YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

For Pacific Standard Time, it's mission mostly accomplished

The expansive survey put a needed spotlight on the region's post-World War II art and raised many artists' profiles. But few museums saw real bumps in attendance.

September 21, 2012|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • The crowd during the Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980 opening.
The crowd during the Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980 opening. (Ryan Miller / WireImage )

This time last year, the Southern California art world was poised to open an unprecedented set of exhibitions: Pacific Standard Time, the $10-million Getty-funded initiative consisting of some 65 museum shows exploring the region's art post-World War II.

The project's organizers identified a handful of goals: encouraging scholarship about Southern California art history, preserving related archives, raising L.A's profile as a cultural capital, stimulating cultural tourism and boosting museum attendance.

So what did it actually achieve?

GRAPHIC: 20 most popular PST exhibits | Critic's Notebook

On most counts, the project has been considered a fruitful and even enviable model for a regionwide arts collaboration. The exhibitions at museums from San Diego to Santa Barbara, each exploring a different facet of Southern California art history from 1945 to 1980, did draw international art-world attention and media coverage, from a special issue of Art in America magazine to reviews in German newspapers.

Several critics and curators have said that because of PST, textbook accounts of 20th century art history, which tend to be rich with innovations by New York artists but thin on their L.A. contemporaries, will need to be rewritten.

As Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, put it, "The shows made such a strong case for some [California] artists that you just can't leave them out anymore."

PST: Full Coverage

Local surveys recently completed by the Getty showed the city did gain some of that hard-to-measure quality known as cultural cachet, with 80% of one group of respondents agreeing "somewhat" or "strongly" that it "made me think more highly of L.A. as an arts/cultural destination." (The Getty's economic report on cultural tourism is pending.)

But according to an independent L.A. Times survey sent this summer to all participating museums, the effect on museum attendance was less impressive. Only six museums of the group reported that their PST shows were their best attended show of the last five years.

A dozen other museums, including the Getty Center itself, actually posted a drop in attendance in 2011. Despite the openings of six PST exhibitions and installations, 2011 Getty attendance was 1,167,795, down slightly from 1,205,684 in 2010.

GRAPHIC: 20 most popular PST exhibits | Critic's Notebook

Getty Trust President James Cuno said that growing attendance was never a primary goal of PST, which began as a scholarly project devoted to research and "the preservation of the archive related to this generation of L.A. artists" before it grew into a set of public exhibitions.

"I think it was an extraordinary success, focusing on the substance of its accomplishment: We both preserved this endangered history of L.A. art and presented it to the public," said Cuno, who arrived at the Getty shortly before PST began.

It was enough of a success the Getty is planning on funding a sequel to occur most likely in "five or six years," he said. One topic under consideration is art of the Pacific Rim.

As for the Getty's drop in attendance, Cuno mentioned museum closures on Jan. 1 and in July for so-called Carmageddon as factors. He also noted that the visitor numbers specific to fall 2011, the prime season for PST shows, were actually up a bit from the same season the year before.

Other museum leaders also praised the scholarship generated by the shows and the critical attention they received even if general attendance wasn't through the roof.

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego show on the history of Light and Space art, for example, did not bring in the size of crowd that contemporary installation artist Tara Donovan did a year earlier.

But director Hugh Davies says the Light and Space show drew attention in the national publications and "a very important audience for us in terms of out-of-town visitors and art professionals."

"The number of museum curators, gallerists and collectors who came during that slot was above and beyond any show we've done," Davies said.

Like other museum directors, Davies pointed to the 40-plus catalogs published to accompany the exhibitions — which feature new scholarly essays on many fresh topics — as the "real, lasting legacy" of Pacific Standard Time.

The conceptual art show at the Orange County Museum of Art, "State of Mind," drew 10,637 visitors, not quite half the number who attended "Birth of the Cool," a memorable survey of Pacific Standard Time territory four years earlier.

Orange County Museum director Dennis Szakacs said "State of Mind" was never meant to be a blockbuster. "It was an exhibition that looks at a narrow span of art history in both time and subject matter," he said. "I think that was one of the most extraordinary things about Pacific Standard Time as a whole: It provided us all an opportunity that is increasingly rare to do these kinds of shows."

Los Angeles Times Articles