Fifty years ago this month, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) opened its doors on Wilshire Boulevard. At the time, Los Angeles was not exactly a metropolis, but it just built a world-class music center and the new art museum. Fast forward in time, today’s LACMA bear little resemblance to the original site (although the first three buildings are still standing, dwarfed by newer ones). A visit to the museum this month for its Golden Anniversary and a fresh look makes it obvious how far LACMA has come.
When LACMA opened in April 1965, it featured three small buildings designed by architect William L. Pereira and a hodge-podge collection of art. The permanent collection was housed in the Ahmanson Building, special exhibitions in the Hammer Building, and the other building housed the 600-seat Bing Theater and a cafeteria. The La Brea Tar Pits abutted the museum itself and it was surrounded by department stores back then.
LACMA faced a hurdle in gaining respect because the county also includes the Getty Museum and the Norton Simon Museum, both of which featured outstanding collections in particular areas of art that were gathered by their founders. Even 30 years ago, the odds were that an art history class would discuss Greco-Roman art from the Getty (or even the Malibu location’s design itself) or one of the Henry Moore sculptures or an Edgar Degas dancer sculptures at the Norton Simon. There was little to focus on at the LACMA besides special exhibitions on King Tut, Van Gogh and others that drew crowds. There were few important works in the museum’s own collection, and it did not compare with rivals.
Over the past 50 years, the museum has built new buildings, acquired a distinguished collection of Asian art genres (Indian, Japanese, Tibetan, Nepalese, Islamic), Latin American, Modern Art and European. The LACMA has come so far that it now holds more than 120,000 works of art, with huge noteworthy collections bequeathed for the future. The Tar Pits are still there, but Ohrbachs and May Company, the department stores, have been replaced. The area now includes the Peterson Automotive Museum and will soon include the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum. But, mostly, it is dominated by LACMA and building plans for coming years will make it an iconic symbol of L.A.
Several structures were added to the museum in the last 50 years. The Art of the Americas Building (which was originally christened the Robert O.Anderson Building) opened in 1986 and was designed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. That building holds LACMA’s modern art collection. In 1988, the Pavilion for Japanese Art, which was designed by architect Bruce Goff, opened. More recent additions were designed by Renzo Piano; they include the Resnick Pavilion (completed 2010) which is used for special exhibits, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (circa 2008) and as a number of subsidiary structures, including improved underground parking.
The biggest change is coming. A massive expansion across Wilshire Boulevard is being planned, just in time for the bequests to come to their new home. Designed by architect Peter Zumthor, the new facility is supposed to make LACMA a 400,000-square-foot museum. The design may require demolition of the original three buildings, and is scheduled to open in 2022 or 2023.
The government is also making access to the museum easier for Angelenos from all around. The subway line down Wilshire is being extended with a stop across from the museum. The metro system will connect LACMA to the San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley, East Los Angeles, Long Beach and other areas.
How far has LACMA come in 50 years? It is now reportedly the largest art museum in the western U.S. The museum bears little physical resemblance now to its original incarnation in 1965, and the next 10 years should make the dinosaurs stuck in tar the only thing that still remains from 1965.
By Dyanne Weiss