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Cooperation Becomes Key to L.A. Scene

Museums find sharing the cultural wealth in multi-venue exhibitions, like a new survey of African music, helps audiences see the big picture.

January 09, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Permanent collections may be the stock in trade of art museums, but temporary exhibitions bring in the crowds and the critics, not to mention box-office receipts. Inevitably, that simple fact leads to competition. As long as human beings are more interested in new attractions than familiar cultural resources, museums would seem to be locked into a genteel battle for the attention and support that keep them going.

Or maybe not. One of the most notable new developments on the Los Angeles art scene is a rowing number of exhibitions organized as cooperative ventures instead of as separate endeavors.

This phenomenon amounts to more than just one museum loaning artworks to another. It's also quite different from the independently organized shows that often pop up in commercial galleries in conjunction with--or in reaction to--major museum exhibitions, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries," in 1991, or the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum's "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art," in 1995.

What's new, or at least increasingly frequent, is that museums are forming collegial partnerships to present exhibitions and auxiliary events at two or more venues.

One major collaboration, already underway, is "The Heritage of African Music," a three-museum survey of Africa's musical traditions and their influence on world music. "Rhythms of the Soul: African Instruments in the Diaspora," at the California African-American Museum (to June 11), tracks the lineage of African-based music from the 17th century to the present. Another show, "Music in the Life of Africa," at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History (to July 16), presents instruments in the context of political life, religion, family and community, work and recreation. Finally, "Music for the Eyes: The Fine Art of African Musical Instruments," at LACMA West's Boone Children's Gallery (to May 14), examines the development, aesthetics and sounds of individual instruments.

Another case in point, coming soon, features contemporary British artist Leon Kossoff's interpretations of 17th century French painter Nicolas Poussin's work. Kossoff, who is best known for thickly painted portraits and scenes of daily life, has spent the last five years creating a homage to Poussin, mainly based on works at the National Gallery in London. Graham Beal, the British-born former director of LACMA, became interested in exhibiting Kossoff's "Poussins" through talks with British art historian Richard Kendall. Beal left Los Angeles last summer to direct the Detroit Institute of Arts, but Victor Carlson, senior curator of prints and drawings at LACMA, took charge of the planned show.

Meanwhile, John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, became aware of Kossoff's fascination with Poussin. Sensing an opportunity to expand the Getty's efforts to involve contemporary artists with the museum's collection, Walsh arranged to loan the Getty's major Poussin painting, "Landscape With Calm," to the National Gallery in London, where Kossoff could use it as a reference for additional prints and drawings.

The result of all this international interaction is two local exhibitions. The Getty will present "Poussin Landscapes by Leon Kossoff," a series of large drawings and etchings after Poussin's figurative works and landscapes, along with works that inspired them (Jan. 18-April 16). More or less concurrently (Jan. 20-April 2), LACMA will offer a larger exhibition, "Drawn to Painting: Leon Kossoff's Drawings and Prints After Nicolas Poussin."

These are but two examples of "a shift from competition to collaboration," according to Michael S. Roth, associate director of the Getty Research Institute and curator of "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture." The highly publicized traveling exhibition will appear in Los Angeles (April 4-July 25), but not at the Getty, as might be expected. Instead, the show will be at the nearby Skirball Cultural Center.


Roth began working on the Freud exhibition in 1994-95, when he was a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute. The Getty was interested in presenting the show, but "Freud" isn't an art show, so it seemed better suited to an institution with a broader exhibition program. Working with the Skirball was "a natural collaboration" because of its mission and "good neighborly relations" with the Getty, he said. Both institutions will host a series of related lectures, films, discussions, concerts and educational classes.

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