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How to straighten this picture

MOCA is in dire need of space. LACMA needs its own art. The Broad Art Foundation could solve both problems.

February 27, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

The spanking new Broad Contemporary Art Museum is now open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, featuring a yearlong display of mostly borrowed paintings, sculptures and photographs. Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown has just opened "Collecting Collections: Highlights From the Permanent Collection," a show that fills the building until mid-May.

Is something a bit odd here?

Let's see if I've got this straight. One major L.A. museum is celebrating construction of plentiful new gallery space filled with art it doesn't own, and another is celebrating 250 works of art it does own but can install in its galleries only for a short time.

LACMA: Lots of museum space, very little museum art.

MOCA: Lots of museum art, very little museum space.

This is a puzzle worth parsing because buried deep inside is one possible solution to several vexing problems in the city's cultural life. So let's parse. BCAM's jubilant debut was marred by the eleventh-hour revelation that, contrary to previously published comments, L.A. super-collectors Eli and Edythe Broad would not donate any of their art to the eponymous building, for which they picked up the $56-million tab. Plans are instead afoot to fold their personal collection (about 400 works by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.) into their foundation collection (almost 1,600 works by nearly 200 artists). The Broad Art Foundation has successfully operated as an art lending library for more than 20 years, and LACMA will get dibs on up to 200 loans at a time.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 28, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. art museums: In some copies of Wednesday's Calendar section, a caption with an article on the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art gave the name of a MOCA exhibition as "Collection Collections: Highlights From the Permanent Collection." The first part of the exhibition title is "Collecting Collections."

This frustrating news generated a bizarre flurry of public feints, dodges and weird claims. It was said that art museums don't really need art collections, museum collecting is actually more trouble than it's worth and perpetual loans from private collectors could be a new museum paradigm. Editorials in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, remarkable for their obsequious philistinism, effectively said, "Swell!"

When, exactly, did art collections turn into an insufferable burden for museums? When did the need for a new museum paradigm arise? When, in the wide-ranging cultural conversation about art museums today, did we lose our collective mind?

The answers to these questions, in order, are: never, never and last January.

Art collections are not a museum burden. They are the reason art museums exist.

Professional progress in museum management, such as putting art collection archives online or increasing public access, is helpful. But no new paradigm is needed.

And Jan. 8 is when the Broad bombshell dropped. The news that one of the world's great contemporary art collections would remain wholly uncommitted, except to itself, created shock waves. It caused otherwise sober people to hallucinate that, at the very least, rotating foundation loans would always be available.

"Always" is a long time, as Albert C. Barnes might say. Barnes, who died in 1951, was America's greatest, crankiest Modern art collector, who amassed a stupendous collection of Impressionist, Postimpressionist and African art. A rich Pennsylvania entrepreneur, he established an incomparable foundation to carry out in perpetuity his explicit artistic wishes. But lately Philadelphia's philanthropic establishment has banded together to wreck that legacy, dismantling what Barnes built. For the inimitable Barnes Foundation, "always" is turning out to be about 50 years.

The Barnes' cautionary tale is instructive. Fifty years of Broad Art Foundation loans would be nice, but 50 years of Broad Art Foundation gifts would be nicer. A fundamental difference distinguishes a private foundation from a public museum. One operates strictly according to the founder's wishes, as long as the founder is around to crack the whip; the other sustains its program, including collections, by virtue of institutional inertia.

Over at MOCA, the impressive show "Collecting Collections" is a marvelous pileup of 254 paintings, sculptures and other post-1939 art. Much of it was acquired from celebrated collections -- Panza, Lowen, Schreiber, Weisman, Lannan and more. One work, a sparkly 1999 painting of a shaman-like monkey by British artist Chris Ofili, was bought with funds from the Broad Art Foundation, which also helped underwrite the show.

Following the law of unintended consequences, however, the exhibition turns out to be less a noisy celebration than a quiet and wholly unexpected plea: MOCA is in desperate need of a bigger building.

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