Will LACMA Learn a Lesson?

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Will LACMA learn a lesson from the Milwaukee Museum troubles?

With an insatiable quest for dramatic expansion, one American museum after another finds itself in the same predicament: the final cost of a project inevitably much higher than the initial estimate. The Getty, for example, started with about 300 million dollars in mind then raised it to 600 million dollars, then raised it a few times more. At least the Getty could afford it. Less lucky is the Milwaukee Art Museum, whose new addition is designed by celebrated Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Public and critical response was overwhelmingly positive. But now comes a bomb. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, says that the Museum "has at least a 20 million dollars shortfall that is forcing it to pursue something virtually unheard of in the art world - offering up its collection as a guarantee for a loan."

"Who gives a damn what it costs," says the Museum Board Chairman. "Nobody will care what you spent in the years to come." Unfortunately it is a familiar scenario, where Museum trustees are buying into the ambitious vision of what their museum could or should be, and what glory by association it will bring to them. No one wants to talk about the strengths or weaknesses of museum collections, about the low attendance in most American museums for their permanent collection. Blockbuster mentality rules. How relevant is this for us in L.A., with the pending expansion of LACMA to very glamorous quarters designed by star architect Rem Koolhaas?

LACMA embarked on a 300 million dollars fundraising campaign with 200 million dollars designated for construction and 100 million dollars for a museum endowment. Needless to say, the numbers will have to be revised. L.A. is not Milwaukee and it will be easier to raise funds here, but at what cost? Philanthropic dollars are not infinite and other, smaller, but nevertheless worthy cultural initiatives will have to be curtailed.

A recent article in the L.A. Times brings attention to another important issue: Ever rising admission prices in American museums negatively affect attendance. When in 1978 LACMA abolished free admission, within a month attendance fell 44 percent. Next year it plummeted even further.

Not that long ago, American museums had a clear understanding of their mission to make their collection free for people to enjoy and to educate themselves. Now, only a few museums, including the Washington National Gallery, Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Louis Art Museums among others, continue this noblesse oblige tradition. The L.A. Times article suggests that LACMA should also abolish its admission fee, which, after all, constitutes only a miniscule portion of the annual museum budget.

Judging by the effect of Great Britain's recent decision to eliminate entrance fees to all national museums, attendance nationwide rose 75 percent. London's Tate Museum, which is free, has three times more visitors than its nearest European rival The Pompidou in Paris, which charges an admission fee. Last Friday, I went with my ailing father for a walk. We strolled through LACMA's gardens, then listened to the free jazz concert in the courtyard. Father, though tired, agreed to see a few galleries with the permanent collection. After a few minutes, looking around, he asked "why is there no one here?"

My dear father, in all his innocence, brought up a problem LACMA's officials are not eager to discuss: the public does not come to see the permanent collections. The Museum's attendance today is the same as it was a quarter of a century ago. And that, in spite of all the expansions and renovations in the last decades. Obviously something is fundamentally wrong. The latest ambitious and costly expansion is unlikely to address this issue.