Marciano Art Foundation mixes contemporary art with freemasonry

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Another private art museum opens soon in Los Angeles, but this one takes you into the fascinating world of freemasonry.

Private museums showcasing contemporary art are booming. Over 300 have been built since 2000, mostly in South Korea and China, and mostly by men who average age 65 — at least that’s according to Larry’s List, an art collectors web site.

But in LA they are sprouting up too — just think of the Broad Museum, the Main Museum in downtown’s historic district, and the new Berggruen Institute that will be built by philanthropist and investor Nicolas Berggruen. Then, opening next week, we have the Marciano Art Foundation, founded by Guess co-founders Paul and Maurice Marciano.

So what’s behind this explosion — and is there an audience for all this contemporary art?

“We’re in an age where we are all super hungry for contemporary art. And I think this trend we can see in the number of visitors at the art fairs, the number of museum goers and also for the private museums,” said Christoph Noe, co-founder of Larry’s List, who spoke to DnA from his office in Hong Kong. “Now arts has really reached a level that is not yet there where music and Hollywood movies are, but it certainly attracts a broader amount of people.”

Architect Kulapat Yantrasast stands in front of the Wilshire Boulevard facade of the new Marciano Art Foundation, formerly the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple designed by Millard Sheets, 1961. (photo by Frances Anderton) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The very rich have historically courted respectability through showcasing their art. And, in the U.S. and other countries, art collectors get tax benefits from creating public venues. But a driving motivation is also philanthropic.

“Museums are increasingly being used to either shore up really specific areas in cities or they reflect the kind of passions of different patrons. I think all personal museums… are at some level a mix of self-interest and public goodwill,” said Joe Day, a designer and architectural theorist who examined the urban and social implications of the boom in both museums and prisons dating back to the 1970s, in his book “Corrections & Collections: Architectures for Art and Crime.”

Like many of the new private museums, the Marciano Art Foundation will house contemporary art, and some of it will be familiar from other private institutions — just think Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley, El Anatsui and others.

Like the Broad, it will be free to folks who can reserve a time to visit. Marciano, however, told his architect Kulapat Yantrasast that he does not think of MAF as a museum precisely, because he wants artists to feel that the vast rooms of the venue serve as their “playground.”

The top floor, a former great room of the temple, has been transformed by partition walls into a white art space with exposed ceiling trusses; invisible until you walk behind the partition right of photo is a mosaic artwork by Millard Sheets (photo courtesy MAF.) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It is the location of MAF that makes this institution really interesting: it is housed in the imposing Scottish Rite Masonic Temple in Hancock Park, designed in 1961 by Millard Sheets. It’s sat empty since 1994. And the museum makes a feature of its Masonic history.

“Well, the first time I arrived with Maurice, the building was completely like a tomb. Because not only the building was left unused for a long time, all of the stuff, all of the props and books and photographs of the Masons are left almost untouched within the building. So you kind of walk in something of a time capsule. And so because of that I was thinking, oh my god, this is such a fun thing to be able to really talk to these materials and really trying to engage that rather than erase all of it out,” said Kulapat Yantrasast, the founder and creative director of the architecture and design firm wHY, based in LA and New York. His firm has designed museums in Texas, Kentucky and Michigan, and art installations at the Art Institute of Chicago, and at several locations in LA.

We met him inside the temple, on a mezzanine that overlooks a huge lobby, with walls slathered in glittery travertine. That’s original, along with sculptures on the facade of the building, and in another huge room that the lobby leads into, you’ll find backdrops that were painted by Hollywood set decorators. The sets were for plays performed by the masons, many of whom worked in the entertainment industry.

The Wilshire Boulevard facade of MAF, formerly Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, features symbols of the masonic beliefs (photo by Yoshiro Makino, Courtesy of wHY.) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The original designer of the building, Millard Sheets, was also curious when he was approached by the Masons because he wasn’t a member.

This was the 1950s and he was then highly respected. He was an artist and teacher (alumnus of Chinouard Art Institute who went on to become Director of Otis Art Institute, later named Otis College of Art and Design) and he had designed dozens of branch offices of Home Savings of America in California.

Yantrasast says the freemasons were determined to hire him.

“They said yes, we know that you’re not a Mason, but we’ve seen the work you have done, the banks and other buildings, and they felt that it represented the symbol of the kind of architectural presence that they wanted,” he said.

The Marciano Art Foundation opens to the public on May 25th. Check back on May 18 for more images.