When Russians feel that someone is trying to sell them baloney, they say "Don't hang noodles over my ears." Here, in America, we say "Don't pull wool over my eyes." The recent announcement that LACMA is seeking public money to rebuild its facilities makes me feel that museum officials are not only hanging noodles over our ears, they are also pulling wool over our eyes.
About a year ago, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was chosen to build a new, striking building to replace four existing pavilions which will be demolished. The projected cost of the remodeling was estimated between $200-$300 million. One might say that it's a lot of money during a time of economic slow down, but Los Angeles still has plenty of extremely rich people, among them Eli Broad, who is expected to be a major donor, though he has been vague about exactly how much money he will give. For quite some time, people in the know have been saying that Mr. Broad plans to give somewhere in the $100 million range. The remaining funds needed for the remodeling were expected to come from other private donors.
Rather unexpectedly, two months ago, LACMA joined the Museum of Natural History in seeking $250 million in public funds. At the upcoming Nov. 5th election, this request will appear on the ballot as Measure A, which museum officials are selling as a "vote on public safety." And that's where the baloney begins. If the measure is passed, LACMA will receive about $100 million for fire and earthquake safety improvements. But if the four existing pavilions, which supposedly need to upgrade their earthquake and fire safety, are scheduled to be demolished anyway, how does this square up with the request for money to improve their safety? Well, if you are buying into that, I have a nice Brooklyn Bridge to sell you as well.
Let me make it clear. I believe in public funding for cultural projects. And so far, the county pays for approximately one-third of LACMA's $40.5 million annual operating budget. If you add to that another $10 million which the county granted to LACMA to conduct studies on the museum's physical problems and needs, one would expect the museum's reciprocity towards its public. Let's say in the form of public debates, conferences, discussions. None of these have happened.
LACMA attempts to put on a good face by promising, if Measure A is passed, to increase free admission for children by 50%. Talk about chutzpah - to ask for 00 million in public money and not even make a generous gesture of allowing free admission for all children. A few months ago, the LA Times published an article stating that LACMA's annual attendance is today the same as it was almost 30 years ago, when attendance was free for everyone. Attendance has not improved despite all the costly remodeling projects of the last two decades. Shouldn't this be a subject of public debate?
The action by LACMA's trustees and Andrea Rich, Museum president and director, speaks volumes about their obsession with a glamorous building. I wish I could detect the same passion for improving the quality of the Museum's collection, which has left much to be desired.