LACMA and Guggenheim in Trouble

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The last few days definitely were not good for two major American museums with ambitious plans for their future. It started with an ultimatum the Guggenheim's flamboyant and controversial director, Thomas Krens, received from the museum's chairman, Peter Lewis. As the New York Times put it, Mr. Lewis presented Thomas Krens "with a 'tough love' choice: he could either bring the museum's tangled financial affairs in order, or start looking for another job." During a decade of dramatic expansion, the Guggenheim became an international brand name and the envy of every ambitious cultural institution, but it came with a price; the museum staff had to be cut in half plus a host of other problems cropped up even before the events of 9/11.

In the ten years since he joined the board, Mr. Lewis donated $62 million dollars to the museum. But eventually his patience and generosity got exhausted. He made a demand for the museum director to be fiscally responsible, but sweetened his "tough love" approach with an additional $12 million dollar donation to help the museum pay off its outstanding debts and start the new year with a clean slate.

In yet another article on this subject, New York Times critic says that "Bigger is not better, better is better". Then he adds, "the obsession of museums elsewhere with expansion and brand-name architecture, fostered by Mr. Krens' example, is an insidious legacy of the 90's." And indeed, today in the L.A. Times we read that the L.A. County Museum of Art decided to put on hold its $300 million dollar dream to replace the existing campus with an ambitious building by Rem Koolhaas. Neither Andrea Rich, museum President and Director, nor billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, museum board member, seems ready to take responsibility for this turn of events. They cite the state of the economy, the lack of enthusiasm for their project among donors and, last but not least, the failure of Measure A, which prevented the museum from receiving public funds allegedly intended to retrofit existing buildings.

I believe it's time for the museum's leaders to stop looking for excuses and take a hard look at their priorities and accept their responsibilities. LACMA's reputation has not yet fully recovered from the dismal failure of its "Made In California" exhibition a couple of years ago. In another disappointment, despite the museum courting Eli Broad with an exhibition of his personal collection, the elusive philanthropist keeps dangling a carrot, promising a generous contribution without actually delivering it to the eager museum.

Meanwhile, the museum is in a financial crunch and the morale of the staff is low. Due to a lack of funds, a number of good exhibitions in the last couple of years were presented without catalogues or even opening nights. And now, in a colossal failure of judgement, LACMA rolled out a red carpet for a dismal show based on a sculptural collaboration between Farrah Fawcett and her young fan, Keith Edmier. Ironically, for this show funds became available for a big party, a glossy book and a free flyer for visitors to take. To add insult to injury, part of the permanent museum collection had to be removed to make space for this poor excuse for an exhibition.

Paraphrasing the immortal words of Prince Hamlet about troubles in Denmark, one starts to wonder what's really going on at our LACMA?