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Culver City's Cold War museum is hoping for a victory

Wende Museum is negotiating with Culver City to lease the closed National Guard Armory to hold its massive collection of Cold War artifacts, which has a growing audience.

November 11, 2012|By Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times
  • A carved wood sculpture of Vladimir Lenin by the ethnic Hungarian artist Csorvassy Istvan points at visitors to the Wende Museum of Cold War history.
A carved wood sculpture of Vladimir Lenin by the ethnic Hungarian artist… (Patrick T. Fallon, For The…)

In the corner of a drab Culver City business park, nestled inside a gray two-story building, treasures from the Cold War lie waiting for the historically curious:

Hungarian oil paintings, a full run of East Germany's official party newspaper and a Vladimir Lenin bust, vandalized with pink and turquoise paint to resemble a clown. Outside, 2.6 tons of the Berlin Wall greets those who enter.

It's all there, if you can find it.

"I think the Wende Museum is one of Culver City's best kept secrets," Councilman Jim Clarke said.

But times may be about to change. To accommodate a growing interest and collection, the museum has been negotiating to lease Culver City's closed National Guard Armory — just a stroll from downtown's restaurant hub.

Three years ago, the decade-old museum joined with street artists to assemble a synthetic wall across Wilshire Boulevard, and then invited Angelenos to tear it down. That event — marking the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's demise — brought media attention and broadened the museum's fan base to more than a constituency of professors, graduate students and historians, Wende Executive Director Justinian Jampol said.

"We're not officially open on the weekends," Jampol said as local college students hummed around paintings on a recent Saturday. "But as you can see, that is not necessarily the case."

The Wende has run out of space. Its medley of Cold War artifacts is spread among three locations in Los Angeles County and one in Berlin. Less than 1% of its more than 100,000 artifacts are available for public viewing at a time, Jampol said.

The empty armory is "a Cold War building," said Mayor Andy Weissman, "so it's sort of ideal for a Cold War museum. But it also has a number of Cold War elements and Cold War deficiencies that makes reuse of that building for something other than an armory problematic unless you have the money to do it."

Jampol, who founded the museum in 2002, said the Wende recently received a $5-million gift from a British foundation. The money would enable "us to use the [armory] to its full potential and impact, to care for our collections and to produce programs, projects and exhibitions," Jampol said in an email.

The armory renovations, he said, require another $5 million. The bulk of the construction and fundraising would occur next year, he said.

Ideally, the museum would open in its new home during the middle of 2014, Jampol said. For the cultural historian, the move to a more central location would be a final step in the museum's shift from research institution to full-fledged museum.

"We can't do the kind of shows, we can't do the kinds of exhibits and projects and collections that we want to do" with the current facility, Jampol said.

The Wende's massive collection is varied, including large busts of communist heroes, Stasi surveillance equipment, Eastern Bloc food menus, embroidered flags and furniture from East Berlin's now-demolished Palace of the Republic. The pieces encompass both communist and dissident works.

"It is a hybrid museum. It is not a history museum or an art museum, it is both," Jampol said. "And what we also invite is an anthropological approach — so whether you are doing a film on the East Bloc or poems or an art project, you can find a place here."

Under a tentative agreement reached with Culver City, the Wende would lease the city-owned armory for $1 a year for 75 years. The museum would be responsible for all funds to transform the 1950s armory into a museum space and would have to offer at least one free admission day a month.

The City Council is scheduled to discuss the proposal Monday.

Relocating the Wende to the armory near Culver Boulevard and Overland Avenue would add to a "cultural corridor" west of downtown that includes the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum, which is dedicated to African American history and culture, Clarke said.

The fastest growing segment of Wende's collection is Hungarian, because of the political situation in the country, Jampol said.

Eva Forgacs, an art historian and professor at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, said Hungary's current government has attacked democratic institutions created in the wake of communism's collapse; and in the arts, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's government has favored 19th century-style works that conjure up feelings of "invented past glory."

The result has been a shunning of both communist and dissident art from the communist era, she said.

That dynamic, Jampol said, is how the Wende received many of its pieces.

"In Germany — 10 years ago — they were going through that. They were getting rid of all that stuff," he said.

On a recent weekend, the tall museum director — sporting a mop of blond hair — strolled through the downstairs storage room at Wende's headquarters, stopping to point out important artifacts.

One such piece: a brass tank crafted from melted bullets by prisoners at a Soviet gulag.

"They had a lot of time on their hands," Jampol said.

Another: a tall painting of the Communist Party Congress that Jampol found in a government building in Moscow. A faded Nikita Khrushchev can be seen, apparently etched out by order of Leonid Brezhnev, Jampol said.

"You knew where you were in the grand scheme in the political system," Jampol said.

The only downside to the museum's growth, Jampol said, is that his hours spent analyzing the myriad Cold War artifacts have shrunk.

But a new home for the Wende would give more people the opportunity to do what he wishes he had the time for. And that, he said, would more than make up for it.

andrew.khouri@latimes.com

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