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One patron's handiwork

Robert Gumbiner transformed a Long Beach roller rink into a Latin American art center.

June 10, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

"IN my former career I built 55 medical centers and four hospitals in nine states. I know something about building things," says Dr. Robert Gumbiner, founder of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. A soft-spoken, no-nonsense guy at 84 -- he sets his watch alarm to keep up with appointments and brings his own questions to interviews -- Gumbiner is a former general practitioner who made a fortune in managed care. He has long since shifted his attention and business acumen from medicine to art, but he hasn't stopped building. His latest "thing" is a $15-million expansion and renovation of a building that has evolved, Gumbiner style, from roller rink to senior health center to art museum.

Opening today after four years of sporadic progress, the new addition gives the 11-year-old museum an eye-popping presence, with a splash of modernity and a desert landscape, on a bleak stretch of Alamitos Boulevard. Mexican architect Manuel Rosen has designed the facade with two rectangular arches -- intended to symbolize bridges between diverse cultures -- connecting a bright blue, two-story cylindrical structure and a vivid pink wall covered with water that flows into a reflecting pool. The pool mirrors the bridges and refers to the nearby Pacific.

Inside, Rosen has more than doubled the museum's space, bringing the square footage to 55,000 and adding a new entrance and gift shop, a studio for visiting students, a film-screening room, a research library, offices and expanded galleries. Two large galleries are devoted to a sampling of the museum's 750-piece permanent collection, which encompasses works by such internationally renowned figures as Fernando Botero, Jose Luis Cuevas, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Francisco Toledo and lesser-known artists including Mexico's Rafael Coronel and Laura Hernandez and Costa Rica's Miguel Antonio Bonilla.

About 75 works appear in thematic sections: "Metaphorical Landscapes," "The Mestizaje (blending) of Identity" and "Political History." Another large exhibition, "La Presencia: Latin American Art in the United States," consists of works from MoLAA's collection and loans from other institutions.

"I think it turned out pretty well," says Gumbiner, settling onto a bench in one of the galleries and surveying last-minute work in progress.

He's talking about the building. And he's talking about money.

"If you were to build this museum from scratch," he says, "it would probably cost $50 million. We did it for $30 million. We got our money's worth."

But mostly he's talking about realizing his particular vision of a museum -- what he calls a "consumer-oriented museum" that's "more than a museum." His goal was to create a lively urban cultural center that would educate the public about contemporary Latin American art. Putting the emphasis on education, enhancing art exhibitions with related programs and activities, keeping the museum open until 7 p.m. and providing lots of parking aren't exactly radical ideas, but he is adamant about operating an institution for the convenience of the public, not the staff.

Although MoLAA isn't on the art world's radar, it has a large presence in the community. With a membership of about 3,500 and a $5 general admission charge, it has an annual attendance of about 50,000, including 10,000 students. Visitors come to the cafe, lectures, cabarets and performances of music and dance, as well as art exhibitions.

To Gumbiner, the emphasis on community service and fiscal responsibility doesn't reflect a lack of respect for art or scholarship, but his approach to amassing artworks for the museum is highly unconventional. A passionate collector of Latin American art who can't resist buying on impulse, he, with his staff, has worked out an unusually methodical plan to build a collection for the museum. The idea is to represent Latin American countries in proportion to their population.

"We have quite a few Mexican pieces because Mexico has 20 million people," he says. "For some of the little Latin American countries, we might have three pieces." That may sound crazy to specialists who emphasize quality above all else, but Gumbiner says he and his curators don't buy inferior pieces just to fill gaps. They go for what they deem to be fine examples and sometimes wait several years to get what they want.

"I buy," he says, "because I have to have that piece."

The Gumbiner way

BY standards of contemporary art museums that focus on the U.S. and Europe or aim for a global view, MoLAA has a very conservative collection, largely composed of figurative paintings. Like the museum, it reflects the taste and convictions of an art-loving entrepreneur who is determined to "bring modern management techniques to the museum field," as he puts it, and is accustomed to doing things his way.

"I really like to specialize," he says. "I prefer to learn a lot about one particular thing rather than to learn a little bit about everything. That's pretty much how this museum is set up."

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