Celebrating LACMA

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

It's almost impossible to imagine Los Angeles, and certainly the middle stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, without the influential presence of the LA County Museum of Art.

It's become that ingrained in the cultural DNA of the city.

Before the museum opened -- 45 years ago this past weekend -- the segment of Wilshire now called Museum Row was a declining commercial strip known as the Miracle Mile.

A real estate man's idea of a catchy name.

There were department stores like The Broadway and May Co., trying -- against the trend -- to keep their customers from defecting to suburban shopping malls with acres of free parking.

At Wilshire and Fairfax, where the Petersen Museum is now, many Angelenos enjoyed their first sukiyaki on the roof at Seibu, a Japanese department store.

But LACMA -- it's the biggest thing to ever hit the Miracle Mile.

The museum went up on the site of an old rancho adobe -- and it changed everything.

Art in Los Angeles had been displayed mostly in homes and commercial galleries like Earl Stendahl's.

His gallery was on Wilshire too, originally in the Ambassador Hotel, then further east.

book.jpgStendahl is credited with bringing pre-Columbian art to prominence, and Picasso's Guernica to Los Angeles. The gallery and its namesake are the subject of a new book this month from Angel City Press, who are also my publishers.

LACMA brought people back from the burbs and created a culture of art accessible to every one.

It spun off from the original Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park. The Natural History Museum that's in the shadow of the Coliseum is the descendant of that 1913 museum.

When the art collections moved to Wilshire, Los Angeles became a more serious player in the minds of the international art world.

The campus was sunny and open. The galleries seemed to float on pools and fountains.

It fit the optimism of the emerging city, which was starting to act like it belonged among the most important in the world.

Photos from then show an inviting plaza that could, if you stretch your imagination, serve as an iconic meeting spot like the front steps do at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan.

LACMA's campus has evolved with the times, and not always for the better.

The pools fell victim to the seeping brea from the adjacent tar pits –- and as everyone in that neighborhood knows, the tar almost always wins.

The fountains gave way to gallery buildings that walled the museum off from Wilshire and turned what's left of the plaza into a wind tunnel.

Only lately have the grounds become more inviting again -- for strolling and hanging out with a friend and some coffee.

LACMA has grown into a respected statesman of the Mid-City, admired and even loved.

Especially this past weekend, when an exhibit opened of sculpture by the late David Smith.

He's considered by some to be the greatest American sculptor of the 20th century. Smith had been talking about a major show at the new Los Angeles museum in 1965 when he died in a car crash.

He has finally made it to Wilshire Boulevard. The show runs through July 24. And I'm so there.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.