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For 10 years, Elsa Longhauser has put her own imprint on the Santa Monica Museum of Art

Her vision has been clear: The institution will focus on rotating shows and on Southern California artists.

January 09, 2011|By Scarlet Cheng, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Elsa Longhauser, executive director of Santa Monica Museum of Art, is celebrating her 10th anniversary there.
Elsa Longhauser, executive director of Santa Monica Museum of Art, is celebrating… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Ten years is a lifetime in the art world, where the vicissitudes of trends and tastes can befuddle the most experienced. Yet Elsa Longhauser by many accounts has been able to scope out the creative zeitgeist of this city as she completes her first decade at the helm of the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Tucked into a corner of the Bergamot Station arts complex, it is a small museum that seeks to speak with a big voice.

She has a clear vision for the mission of her institution, conceived as a kunsthalle, or space for showing rotating exhibitions without establishing any collection of its own. The museum has a large main gallery and a smaller projects room that are programmed throughout the year. Early on Longhauser decided to focus on Southern California artists, including those who once worked here for a time, such as the Italian artist Alberto Burri, recently featured in the exhibition "Combustione: Alberto Burri and America." Another strength, as witnessed by those who have worked with her, is an openness to new ideas and new ways of presenting visual art.

"When I came here," says Longhauser, "I was taken with the fact there were so many important artists living here, working here, teaching here whose work wasn't so well known within the larger context of contemporary art, so that became the focus of this program." Thus in the last decade she's shown Michael Asher, Allen Ruppersberg and Kim MacConnel. She's also been quick to call on the curatorial expertise of others, such as the late Walter Hopps, a founder of the seminal Ferus Gallery. "One of the first things I did was to invite Walter Hopps to curate an exhibition," she says, "and he wanted to organize a George Herms show, and he did. Walter Hopps actually gave his very last lecture here, at this museum." That was in 2005.

However, the museum doesn't limit itself to the regional. It also sometimes features the national and international, especially when outside curators are involved. In 2001, for example, Thelma Golden brought a group show of emerging African American artists, "Freestyle," from the Studio Museum in Harlem, and in 2003 Lynne Cooke curated a show on the diagrammatic paintings of Alfred Jensen. More recently, Longhauser heeded a recommendation from impresario Peter Sellars to present the assemblage and sculptural work of Ethiopian artist Elias Sime — an exhibition was eventually put together by Sellars and Meskerem Assegued. It dovetailed nicely with the production of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" and "Symphony of Psalms" that Sellars staged for the L.A. Philharmonic — conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen's farewell program. Sime's custom-made thrones were incorporated into the set.

"She's just incredibly personal and alive to what's moving, both emotionally and in the culture," gushes Sellars. "She really comes to things without ideological bias. Her freshness and ability to move on impulse, freedom and daring from moment to moment, it's what art is about."

Today Longhauser celebrates her 10th anniversary as executive director of the museum, in the form of a fundraiser with works donated by 25 artists, including John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Kim McCarty, Betye Saar and Peter Shire. The event is called "The Power of Ten: Take a Chance on Art." Fundraising is a preoccupation for the museum, and over the years it's received support from foundations (including the Annenberg, James Irvine, Andy Warhol and Good Works foundations) as well as funding from individuals and Santa Monica and Los Angeles to cobble together an annual budget of $2 million.

In the L.A. art scene, Longhauser stands out for her deliberate, slightly formal manner of speaking and for her Bohemian dress — she often wears a head wrap and long dresses or skirts. "She's an original, including the outfits she wears," says artist Mark Bradford, who has been in two group shows at the museum. When included in "Freestyle," he suggested bringing in a large marching band to open the show. And they did, inviting a Watts high school marching band, the Mudtown King and Queen Drill Team and Drum Squad, to perform.

Though previously aware of California artists, Longhauser says she has learned about them in greater depth after moving here with her husband, William Longhauser, a graphic designer.

When she is asked if her institution can flourish in a city dotted with museums, she replies, "This is an enormous city, and it has a number of museums with very diverse missions, but you can never have enough. Having a number of museums makes a city great." What's more, she knows she must reach out to share her programming. "We are always doing audience building and trying to meet audience needs," she says. "We are absolutely focused on making this a more prominent destination, but the truth is it's on many people's list already."

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