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Broad Ambitions

BCAM | The Broad Contemporary Art Museum

At the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, Modern art gets a splashy home of its own as LACMA embarks on its latest voyage of reinvention.

February 03, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

THE text is snappy: BCAM born!

The image is catchy: a shiny red sculpture of a cracked egg by Jeff Koons that reflects the saw-toothed roof of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, opening Feb. 16 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

And the message, emblazoned on streetlight banners all over town, is clear: LACMA has a hip new attraction and you need to see it.

But the public emergence of the $56-million building designed by architect Renzo Piano and financed by philanthropist and LACMA trustee Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, is far from the whole story. Much more than a new edifice, BCAM is the centerpiece of a multifaceted initiative to create a bold presence for contemporary art at LACMA and the keystone of a three-phase effort to transform the Wilshire Boulevard institution's 20-acre campus.

It's worth keeping in mind that LACMA has a history of off-again, on-again plans for greatness and gaps in leadership. But right now, there's a frenzy of preparation at the museum and a palpable excitement in the air.

Phase 1, now sprinting to the finish, includes BCAM, a three-story building filled with loans of postwar art; the BP Grand Entrance, an airy pavilion, bankrolled by the British oil company, that shifts LACMA's primary point of entry to the west; and an underground parking structure that replaces its ugly predecessor. Large contemporary artworks have popped up on the grounds and several permanent collection galleries have been renovated and reinstalled.

"You have to show people what you can do before you can take the next step," said LACMA Director Michael Govan. Although he arrived less than two years ago -- after the Broad building was underway -- he has his eye on the future.

"This is more than just opening a building," he said. "You are going to see the beginning of a whole new frame for the museum and something that's a 'best of' " -- shorthand for what he sees as "the best space to see contemporary art in an encyclopedic museum."

Recent news that the Broads have decided to keep their personal holdings and the 2,000-piece collection amassed by the Broad Art Foundation -- which functions as a lending library -- rather than give the art to museums as planned, knocked some of the wind out of the opening celebration. Although the Broads never promised specific gifts to LACMA, and the staff and trustees say the new strategy is not a surprise, the rise of the facility bearing their names fueled hopes of art donations.

With or without the collection, BCAM is a major addition -- the seventh building -- at a complicated institution. Funded by public and private sources, LACMA has 13 curatorial departments and a 150,000-piece collection encompassing a vast, global swath of history. The museum has built considerable strengths in areas such as old master paintings, American furniture and German Expressionist material, but it got a late start in the Latin American arena and has barely begun to collect African art.

Through a wide variety of exhibitions and programs, LACMA attempts to serve and satisfy constituencies including art professionals, students, families and ethnic groups. Upcoming exhibitions will focus on topics such as the collecting activities of William Randolph Hearst, German art during the Cold War and Korean contemporary art.

When Govan looks at the big picture, present and future, he sees a balance of local and global imperatives -- a museum with close connections to the community and "world aspirations." And he has a mantra: "Art is first and foremost."

That means work by leading Southern California artists can be seen without entering a building. Passersby can check out a pair of 52-foot-tall banners on the Wilshire side of BCAM, dreamed up by John Baldessari and the design firm 2x4. For visitors who use the new Wilshire entrance, the first art experience will be a walk through Chris Burden's "Urban Light," a temple-like installation of 202 vintage L.A. streetlamps.

"You used to step into the museum and it could have been anywhere," Govan said. "Now you register an immediate sense of place. You are here in Los Angeles."

In another nod to L.A., the beginning of a palm garden-in-process, designed by Robert Irwin and landscape architect Paul Comstock, rises behind "Urban Light." Koons takes the notion of entryway flowers to the hilt with "Tulips," a giant sculpture of colorful blooms. Charles Ray's "Firetruck," a 46 1/2 -foot-long re-creation of a child's toy, sits on the north plaza.

Inside BCAM, two enormous walk-through sculptures, Richard Serra's "Band" and "Sequence," occupy the entire ground floor. The two upper levels offer works by Cindy Sherman, Leon Golub, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Ruscha, Baldessari and Koons, selected by Govan and LACMA curator Lynn Zelevansky primarily from the Broads' collections. The inaugural exhibition will be on view for a year, and some of the Broads' loans are expected to remain at BCAM much longer.

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