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The Rise and Stall of LACMA's Planned Reinvention

Tough times and tight wallets doom ambitious goal to tear the museum down and rebuild.

December 26, 2002|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

How does a $400-million project to transform the Los Angeles County Museum of Art go from fast-forward to pause in 364 days?

"The environment simply went to hell. I don't know how else to phrase it," said Walter Weisman, chairman of the museum's board, looking back on the grand fund-raising, demolition and construction project that the museum unveiled a year ago, then put on hold indefinitely earlier this month.

But the rise and stall of LACMA's planned reinvention is a story with more plot twists than that.

In interviews, Weisman, LACMA president and director Andrea Rich and other key players sketch a tense 12 months punctuated with recurring financial uncertainties as they tried to advance architect Rem Koolhaas' revolutionary idea for the museum.

"We don't have the money to have Rem go full blast into the next phase," Weisman said. If someone stepped up with $10 million to revive work on the design, he said, "that would be wonderful. But no one has."

Rich and Weisman are quick to say that the project is not exactly dead. But somebody has to head the donor line -- apparently somebody besides L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, who tops the list of likely donors but prefers not to stand alone.

Another LACMA trustee, requesting anonymity, said, "I think [Rich and Weisman] would have OKd the expenditures for the next step if they had more optimism about the long run."

The run-up to this drama began in mid-2001, when LACMA trustees held a design competition for a museum renovation, then gave the thumbs-up to the only contestant who ignored the rules: Koolhaas of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who proposed leveling LACMA's four awkwardly arrayed buildings. In their place would rise a new museum with a plaza downstairs and the collections reorganized upstairs under a tent-like roof.

The cost estimate didn't come from Koolhaas. Each of the architects in the competition was asked to propose a $200-million renovation. Noting the escalating costs that accompany construction jobs, LACMA's leaders guessed the price might climb another $100 million. To keep operations stable, they wanted to add $100 million to LACMA's endowment (now at $77 million). Which adds up to a capital campaign for $350 million to $400 million.

To raise that, Weisman said, he and Rich first aimed to gather $300 million in pledges on paper in a "quiet phase" of 12 to 18 months. Another two to four years of public campaigning would generate the remaining $50 million to $100 million.

"I am concerned about where the money will come from," warned LACMA life trustee Robert Ahmanson on the eve of the vote. That didn't entirely surprise insiders; his family name is on one of the buildings targeted for demolition. And by then, the bandwagon was rolling.

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Dec. 5, 2001 -- With 23 of LACMA's 50-some trustees present, the LACMA board votes unanimously to support the Koolhaas plan.

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Before the vote, Rich said later, she conferred with many potential donors. She came away encouraged, even though, on the day of the vote, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index was down about 11% for the year.

Over the next 12 months, the S&P 500 would fall another 22%. Though the board embraced the project, there were complaints about the design, about devoting millions to a building instead of to art and about casting aside four existing buildings, none more than 37 years old.

"This whole process," Rich said later, "had one side of the population thrilled and the other side furious."

Then there was the question of Broad, a LACMA board member, a booster of the Koolhaas plan and the city's most visible cultural donor.

Insiders at local philanthropies say Broad is known for using his prospective gifts to pry contributions from other sources and to further his own preferences -- a strategy few dare criticize publicly.

In January, and later, Rich said only that Broad had "given me something to work with" and that other trustees "made commitments to make commitments."

This, fund-raising experts say, is not uncommon. Big-name architects and their designs are often used to help sell capital projects and, at the moment they're announced, as in LACMA's case, institutions often have no donor commitments on paper.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which now has its own $300-million renovation project in the planning stages, introduced Steven Holl as its architect in July 2002. Dyan Sublett, the institution's vice president for advancement, says she is still a long way from written commitments.

But what did Broad dangle at LACMA? Within a few weeks of the board vote, he told The Times that his donation would be "more than our family has ever given to any other building, by some margin" -- that is, more than the $23 million given to Caltech.

He also warned that "we don't want to end up with a Disney Hall situation," referring to the decade of stalled progress and tightrope fund-raising behind the downtown L.A. concert hall, now due to open next fall.

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