The United States: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

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With the holiday season upon us, it might be a good idea to take a bird's-eye view of the American museum scene, here in California and elsewhere across the country.


Installation image composite, Creating the United States
Skirball Cultural Center


The Skirball Cultural Center has pulled off the near impossible by bringing from Washington an important scholarly exhibition that ran at the Library of Congress for four years and was viewed there by some two million visitors. This exhibition, "Creating the United States," is an impressive presentation of original documents and artifacts relating to our nation's formative early years. Now at the Skirball, in its only appearance outside of the capital, this elegantly installed exhibition has been enriched with additional materials from major American collections.


Dorothea Lange. A large sign reading "I am an American" placed in the window of a store,
at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. Oakland, CA, March, 1942
Photographic print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This is a truly rare opportunity to see original manuscripts, including a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson's own handwriting and his tabulation of state votes on the Constitution. These historical documents are smartly juxtaposed with later cultural artifacts, among them Dorothy Lange's 1942 photograph of a Bay-area Japanese shop window with a sign that reads, "I Am An American." What makes it particularly poignant is that it was taken soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and at the beginning of the internment of Japanese-American citizens.


Isaac Bonsall (1833-1909), Group of Union Military and Civilian Men
near Chattanooga, Tennessee, ca. 1863-1864
Albumen print. Courtesy Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens


To remind us that democracy is a process, and often a rather painful and messy one, I suggest that you visit the excellent photography exhibition focused on the Civil War currently on display at the Huntington Library in San Marino. This exhibition, "A Strange and Fearful Interest," that I talked about a few months ago, is drawn from the museum's extensive collections and concentrates on rare and little known photographs documenting the Civil War, which cost the nation the lives of three quarters of a million people.


Zaha Hadid, Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, 2007-2012
Photo © Paul Warchol

To return to our bird's-eye view, let's take a look at the American cultural scene today. Fiscal cliff be damned, ambitious new art museums continue to pop up all over the country while existing museums keep expanding. A year ago, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, designed by Moshe Safdie and founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, opened in Bentonville, Arkansas.


Herzog & De Meuron, The Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, Long Island, NY, 2012
Photo © Matthu Placek

Last month, yet another ambitious museum, the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum of Art, was inaugurated on the campus of Michigan State University, the alma mater of the well-known LA art philanthropist. The museum was designed by Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid and the building has received rave reviews. And last but not least, Long Island's century-old Parrish Art Museum moved last month to a new building designed by Herzog & De Meuron.


Conservators examining a painting in storage
Wende Museum, Culver City, CA


Here on the home front, there is news from two museums -- one relocating, the other about to open its doors for the first time. The small, feisty Wende Museum, dedicated to the history and culture of the Cold War, is ready to move from a far corner of Culver City to a more central location near Sony Studios. The museum boasts more than a hundred thousand artifacts, including portraits of Soviet-era leaders, military uniforms, and clunky surveillance equipment used to spy on private citizens in East Germany – all that and more will be moved to the decommissioned National Guard Armory, a huge single-story structure built in 1950, during the height of the Cold War, the very subject of this museum. Talk about a brilliant stroke of poetic justice...


Soviet-era artworks in Wende Museum storage
Wende Museum, Culver City, CA


And if you haven't been to the charming Southland city of El Segundo in a while, there is an excellent reason to go there in January when a new art museum will open on Main Street. This small private museum, ESMoA, envisioned and funded by the adventurous young collectors Eva and Brian Sweeney, is describing itself as an "art laboratory" and its inaugural exhibition "DESIRE," promises "bizarre yet beautiful" combinations of works: Christo alongside Camille Pissarro and Gustave Courbet and Camille Corot next to Peter Doig and Anselm Kiefer.

Do I hear you beginning to salivate over all this art world news? Rest assured – more yummy art news is coming our way.

Creating the United States
Skirball Cultural Center
Through February 17, 2013

A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War
Huntington Libraries, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
Through January 14, 2013

Banner image: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co. The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781. Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress