Every time I see an artwork appear on the front page of the newspapers, my heart sinks, because I know: the news, most of the time, is not good. Today's headlines announce the brazen theft of four priceless works from a private museum in Zurich, Switzerland. The robbery at the Bührle Museum occurred during the daytime, when masked thieves forced terrified visitors and guards to the floor and then grabbed from the walls paintings by Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Degas. I visited this small museum a few years ago and was astonished by the quality of its collection of mostly French 19th century paintings. The fact that these four paintings are extremely well known and thus cannot be sold on the open market didn't stop these idiots. One of them, according to witnesses, spoke with a Slavic accent. Ouch...
Ironically, another theft, this time of two paintings by Picasso, occurred in Switzerland just a few days ago, and again the robbers disappeared without a trace. Each year hundreds of artworks are stolen from public and private collections. A few years ago, The Scream, an iconic painting by Edward Munch, was the victim of a similar heist. Even the Mona Lisa, believe it or not, once was stolen from the Louvre, almost a hundred years ago. Lucky for us, Mona Lisa and The Scream were recovered, but it's not the case with several Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. The theft of such masterpieces is a tragedy for all of us, because it diminishes our shared cultural memory. As John Donne once famously said, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."
Meanwhile, here on the home front, the cultural news is not just delicately rosy; it's positively red-hot. Last week LACMA unveiled the latest addition to its already sprawling, six-building complex. Called BCAM and designed by the famed Renzo Piano, the imposing three-story structure is clad in travertine and has the titillating look of an elegantly gift-wrapped package tied with a red ribbon.
The inaugural exhibition is focused on the private collection of Eli Broad, and as such, has its inevitable highs and lows. Among the highs are impressive holdings of such artists as Cindy Sherman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leon Golub, and Robert Rauschenberg, to name just a few. But with other well-known artists whose work Mr. Broad especially favors, such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, the crowded installation of their works – with strong and mediocre pieces fighting for visitors' attention – utterly failed to impress me. Hirst and Koons are not only prolific sculptors; they also dabble in painting, often to a rather embarrassing effect, as is the case with Hirst's butterfly paintings.
There are two gigantic Richard Serra sculptures installed in the ground floor galleries: one acquired for LACMA through the generosity of Mr. Broad, the other on loan from a private collector in San Francisco. In the future, LACMA is planning to move its Serra piece to an outdoor sculpture garden, which is still under construction. Right now, in the gallery with a relatively low ceiling, it looks squeezed and makes me think about the much more successful and engaging installation that Richard Serra designed for his exhibition at MOCA's 'Temporary Contemporary' a decade ago. One wonders what kind of art will fill the galleries of BCAM after the inaugural exhibition closes a year from now. This latest expansion not only significantly raises the museum's profile, but heightens expectation for its programs as well. Let's hope for the best.
Banner image: Edward Munch, The Scream (Skrik, 1893)