March 1, 2024

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is now an open construction pit, surrounded by 12 foot wooden fences, with cranes rising above the now open sky. Most of the mid-century modernist complex on Wilshire Boulevard was tacitly demolished during the Covid shutdown to make way for a wavy, light-filled building valued at $ 650 million that stretches across and from the boulevard Architect Peter Zumthor.

LACMA, as it is known, has long been a cultural anchor for Southern California, immensely popular and as responsible as any institution that helps define the region’s cultural identity. “New galleries. More art. Opening in 2024 ”, promises a sign in the courtyard. The success of its next incarnation is little assured, however, as the museum seeks to redefine its mission in a smaller building whose design, albeit adventurous, has not been widely recognized.

It’s not just LACMA that is in a moment of transition. Before the California pandemic froze in a wave of stalemate and disease, Los Angeles, with its galaxy of museums, galleries, and performing arts institutions, had established itself as the cultural capital, defying the dated stereotypes of a superficial Hollywood with little interest in art. It is now faced with uncertainties in its cultural landscape.

Los Angeles institutions share many of the same challenges their counterparts around the world face when trying to recover from the pandemic: bringing back a cautious audience, facing the cost and technical challenges of backing up their spaces are connected and raise money from philanthropists and the US government in the face of competing claims at a time of economic struggle. They find themselves in a precarious financial position after a catastrophic loss of income forced many to lay off employees and give up leases for theaters and galleries.

But they face the added complications of recovering without the help of many of the old guard philanthropists who helped build the civic and cultural scene here. This was underscored by the death last month of Eli Broad, 87, a billionaire philanthropist who played an oversized role in creating many of the region’s cultural marquees, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Broad, the contemporary art museum and left one of the buildings in the LACMA complex.

There is cautious optimism that the region will return to its uptrend when the virus recedes.

“Like New York, Los Angeles is a resilient city full of creative entrepreneurs getting back on the horse,” said Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum, which was also in the middle of an expansion project in Westwood when the pandemic hit.

But in many ways the challenges here are more intense and complex, not least because the virus came at a time when so many things were in flux. The next steps – by cultural institutions, wealthy philanthropists, government and audiences – could well determine whether Covid has derailed the city’s rise as a cultural destination or just delayed it.

For all its wealth, Los Angeles has always been a challenging fundraising environment. Michael Govan, the director of LACMA, struggled to raise money to build the Zumthor building. The project turned the corner after 78-year-old David Geffen, an entertainment tycoon who has become a major benefactor of the arts, agreed to donate $ 150 million.

The death of Mr. Broad rocked an art world in Southern California that was already concerned about whether donors will come forward to help at a difficult time. Despite retiring from public life in 2017, leaving the field to a new generation of benefactors, Mr Broad has been there in the past in moments of need – to get the Walt Disney Concert Hall project going again after its stalemate in the 1990s and offer a $ 30 million bailout for the Museum of Contemporary Art when it was on the verge of collapse in 2008.

Mr. Broad was a unique figure in many ways – part billionaire philanthropist, part civic bulldozer – and it is hardly clear who can (or should) step in to fill the void he has left. “It’s a little scary imagining Los Angeles without Eli Broad,” said Donna Bojarsky, the founder of Future of Cities: Los Angeles, a civil society nonprofit.

The pandemic was economically ruinous for many cultural organizations. The Los Angeles Philharmonic cut its annual budget from $ 152 million to $ 77 million. Museums lost millions in revenue. The Wallis Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills had to fire 30 people.

“It will probably take us 12 months to three years to get back to the same level of operations,” said Rachel Fine, Wallis general manager.

Aside from the challenge of philanthropy, the sheer difficulty of finding your way around this city – a sure sign that recovery is imminent, that traffic has returned to streets and highways – has made it long for theaters, music halls, and galleries in search of it Made it harder to attract crowds. The transit system is in the midst of a dramatic expansion funded by a $ 120 billion urban transit plan. But it will take many years to complete.

“It’s a wonderful place to live and a wonderful place to work,” said Deborah Borda, who was president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years before becoming president of the New York Philharmonic. “And it really is a receptive place for the arts. But if you want to be there for a 7:30 concert, you really have to go by 6. I knew people who came earlier but stopped: that would be a reason they would give. “

Los Angeles has long been a cultural magnet, and not just for the creative classes that flocked to Hollywood. It has attracted composers like Stravinsky and Schönberg, writers like Thomas Mann and Joan Didion, architects like Frank Gehry, and artists like David Hockney. It took longer for the city to build institutions: Mr. Broad, who played a key role in building the museum of contemporary art, recalled in a 2019 essay that Los Angeles had long been home to brilliant artists, major art schools and leading galleries When he got there, he was missing a museum for modern or contemporary art.

And pandemic or not, the next three years promise transformation with a series of large-scale project openings that Los Angeles officials believe will dramatically expand the cultural offerings here.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a $ 482 million complex designed by Renzo Piano alongside LACMA, is slated to open later this year. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a sprawling $ 1 billion futuristic building funded by George Lucas, is slated to open in Exposition Park in 2023.

“We’re slowly climbing back,” said Mr. Govan. “I think the big institutions will survive. It was hard. But all I can do is be optimistic. “

Chad Smith, the chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said that three weeks ago he had resigned to doing a handful of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl this season. Seat amphitheater. Now Bowl 50 is planning events and is hoping to fill 65 percent of capacity, reflecting the virus’s dramatic decline and regulation lift.

This is of crucial importance because the bowl, with its diverse mix of outdoor programs – from Beethoven to headrests for car seats – is an important source of income for the Philharmonic.

“At that point we’ll see you doing those 40 or 50 concerts in the Bowl,” said Mr. Smith. “Our financial situation will improve. It has to get better. We relied solely on contributions. “

The art scene is animated here not only by large institutions, but also by an estimated 500 small non-profit art organizations. Many have been forced to abandon performance or exhibition space leases in the past 14 months, and some are now in danger of fading.

“We see many arts, especially the performing arts, as the last to recover,” said Kristin Sakoda, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture. “We know there is a long road to recovery.”

In response, a group of philanthropists created the LA Arts Recovery Fund to help theaters, music venues, museums and galleries make the transition. “In order for Los Angeles to regain its skills as a leading artist, we must come together,” said William Ahmanson, president of the Ahmanson Foundation, in a letter asking for contributions.

The Recovery Fund has a target of $ 50 million and has already raised $ 38.7 million. But even before Covid hit, cultural institutions struggled to compete for philanthropic dollars and there are concerns that this trend will only continue.

“The demand for social services and resources for social justice has grown only so much, at the expense of the performing arts,” said David Bohnett, philanthropist and director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “That had already happened. But we learn from it the value of the performing arts for social service and social justice initiatives. ”

Still, art managers hope that a burgeoning stock market has created a new class of donors. “There is enough to support both social services and the cultural sector, and we just need more people to advance civic education,” said Ms. Philbin.

Mr. Geffen, an art collector, said he was confident that younger people who got rich and bought art would eventually become donors, although art professionals said the transition was slow in Los Angeles. “I would think that young people who make an incredible amount of money from technology,” he said, “will be generous in the future.”

Even so, he acknowledged the difficulties LACMA faced before writing his $ 150 million check. “LA deserves a world-class museum,” he said. “And it didn’t seem like anyone else was stepping on the plate.”