Walter Cicchetti/shutterstock

Walter Cicchetti/shutterstock

The Ahmanson Foundation recently announced it would be suspending its decades-long program of buying art for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) over concerns that the museum’s new exhibition strategy and $750 million building will relegate its trove of European masterpieces to storage crates.

Under the museum’s plan, the Ahmanson Building will be torn down and the foundation’s collections will no longer be on permanent display. Instead, the new David Geffen Galleries will host changing theme shows drawn from the museum’s holdings, while much of the Ahmanson Foundation’s work will end up in storage for “unknown periods of time,” writes the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Knight. Under the plan, the LACMA will also loan out work to satellite locations across the region and country.

“I’m disappointed because the new building does nothing for future growth and it’s going to limit how we collect as well as those who may want to donate collections,” said foundation President William Ahmanson.

LACMA director Michael Govan called himself a “provocateur” a few years back, and his “radical” plan, that, writes Knight, could “dramatically change the way museums across the country present their permanent collections,” does not disappoint. Unlike its peers, the LACMA will no longer have dedicated galleries for permanent collection installations. Govan argues this decision serves a greater aim, as the museum’s rotating temporary exhibition and its loan arrangement will allow the public to see more work.

The strategy, at least superficially, should align with funders’ professed interest in ideas like access and inclusion in calcified museum space. The Ahmanson Foundation announcement, however, illustrates that “access” is a two-way street. While the foundation’s donations were not made with any stipulations, historically, Ahmanson said, “nearly all” of the works have been on display at any given time. “We’ve been unable to get a commitment from Michael Govan about presenting the collection as it has been throughout the life of the museum,” he said.

The announcement came a little over a month after the museum netted a critical $50 million gift from the Los Angeles-based W.M. Keck Foundation. The museum still needs to raise an additional $110 million to meet its revised $750 million fundraising target.

A Deep Relationship

The Ahmanson/LACMA split is particularly striking since the two organizations have been joined at the hip for more than half a century.

Banker and financier Howard F. Ahmanson, who established the Ahmanson Foundation in 1952, was instrumental in creating the museum in 1961 with a lead gift of $2 million. Ahmanson’s nephew, Robert Ahmanson, oversaw the LACMA gift program for more than three decades. All told, the foundation donated more than $130 million in European art to the LACMA.

In 2006, Govan wrote William Ahmanson to assure him of “at least equal and probably much better space” for the foundation’s art in the new building. Yet according to Knight, LACMA did not publicly reveal the change in museum format until nearly 10 years into the redesign process. “We’ve been trying to get clarification and confirmation of that pledge for years,” Ahmanson said. Last year, for the first time since 1972, the foundation refused LACMA’s request to buy a work of art.

The break with the Ahmanson Foundation also exposed the LACMA to a heightened degree of risk. The museum, writes Knight, has never had substantial acquisition funds to begin with, putting it at a disadvantage when compared to its peers across a city teeming with museums. Funding from the Ahmanson Foundation, which sits on over $1.2 billion in assets, has helped the LACMA efficiently navigate an arduous and competitive collecting process.

“If we are to continue in this space,” Ahmanson said, “then we may need to find a beneficiary other than the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.”

The Ever-Shrinking Building

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times after the break, Govan said saying the museum looks “forward to featuring the gifts from the Ahmanson Foundation as soon as we have completed our new galleries, just four years from now.”

Govan’s statement suggests that as soon as the LACMA has more space, workers will dust off the Rembrandts, haul them out of the basement, and get them back on display where they belong.

However, last April, the museum’s updated renderings indicated that Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s building will be smaller than the total area of the four current buildings which are slated to be torn down in March. “It is perhaps the only major museum rebuild ever in America to propose a reduction rather than expansion,” wrote the Art Newspaper’s Joseph Giovannini.

Soon after, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to provide $117.5 million in county funds towards the new building. The vote was unanimous despite supervisors’ knowledge that the space would be 10 percent smaller and its per-square-foot costs 35 percent or more higher than recent projects in L.A. and San Francisco.

The next big question was how would donors respond to these developments. We received an answer last November when Knight reported that the LACMA’s fundraising campaign had stalled. “Four-fifths of the $650 million needed had been pledged by summer 2018,” Knight wrote, “but next to nothing has been raised since.” Rather than attribute this development to the failures of the region’s donors, Knight pinned the blame on “a poor idea that has met escalating costs.”

A Tough Sell

No one should be surprised by these fundraising challenges. Ambitious construction projects always go over budget, and anecdotal evidence suggests that middle-of-the-pyramid donors are increasingly questioning the utility of such costly and disruptive endeavors.

The “poor idea” is Govan’s plans to install the museum’s permanent collection as a continuing series of temporary exhibitions and outsource parts of the collection to satellites to be scattered around the county.

Is Govan’s vision an edgy and disruptive re-imagination of the museum-going experience? Absolutely. But museum donors, by definition, are an inherently conservative bunch from the “old-World” mold. They don’t fancy themselves as “creative disruptors.” The LACMA’s tepid fundraising numbers suggest that donors, on the whole, aren’t keen on a project that “radically transforms LACMA’s mission in dubious but irreversible ways,” as Knight put it.

Donors are also practical. They’re aware of the project’s escalating costs. They also understand that the new building will be smaller than what it seeks to replace. But perhaps the most damning data point was the fact that the LACMA can claim 16 billionaires on its board of trustees and none of them have stepped up to put the campaign over the top.

William Ahmanson made his foundation’s reasoning abundantly clear. “It’s my understanding that LACMA is changing from an encyclopedic museum with a robust permanent collection to a museum with some permanent collection works on view and more temporary exhibitions,” he said. “The concern is that the carefully curated collection we’ve amassed over decades may never see the light of day again.”

“We’ve been unable to understand after years of asking the question, how much of the European collection will be shown,” Ahmanson said. “I think that’s because they’re between a rock and a hard place because of the reduced square footage.”

Shifting Priorities

Debate over square footage obscures deeper issues that go to the heart of philanthropy’s role in an evolving curatorial landscape.

LACMA’s new temporary exhibitions will be “cross-cultural and interdisciplinary” in nature. The one-level design of the new building aims “to flatten the traditional museum hierarchies that privilege particular centuries and cultures,” writes the New York Times’ Jori Finkel. And by distributing work to satellite locations, Govan’s plan ensures the museum will utilize its collections “in a more dynamic way,” he told KCRW’s Frances Anderton. “Our publics are spread out over a vast metropolis and a lot of people simply don’t have access to the cultural infrastructure that we believe is central to civil society.”

LACMA’s plans to farm works to satellite locations may sound familiar. In 2017, Alice Walton, who has made access the driving force of her arts philanthropy, established a 501(c)(3) operating foundation, Art Bridges, to loan out work to museums across the country. “Outstanding artworks are in museum vaults and private collections. Let’s make that art available to everyone,” she said.

These developments come at a time in which “legacy” institutions are attempting to boost access, engage more diverse audiences, and roll out programming that addresses social issues. Not coincidentally, LACMA is simultaneously transforming an 84,000-square-foot building into a center for community-targeted arts programming to serve underserved populations. Darren Walker, whose Ford Foundation issued a $2 million flexible grant to LACMA for the project, called it “a radical idea.”

In a similar vein, while European art from the 15th to 19th centuries remains in high demand, acquisition departments have been beefing up their holdings in contemporary art, Latin-American art, and art by other historically marginalized demographics.

Could it be that the ship has sailed for the European Old Masters?

On the surface, this question is pure conjecture, until you consider that according to William Ahmanson, the relationship with LACMA deteriorated further when Govan boldly suggested the foundation change its focus to buying Latin American art. The foundation, Knight wrote, passed on Govan’s “surprising request.”

The foundation continues to make what Knight calls “modest supporting grants for art conservation and research,” and William Ahmanson remains a museum trustee. But so long as the museum’s current architectural plans hold, the decades-long relationship between the two organizations will remain severed.

“I like Michael Govan as a person, but we’re having a major difference when it comes to this,” Ahmanson said. “Once that wrecking ball starts to hit the buildings," he said, “there’s no turning back and we’re stuck.”

Questions Remain

In late January, the LACMA received a $50 million pledge towards the new building from the W.M. Keck Foundation. “We heard that they needed to get $50 million to begin construction,” said chief executive and LACMA lifetime trustee Robert A. Day. “We thought it was very important to the city of Los Angeles to be part of the new LACMA.”

Greg Goldin, who heads the Citizens’ Brigade to Save LACMA, questioned the wisdom of the donation. “We don’t know what the board of trustees at the Keck Foundation has seen versus what the public has seen in terms of visuals or building plans. If they haven’t seen something other than the absurd renderings released to the world, then they’ve voted on this decision in complete darkness. They’re giving $50 million to what?”

Meanwhile, the museum upped the project cost from $650 million to $750 million. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times’ Deborah Vankin on the heels of the Keck Foundation gift, Govan said that the museum will turn to the public to raise the remaining $110 million.

“It’ll be an enjoyable phase of the campaign through the building construction to engage as many people as possible to feel part of this big civic project,” he said. Given critics’ unrelenting opposition and the fact that county taxpayers are already on the hook for a total of $125 million, I imagine Govan will have his trustees on speed-dial in case the public balks at shelling out the balance for something it doesn’t seem to want.

Trustees have put up close to half of the pledged funds for the project, and that was before the museum netted the Keck Foundation gift. Other major gifts came from David Geffen ($150 million), trustee Eric Smidt and his wife Susan ($25 million), trustee and board of trustees c0-chair Lynda Resnick and her husband Stewart ($45 million), Elaine Wynn ($50 million), and A. Jerrold Perenchio ($25 million.)

So what if the average Angeleno passes on the project during this upcoming public phase? Is the project any less successful if a few more mega-gifts drag it across the finish line?

This may explain why Govan doesn’t seem all that concerned about the road ahead, telling the Los Angeles Times Carolina Miranda that coming up with another $100 million after raising nearly $650 million is “like walking after you’ve run hard.”

Fair enough, but what if you’re walking up a very steep mountain that keeps getting higher? A month after the museum announced the Keck Foundation gift, Greg Goldin, citing internal county emails and escalating construction costs, pegged LACMA’s real price tag somewhere between $825 million and $1 billion.

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