A good friend of mine just returned from a trip to New York. How is the city? I asked her. Does it feel as if life has almost gone back to normal? What about museums? A few months ago, a deep drop in attendance prompted many New York museums to lay off dozens of employees. But the current situation is quite different. Attendance for the Whitney's Biennale is a record high, with long lines of ticket holders stretching in front of the museum. MOMA has another crowd pleaser -- a retrospective of German painter Gerhard Richter, probably the most critically acclaimed contemporary artist working today. An hour-long wait to get into MOMA reminds those who care that New York and tourists have resumed their love affair with art and culture. Good for them-and for all of us.
But meanwhile here on the home front, with the exception of the Getty Center, museums look empty, as if California were no longer the most populated state in the Union. The Hammer Museum, which is planning an ambitious rebuilding and expansion of its premises, is rarely crowded. On occasion, one could see quite a few people going through temporary exhibitions, but generally speaking, the museum is underpopulated, with its lobby and courtyard exuding the excitement of a corporate headquarters with everyone gone on vacation.
Hopefully, the Museum's pending expansion will bring crowds and energy into its galleries. But something, for sure, could be done even now. The Permanent Collections of old masters and 19th century painting is not first class, like the one at the Norton Simon Museum, but there are a few really good pictures. Pity that the permanent collection installation is so unimaginative, so by numbers. The paintings are crowded in white walled galleries better suited for contemporary art. LACMA is another example of a museum that works hard to attract visitors, to make itself a visitor friendly place. There are a number of interesting exhibitions on any given day, sometimes there is a blockbuster show. For the Van Gogh exhibition a few years ago, people stood in line. However, besides temporary exhibitions, how much do Angelinos and tourists pay attention to the LACMA permanent collection, spread among five buildings in close to a hundred galleries?
Last month I visited the museum several times, sometimes in the mid-afternoon, and once on Friday evening. The galleries were virtually empty, and the courtyard, usually beaming with crowds enjoying Friday's free jazz concerts, was quiet. What happened to your concert program? I asked at the ticket booth. Oh, we had to discontinue it because of lack of funds, I was told.
What a pity that this popular feature of the LACMA public outreach program is suspended just about the time the museum embarked on the ambitious few hundred million dollars program to rebuild its campus. What LACMA and other Los Angeles museums need is what New York's sister institutions have in abundance: A passion for art, and a smart, suave, even sexy way of showing it. Without it museums and galleries will remain the sanctuaries of a few lonely visitors.