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Museum of Neon Art faces dim prospects

In January it will find itself homeless, priced out of the changing downtown scene. But don't shut off those lights just yet.

December 08, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

The Museum of Neon Art has collected scores of electric artworks, kinetic artifacts and gleaming bits of historic cityscape. But what it really needs right now is a well-placed "vacancy" sign.

At the end of January, a month after the downtown museum celebrates its 25th birthday, the lease runs out on MONA's home of 10 years at 501 W. Olympic Blvd. After a series of failed courtships, the organization has no new permanent home lined up.

"In crisis, there is opportunity," said executive director Kim Koga, who has been looking for new sites while lining up temporary storage and arranging a fundraising event.

Koga, who has directed the museum since 1998, said she has been searching for months for a new venue, but the museum is caught in a bind common among bohemians in booming urban settings: With rents rising, lofts proliferating and redevelopment efforts underway downtown, the 400-member museum, which lives on a $200,000 yearly budget, can't afford most buildings.

For a while, MONA was looking at the old Subway Terminal Building downtown at Hill and 4th streets, which has been converted into an apartment building and renamed 417 Metro. Then Koga was interested in the basement of the Eastern Columbia building at 849 S. Broadway, a 1929 Moderne landmark with a turquoise terra cotta exterior, designed as a department store, that's being turned into 147 lofts. But neither option panned out.

Now Koga is in talks with another prospective landlord that would put the museum under the same downtown roof as a jazz-blues club, she said, but nothing has been signed.

Meanwhile, MONA will stage a fundraising party and silent auction Saturday at the Design Within Reach store in Beverly Hills, beginning at 7 p.m.

"We'd really like to stay downtown," Koga said. "This is where our roots are, and the history of neon started downtown."

Created in France, neon first came to the U.S. when Earl C. Anthony, an entrepreneur with Packard car dealerships in downtown Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, saw a gleaming sign display in 1923 and immediately bought at least two and brought them west. The Museum of Neon Art, founded in 1981, began in a rented space on scruffy Traction Avenue.

Koga said the museum has begun to clear out its 7,500-square-foot Olympic Boulevard space, sending pieces to two temporary locations for the next six months to a year.

Those sites will be for storage primarily, she said, but the museum is considering options that might permit visitors on weekends.

One site is a stone's throw from the museum's current location, on the ground floor of the upstairs Grand Avenue Night Club at 1024 S. Grand Ave, she said, and another is a print shop on Overland Avenue near the Santa Monica (I-10) Freeway.

chris.reynolds@latimes.com

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