would back out entirely, threatening the viability of the museum.

Under the agreement, the county would provide an annual base amount of $14.2 million, which could climb under certain escalator clauses related to increased costs of labor and supplies. The Museum Associates would be required to provide a contribution equal to 80% of the county's funding.

Although the county would provide less under the agreement in principle than it did a few years ago, Maguire said that the change was a positive step because it guarantees a base amount in perpetuity.

"What this gives us is certainty," he said. "Without that, we were stuck. Now we can focus on building an endowment and move forward with a search for a new director." LACMA has been without a director since Sept. 30, when former director Michael E. Shapiro left the museum after less than a year on the job.

For the supervisors, the agreement eliminates the annual squabbling at budget time over how much the museum will get or how much it will get cut. It also clearly spells out for the first time the responsibilities and financial role of Museum Associates.

The agreement will make the May Co. project possible.

"This is not the time to buy buildings," said Supervisor Gloria Molina, referring to the tight county budget. "But it is the time to take a good deal." And the May Co. project is a good deal for the county and the museum, she said.

The county is planning to temporarily finance the $18-million purchase of the May Co. site and provide a loan of $7 million for rehabilitation work until the Museum Associates can sell bonds to cover the costs. Museum Associates would then be liable for repayment of the bonds. Maguire said that loans from trustees will assist in financing the expansion. "The board is really committed to this," he said.

County Chief administrative Offier Sally Reed said there would be no cost to county taxpayers.

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