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When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s long-awaited David Geffen Galleries are completed in late 2024, the glass-lined structure arching over Wilshire Boulevard will welcome visitors to a new museum experience unlike any other in the world. LACMA’s diverse collection of art spanning centuries will be presented in a way the public has never seen before. LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director Michael Govan outlined the museum’s ambitious construction plans and shared his enthusiasm for the revolutionary design.
“The crossing over Wilshire is amazing,” Govan said. “It was designed to celebrate Wilshire Boulevard, trying to let you see it as this grand monumental boulevard, or if you will, a work of art in a museum.”
Govan said spanning the boulevard to the south was an ingenious idea, allowing for additional exhibition space not available to the east due to expansion plans by the La Brea Tar Pits Museum.
The idea to transform the LACMA campus dates back more than two decades. The former Ahmanson, Art of the Americas and Hammer buildings had infrastructure and seismic issues, and were not connected in a cohesive way, presenting challenges in displaying art and mounting major exhibitions. Prior to Govan joining LACMA in 2006, the museum’s board and the county, which owns the museum, considered other projects that would have also dramatically altered the campus.
When Govan arrived, he initiated the process of bringing in renowned Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, whose imaginative concept was eventually selected by the board. Zumthor has designed numerous projects throughout Europe, including the Kolumba Art Museum in Germany and the Swiss Sound Pavilion.
“I knew Peter, knew his work well and knew that a lot of artists and curators felt like he was the best, or one of the best, museum architects in the world,” Govan said. “We started studying this in the late 2000s and then we presented it. I would say total, whether you call it input or responsibility, combined with a lot of technical input, the concept, the program, that’s all been my responsibility.”
Whereas traditional museums display art in windowless galleries, the new David Geffen Galleries will frame LACMA’s vast collection in a new light, literally, in a building encased in windows intended to be portals to the City of Angels. The windows are a key component of the design, Govan said, showcasing a city as diverse as the artworks themselves.
“We were very determined to have a building that would feel like Los Angeles, this spread-out city where there is incredible diversity of neighborhoods, of people, of culture, and one is not better than another. We wanted to make sure that the museum was generous in that sense, that it was open,” Govan said. “If you have a rectangular building with a traditional facade, you have a front and a back. If you have multiple stories, you have that first floor and then other floors. Transparency was very practical and philosophical in the sense that you wanted to remind yourself always, even if you went into an interior gallery, looking at a work of intimate Chinese ink painting on silk, when you come back out, you remember you’re in Los Angeles. The idea was Los Angeles would be present through looking out the windows.”
The windows also provide an opportunity to view art from the outside looking in, giving another way of experiencing the museum’s collection.
“We have a lot of first-time visitors who have never been to a museum and don’t know what’s inside.” Govan said. “We want you to be able to see what’s going on.”
The new building’s serpentine structure does not follow a specific architectural style, he added. It has a single exhibition floor with 347,000-square-feet of space suspended over the ground on pedestals, allowing a congruous flow throughout the galleries. Zumthor’s design opens three acres of outdoor space in the park surrounding the museum, which will be filled with arts and cultural programming. The natural outdoor spaces serve as connecting pathways to other galleries on the LACMA campus, neighboring museums and the surrounding community, beckoning people to come, Govan said.
Multiple entrances allow visitors to access the museum from any side, including a new area on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard where a parking lot is being turned into a community gathering space, much like the plaza surrounding “Urban Light.”
“You’re going to have cafés, public sculpture, theater, accessible education spaces right on Wilshire Boulevard, and art. So, the street life of Wilshire, driving or walking, is going to be much more engaging,” Govan said.
LACMA is preparing for an influx of new guests with the opening of its building. A Metro subway station is scheduled to open at Wilshire Boulevard and Ogden Drive in late 2024 just steps from the museum. The cultural offerings and public gathering spaces will make Wilshire Boulevard a destination, perhaps like Los Angeles’ own Champs-Élysées in Paris.
“What people I think don’t realize is that if you accumulate the work since 2006, of building the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the Resnick Pavilion, the outdoor sculpture and new plazas and restaurants, the Academy Museum, the new LACMA building and the Metro stop, and the soon to be a renovated Tar Pits Museum, that’s a multi-billion dollar investment in this area,” Govan said. “We’ve never really used it, but there was this idea that it would become now Museum Miracle Mile, because Miracle Mile is such a beautiful name, but of course, that was for commerce. Now, this corridor has less commerce and more museums. I don’t know if it will stick, but I had always proposed we call it Museum Miracle Mile.”
The $750 million project was made possible with $125 million from the county, and the remainder coming from private donations. Geffen donated $150 million, the largest single gift in LACMA’s history. Other big donors include casino and hotel magnate Elaine Wynn and the W.M. Keck Foundation, who each donated $50 million. Susan and Eric Smidt, Bobby Kotick, A. Jerrold Perenchio, the Ressler/Gertz Family Foundation, Steve Tisch and the Wasserman Foundation were major contributors.
Plans for an opening exhibit or grand opening have yet to be announced. The new building is 65% complete and much work must still be done. Art lovers should mark their calendars and prepare to be dazzled.
“We are going to bring back the diversity of our collections,” Govan said. “If you were here before, things were hidden in back corners in dark rooms and corners on the fourth floor that frankly, we know very few people went to see. It’s going to feel very fresh and new. The idea is for people to feel utterly inspired by the diverse creativity of the world’s cultures. Yes, you will learn facts if you want to focus on it, but the main thing is that people really feel inspired and have faith in that very diverse, continuous human creativity – to really feel it. The whole building is designed to feel the thrill of that.”
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