Inconvenient Truths at LACMA: Sweeping Debt, Dealmaking, and Dubious Design under the Red Carpet




IT’S SMELLING LIKE DENMARK over at LACMA these days. Not a month after its glamorous 50th anniversary gala on April 18, attended by le tout Hollywood, the Los Angeles Times and ProPublica jointly reported on Sony emails hacked by the North Koreans and posted online by WikiLeaks. The scoop: Michael Lynton, a LACMA board member and Sony’s CEO, set into motion a $25,000 contribution to a PAC founded by County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas before a scheduled County Board vote to approve LACMA’s proposal for its proposed new $600 million museum structure, to be designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Did the Sony contribution sway the good supervisor, whose crucial vote precipitated the board of supervisors’ unanimous yes on a project that could climb up to a billion dollars? Was there a quo pro quid?

Officers at Sony and at the supervisor’s office, cited in the same articles, denied any tie between the money and the vote, denials that were confirmed by LACMA director Michael Govan in a recent email, saying flatly: “There is absolutely nothing to the email leak question.”

But the timing and content of the emails are at least fragrant if not circumstantially incriminating, and in any case carry the lingering appearance of impropriety. Did a paltry but strategically placed $25,000 suffice to influence the Supervisors to commit the county and public funding to a hugely expensive and controversial project beset with troubling questions? There is no smoking gun in the crossfire of emails. But on May 24, Los Angeles Times arts and culture editor Kelly Scott linked her arts newsletter to the original Times article and invited readers to answer the question on their own.

That LACMA might be playing tough behind its newfound, hard-won veneer of glamour suddenly made some LACMA-watchers ask: was there a pattern of further backroom deals and other private conversations outside public earshot? You don’t have to look far to find more dots to connect. Last November, former music agent, TV producer, and Univision mogul Jerry Perenchio promised to bequeath LACMA his collection of Impressionist and early Modernist paintings on the condition that Zumthor’s LACMA project be built. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last November, the famously press-shy billionaire — his number one rule of business was “steer clear of the press” — explained that while he had in the past given anonymously, he “decided that it’s worth a temporary step into the spotlight and to encourage other collectors to give to LACMA.” He made no mention of Zumthor. That the gift of his collection would hinge on his sudden fondness for Swiss Minimalist architecture came as a surprise to many people in the local art and architecture community, and probably to Perenchio, too: asking not to be identified, one director from another museum who has had dealings with Perenchio believes the collector would not have initiated the condition himself. Govan — charming and ardent in his support of the architectural scheme — apparently seized the day, joined the issue, and tied the knot, and suddenly the gift came with a noose attached: LACMA risked losing a collection reportedly worth $500 million if Govan didn’t get his $600+ million building. Who wanted to lose all those Monets? Checkmate.

The email leaks, the Perenchio deal, and other questionable machinations — just how was Zumthor chosen anyway? — should give Angelenos pause. They don’t point to the high road that citizens expect their principal museum to take.

These apparent breaches of institutional propriety are hard to square with the smart, enthusiastic, and talented Mr. Govan, a rock star of the museum world who, at 52, still wields the disarming smile of a choirboy. A deft impresario, he has singlehandedly turned LACMA from being the dowdy aunt Angelenos visited dutifully every once in a while into the hot new cultural date: the gala ticket was the most coveted in town, the attendees straight from the first four rows of the Academy Awards ceremony. Govan has made the previously fusty institution pivotal in Los Angeles’s cultural life, and fun: Angelenos now care about it, riveted no doubt by the gowns, jewelry, cleavage, and face lifts at galas covered in the style pages (just Google “LACMA images”). But it’s not just the glitz — people are drawn to the programming; it remains a serious institution offering serious exhibitions. The director has made the museum relevant, all the while giving the impression that he has done it with sweetness, light, and James Turrells.

And so the alleged shady deals seem incompatible with a white-glove museum, and its charismatic director Govan’s single-minded pursuit of the project, widely criticized for bridging Wilshire with what will feel like an oppressive freeway overpass, is proving an Achilles heel.

The criticisms of that project are not merely aesthetic — though for a museum, aesthetics should matter. The decision process has exhibited the arrogance of institutional prerogative, and the consequences of the decision are structural, impacting the fundamental workings of the museum, especially its use of land, the long-term budget, and the critical issue of future expansion.

Long story short: according to the Los Angeles Times and ProPublica, County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas wanted to use his PAC, founded to increase minority voter turnout, to promote the election of a staff aide to the Los Angeles Board of Education. The leaks reveal that Govan learned that Sony’s Michael Lynton was meeting with the supervisor, and in an email he alerted Lynton that the supervisor’s vote was pivotal in swaying the board of supervisors on a project that might not happen without the board’s yes. The stories report that Govan was “nervous” about Ridley-Thomas’s vote, though he denies this, asserting — despite the email record — that the Supervisor was already a strong supporter of the project.

The south leg of the S-shaped plan of the proposed building, which bridges Wilshire, happens to land on a parcel in Ridley-Thomas’s district, and when there’s an issue that falls within a supervisor’s jurisdiction, the rest of the board customarily follows the vote of the affected supervisor. The writers of the Los Angeles Times and ProPublica articles deduced that Lynton agreed to contribute Sony money to the PAC during the same lunch that they discussed the LACMA vote. (In a further wrinkle, to avoid the appearance of impropriety due to Lynton’s wife’s role as executive editor of a news website that covers LAUSD issues, Sony would slip the $25,000 into the PAC account after the Board of Education election.) Govan, in the same email to me, denied collusion of any sort: “Michael Lynton is one of the most honest and straightforward members of the community. He has many issues he discusses with the supervisor. He [Lynton] is the largest employer in the district and has known him [Ridley-Thomas] for many years.”

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No one would ever have known about the emails but for the fluke of the North Korean hackers exacting revenge over a Sony movie that roasted their leader. Official denials issued all around could not cover up the embarrassment or even deflect the possibility of legal action. The county supervisor risks accusations and charges of violating campaign finance law. A 501(c)3 like Museum Associates, LACMA’s fund-raising arm, could lose its nonprofit status if caught engaging in political activities. Whether this possible breach is investigated at all depends on the interest, impartiality, availability, and political appetite of the district attorney or the state attorney general. Almost two months later, no investigation is underway. 

The Sony leaks did deliver a Keystone Cops moment. According to minutes from the November 5 vote, investigated by architecture critic Greg Goldin for an article in the Miracle Mile Residential Association Newsletter, an ebullient Ridley-Thomas greeted Govan as though he were a conquering celebrity, perhaps tenderizing the board for the vote by sprinkling the director’s stardust over the meeting. The supervisor had an important announcement:

Ridley-Thomas: Is this Michael Govan Day in L.A. or what? We’re trying to figure that out. Did you know what today was?

Michael Govan: That today was?

Ridley-Thomas: Yeah, Michael Govan Day in the city, in the county of Los Angeles? Did you know that? It is. Thank you.

Michael Govan: Thank you.

It’s not clear that Govan knew that it was his day in Los Angeles, but in any event the designation was moot: another supervisor declared that the Brown Act prohibits such namesake days, and though this was not in fact true, Ridley-Thomas’s declaration was immediately withdrawn.

But perhaps the designation wasn’t so vacant: from the very beginning the ambitious project has been personality driven, based much more on Govan’s determination, enthusiasm, and charisma than on a compelling and original design or trustable financial facts. According to county records, the supervisors trusted the cost estimates coming from LACMA of $600 million; independent estimates go up to $1 billion. The woefully underdeveloped drawings and quarter-baked architectural concept tell very little about how the building will work and succeed as a museum, and what the supervisors were given was generously termed “a conceptual design,” one that does not give enough construction information on which to base credible cost estimates: it was like estimating the cost of a ghost ship.

But Govan is persuasive, and his reputation preceded him. Having breathed new life into a staid institution, he walks on water: who knew that pre-Columbian clay figurines could attract producers, directors, and movie stars, and who cares about a closed decision process and accountability to the public with the critical acclaim for his programming and all that action on the red carpet?

Govan’s beatification-for-a-partial-day drove home the point that the Supervisors were being graced by the presence of a cultural star, and Govan got what he wanted and more. Ridley-Thomas voted for the approval, and the rest of the board fell into line and actually outdid itself by unanimously voting a gift of $125 million for the project, and then topping that by approving a government-issued construction bond for an additional $300 million. It was Michael Govan Day. In an intersection of Hollywood and county government, the Supervisors voted to confirm Los Angeles’s home industry, celebrity culture.

For Govan, the vote meant not only approval but also the means to pursue his building: he walked out of the vote armed with $425 million, with which he could leverage more funding from his board and outside donors.

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The real crime is that nobody asked about the consequences, the downside of the deal: bonds are not free money — very inconveniently, they have to be paid back. Consider the math: for LACMA, the tab will be $18 million a year, unless Govan musters enough donations to pay down the bonds early. And when these annual payments are factored into the bigger picture, LACMA’s financial outlook is not so rosy: $343 million worth of construction bonds already exist (for LACMA’s 2008 Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the 2010 Resnick Exhibition Pavilion), the highest museum indebtedness in the country as of last year — twice that of the MET and nearly $100 million more than MoMA. With the new bonds, the combination will total a staggering $643 million. By contrast, a few miles away in Downtown, MOCA has no indebtedness for its buildings — $0 in bonds.

$643 million worth of old and new debt means that before Govan laces his shoes in the morning, he has to figure out how to find $33 million each year in bond payments, not to mention all the other operating costs such as payroll, the water bill, and rents he pays for off-campus offices and storage — all this building does not result in enough buildings. Moody’s will no doubt have to revisit its current A3 rating, already only middling, just 7th position on a scale of 14 — still within the low risk category, but at its bottom and on the cusp of slipping into a B. A lowered rating would mean an even higher debt service.

Perhaps Govan is a savvy Keynesian and can stare down deficit financing without blinking, sure he can shake Los Angeles’s money tree now that movie people have climbed up into its branches. But bond financing didn’t work out so well after the financial downturn of 2008. Thanks to the guidance of Los Angeles developer Robert Maguire, a former board president, LACMA had acquired, on the county’s dime, the moderne May Company department store building and adjacent parking land at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire for less than $18 million in 1994, which for a brief and shining moment swamped LACMA with nearly 300,000 square feet of space and 8.2 acres of land. But in 2011, as a $15 million interest payment fell due on the construction bonds for the Broad and Resnick, the museum scrapped its $50 million plans to renovate the May Company building for galleries, offices, and education spaces. In LACMA’s narrative, according to spokesperson Scott Tennent, the building finally did not suit the museum’s purposes and so it sought other uses.

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But in his article Goldin sheds a harsher light on the transaction: “During the deepening recession, LACMA couldn’t bear the costs of restoring the May Co. while shelling out $15 million a year for the debt service for BCAM and Resnick. Thus, the May Co. renovation was jettisoned.” LACMA enjoyed no immunity from the economy, and the County didn’t step in.

Close to a default, the museum’s bond rating risked being downgraded with a consequent increase in payments, according to Goldin. With a downgrade looming, the plot thickened and darkened: LACMA went noir. LACMA leased the entire building and the parking lot behind it in late 2012 to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for the Academy’s nascent movie museum. In Goldin’s argument, LACMA would never have abandoned one of its most valuable assets, the May Company, but for its economic misfortune. LACMA was severely leveraged due to the Resnick and BCAM, forcing it into a shotgun deal.

Shockingly, the 55-year lease was a cut-rate $36.1 million for the entire period, paid up front, and renewable for another 55 years with no extra payment. In a Los Angeles Times article about the transaction, Govan said he didn’t want to haggle, something about being a good neighbor, “fair is fair.” In the same article, reporter Mike Boehm concluded that LACMA was forced into the deal: “LACMA needed the money to keep its liquid assets above thresholds required to avoid a possible bond default.”

The very inconvenient fact behind the “fair is fair” deal is that the monthly price per square foot over the probable 110 years comes out to 9.4 cents — less than a dime. Current rents on the newest buildings at prestige addresses in the 90036 zip code (LACMA’s) are reaching $4 per square foot, and one project coming on line just east of LACMA is now being advertised at $4.50/sf.

LACMA used the up-front lease payment to pay down the bonds by $40 million, “voluntarily” according to Tennent, and the evident result was some breathing room in its debt service. Goldin’s and Boehm’s independent articles question just how “voluntary” the decision was. In any event, the museum squeaked through the crisis much the poorer in real estate, sadly reduced, despite the happy face pasted over the deal by the presence of the movie industry and fresh wallets tantalizingly within arm’s reach. The $300 million bonds on the Zumthor building means that LACMA will be even more leveraged and vulnerable.

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The quick-fix bailout didn’t help the museum that much long term. Without the May Company building available, the museum has had to rent office space off campus, and expand storage, also off campus, at considerable annual expense — seemingly in perpetuity. As recently as two years ago, finances continued to be rocky. In a sobering 2013 article in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Tim Rutten — an editorial veteran of the Los Angeles Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner — reported that the museum’s ratio between adjusted net assets and indebtedness was within one-hundredth of a point of triggering a technical default. At the time LACMA was considering taking over MOCA, and Rutten questioned LACMA’s ability to do so. Rutten found that between 2008 and 2012, total LACMA assets declined from $797 to $660 million, among other signs of financial weakness. (By 2014 assets climbed to $724 million, though that’s still $73 million less than in 2008.)

Unbelievably, LACMA has returned to the scene of the May Company fire sale and as if to sweeten the honey pot further, has quietly agreed to “lend” its .8 acre North Lawn to the Academy so that the new museum’s grounds will constitute the minimum three acres necessary to form an officially designated “Sign District.” That designation allows an owner to saturate a property with lights and billboards, as at the megawatted L.A. Live Downtown, probably visible from outer space. According to another exposé by Goldin in the Miracle Mile Residential Association Newsletter and a Los Angeles Planning Department Report, the Academy Museum intends to project images on one or both facades and to festoon the designated historic landmark with approximately 13,500 square feet of super graphics and kinetic billboards — chief among them an image of Oscar on the gold cylinder at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire, an exercise in visual branding. The language for the proposed sign district is written to supersede Scenic Highway regulations (Wilshire, in this case) and the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay Zone.

With its tacit consent, LACMA is suborning signage on a designated historic monument and a designated scenic highway, whose integrity will be diminished by flashing and possibly flashy digital signs, super graphics, and banners. Whether or not the signage is tasteful, LACMA is helping to compromise the integrity of the handsome historic structure it owns and the boulevard it fronts. The environmental invasion — if the proposal survives the strong community opposition and wins the approval of the Los Angeles Conservancy — will diminish the adjacent LACMA campus and yoke a distinguished museum to a populist Hollywood institution with what may well turn out to be the visual sales pitch of an amusement park: the rub up is offensive and diminishes LACMA’s stature.

Neighborhood groups are girding for a battle to save the corridor from the wattage that could storm their district. This is not just the usual NIMBY reaction. The Sign District and the proposal for the huge, much-feared, and untested Zumthor bridge spanning Wilshire put the neighborhood at risk. Wilshire at Fairfax may lose its quiet elegance.

Wilshire is Los Angeles’s most ceremonial avenue, and it has character, much of it period, as exemplified by the May Company building itself: it’s not Hollywood and Highland, or South Park’s Nokia Live. The problem is not the advent of a movie museum but the treatment of a historic monument and what preservationists call “contributing context.”

In yet another backroom deal between institutions, each with access to political arms they are willing to twist for approvals, LACMA is aiding and abetting the erosion of an historic asset — strange behavior for a museum.

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Real estate in Los Angeles is destiny, and when an institution doesn’t have it, it doesn’t have a future, and the loss of the May Company building and the loan of the North Lawn plays into a larger pattern: with the Zumthor proposal, LACMA is on the verge of spending land as though Hopalong Cassidy were still chasing tumble weeds across the basin, and land were no object. LACMA spent years wisely and profitably acquiring land and consolidating its campus. Ogden Drive, on the west flank of the original campus, was condemned as a street and absorbed into the campus in 2008 in a smart move that, with the May Company property, doubled its acreage. LACMA also acquired a prime two-acre commercial parcel on the other side of Wilshire, at Spaulding Avenue, and another parcel, the 0.7-acre corner lot at Ogden and Wilshire. The board was land-banking the properties for a future endowment or for future museum use.

Heir to this real estate windfall, Govan has embarked on unsustainable, land-intensive projects on the 22-acre campus. The one-acre Resnick Pavilion was realized under Govan’s watch, and what might have been a 45,000 square foot structure built in two or three stories was confined to one story that gobbled up one full acre instead of a half or a third. Govan champions one-story museum buildings: a department store or mall, he says, loses foot traffic with each floor above the first (forget about the MET in New York, the Louvre, even the Guggenheim, where he worked, in which grand, beautiful, inviting staircases and ramps convey happy campers up to all floors). Govan’s observation is more glib than true.

The double whammy of the Resnick and the giveaway of the May Company with its adjacent parking makes the remaining LACMA campus all the more precious and vulnerable: there is no more land nearby to acquire. Govan, nonetheless, has carried over his fixation for one-story museums into his plans for creating a new 410,000-square-foot museum to replace the 383,000-square-foot core structures on the East Campus — the Ahmanson, Bing, Hammer, and the Art of the Americas buildings. (Had he managed to keep the May Company building, he would now be luxuriating in about 700,000 square feet of existing space, nearly double what he’s hoping to get, not even counting BCAM or the Resnick.)

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Zumthor, the Swiss Minimalist, has not been able to invent a way to fit a one-story building with the necessary square footage on the land available north of Wilshire without messing up the paleontologically sensitive tar pits scattered around the park (not to be confused with the big black pool along Wilshire, the remnant of a modern asphalt quarry). According to Tennent, Govan and Zumthor have never even tested the idea of going up another story or two on the ample footprints of existing buildings that already have 383,000 square feet, or taking advantage of the site’s natural slopes. Instead they have willfully and impractically elected to bridge Wilshire, “to maintain the integrity of the proposed horizontal design,” says Tennent, landing the building on the two-acre parking lot at the corner of Spaulding and Wilshire as though the arbitrary horizontal requirement were sacrosanct and there were no other choice. The failure to test-drive the site’s possibilities with this obvious scenario screams negligence.

The sprawling leg of the extension on Spaulding recklessly obliterates any possibility of developing the land as a tower, whether for offices, condos, or even a mixed-use structure that might also include galleries and museum offices on lower floors. Tennent maintains that there has been “a strong bias all along for museum use” for the site on the part of the LACMA board, but if that’s the case, the board seems oblivious to the fact that the two-acre site could eventually support a 525,000-square-foot museum structure, which is 25 percent larger than the whole Zumthor scheme and enough to accommodate another half century or more of expansion. That no-brainer alone should send Zumthor to the north side of Wilshire for a multi-story structure, where it easily fits, without creating the equivalent of a freeway overpass on Wilshire. (For more on this see earlier Los Angeles Review of Books pieces here and here.)

But should the bottom line require more income, there are many ways to profitably skin this heaven-sent chunk of real estate. In a telephone interview, Maguire said the time is not right now for an office tower development. Another Los Angeles developer with Wilshire property, who asked not to be named, basically concurred: he worked up figures and said during telephone interviews that if the property were to be developed now as offices, it would only yield $1 million in annual profits (presumably that income would increase over the years). Both developers agree that conditions might be better around 2023, assuming a more favorable development climate, especially after “value” has been added when the new LACMA structure, Academy Museum, and subway station open. The site would be hot.

Maguire notes that currently the parking lot on Spaulding, now earning nearly as much annually as the entire original cost of its acquisition, is providing substantial income, so the land can be profitably banked until the market justifies intensive development. The wiser long-term routes would be plans that can guarantee income in perpetuity. In about 10 to 15 years, when the museum will probably need to expand again, a mixed-use condominium tower with museum staff offices and galleries on lower floors would annually realize an estimated $8 million in current dollars, according to the Wilshire developer. But a robust economy might also support what developers call “the highest and best” use of the land, that is, the most profitable: a 20-story, 525,000-square-foot office tower permissible on the site, built for around $275 million (a cost estimated by a prominent national real estate developer), which could yield well over the $8 million in annual profits, perhaps a multiple of that. The recently renovated 32-story tower next door, 44-year-old 5900 Wilshire, is renting at $3.50/square foot and climbing (LACMA rents more than a floor in that building for overflow offices at more than $1 million a year).

Rental income would be strategic and sustaining. According to a former Guggenheim curator, revenue streams for operating expenses are especially valuable to museums since donors prefer to contribute to capital programs with naming opportunities. Furthermore donor pledges and trustees’ “dues” are not always as dependable as rent. The board is not anticipating future bottom lines or future growth if it forecloses the possibility of building on Spaulding at a later time.

To put the math in perspective, an $8 million income would roughly equal the “dues” that the museum now coaxes from its board of 50 trustees, who — according to one museum insider — each pay about $100,000 per year to sit on the board (and who are expected to buy seats at galas each year for another $60,000; this figure does not include long-range donations and pledges, which are also expected). In any event, because of the income from the parking lot, the museum is in a good position to wait however long it takes for the market to support a profitable, long-term deal.

The second possible income-producing property is the site two blocks west of Spaulding, at Ogden and Wilshire. Rather than developing this smaller parcel itself, LACMA would probably partner with the owners of the adjacent three parcels, under the leadership of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is opening a Purple Line subway station on Wilshire.

Govan, who overlooked Los Angeles’s own home-grown master Frank Gehry for the LACMA commission in favor of Zumthor, is dreaming on thin ice when he projects that in the future Gehry might design a tower that might include a design and architecture department that might double as an archive for Gehry’s work. Govan may simply be throwing a bone to atone for bypassing Gehry, but the bone has no marrow: LACMA’s share does not give the museum final say on who will design what when (that would be the MTA’s decision). And besides, a Gehry tower may not be in the MTA’s value-engineered budget (a previous RTD proposal for a Gehry tower at Union Station didn’t fly for budget reasons).

Govan’s pipedream about Gehry designing the tower banks on a mirage of hopes nearly a decade down the road since LACMA has already agreed to lease its parcel to MTA as a staging area during the construction of Metro, to be completed in 2023. The 86-year-old Gehry would only see groundbreaking at 94. Govan is paying lip service to Gehry.

So scratch Ogden from the immediate calendar. And if the Spaulding parcel becomes a landing strip for the south end of the Zumthor museum, scratch that too, but forever. When asked about future expansion at a recent debate at Occidental College, Govan disingenuously claimed the museum could expand south along Spaulding into the residential area, but the Wilshire Galleria, a large existing condominium complex, stands in the path, and its occupants won’t view a hostile takeover kindly.

When subsequently asked in an interview with KCRW’s Frances Anderton about future expansion, Govan just as cavalierly dumped the idea of southward expansion, saying, well, the museum could expand with pavilions on the site. Anderton then pressed the issue, noting that the existing Pereira buildings were already pavilions, a balkanization Govan is supposedly correcting with the monolithic Zumthor scheme (each door to each pavilion requires extra guards, security, and funds). In fact, once the Zumthor building is in place, there is not sufficient room for pavilions with enough square footage to be worth the effort, and if there were, Govan wouldn’t have to bridge Wilshire; his pavilion argument undercuts the logic of his own proposal. Govan, in fact, has no credible plans for museum expansion. To date, there has been no sketch made public outlining a plan for LACMA’s future beyond this building. Govan is kicking the can down the road, blithely creating a huge problem for the next director and for the county.

From the beginning, Govan has closed off the notion of designing even an expandable building, one that anticipates growth, because, he has said, “when the envelope grows too large it burdens the site and the budget, while diminishing the quality of the experience […] We should consider other sites in the county for future growth.” Govan here is directing the wrong movie. He’s talking about those old palatial museums or even MoMA, designed as boxes that are expanded by adding other boxes ad infinitum, becoming unwieldy labyrinths. In the right movie, LACMA hires an architect who can anticipate expansion with geometries open to growth, designing projects that make sense not only in the present but also in the future. Architects learn how to do this in school. 

Beyond the money, what is alarming about usurping Spaulding now is that it cynically contradicts LACMA’s own published, still operational, online Strategic Plan of 2009. The section “Develop A Strategic Real Estate Plan” clearly advocates “policies to look at joint venture developments for Spaulding Avenue and Ogden Drive properties,” within the larger goal of establishing “a stable and sustainable financial and organizational plan.” That sounds good and reasonable. Several years ago the museum did invite developers to submit proposals for the site, but then returned the proposals (and the $25,000 application checks) without an explanation for discontinuing the project.

Although the museum officially talks the talk about institutional transparency, and indeed publishes its annual financial statements, the board — in a bout of hypocritical amnesia — has ignored this key element of its 2009 plan. And it has not revised or replaced the plan, which is customary when a museum undertakes a substantial building project like the Zumthor proposal. Suddenly the stated goal of developing Spaulding in order to sustain and build LACMA’s bottom line has irresponsibly been whisked off the table, chiefly because Govan insists, with Zumthor’s and the board’s acquiescence, on a one-story building.

The myopic misuse of both the East Campus land and Spaulding site is such a big, raw, glaring mistake that it hauls into the docket both the LACMA board and the county supervisors over the issue of oversight and accountability. Where is the board of LACMA in all this, only at the galas? And how could the board of supervisors give the project a pass and a fortune in an era of tight budgets while so many serious questions about the project and its misuse of public land have never been addressed?

Govan acknowledges, proudly, that he has run the architectural commission as an art project, presumably to protect the artistic integrity of the design. It is true that many museum designs have been compromised by invasive building committees and insensitive value engineering, as with MoMA’s addition by Yoshio Taniguchi. Govan’s position to sidestep the grinding effect that construction bureaucracies have on architectural creativity is commendable.

But Govan is throwing the baby out with the bureaucracy. He has allowed the pendulum to swing too far in a permissive, almost libertarian direction, acting more as an impresario, like the famous Sol Hurok, identifying and promoting talent, rather than as a museum director who works all sides of a complex equation. The project becomes artist-driven rather than driven as well by land, finance, or program considerations. As previously reported, even senior curators were exiled from the program-making process by an architect who has stated that he wants to experience the art directly, without historians running interference. Streamlining the process and working directly and closely with the architect one-on-one has eliminated the perspective that invigorates and disciplines the design process.

This duet of tenors, Govan and Zumthor, singing to one another in an echo chamber, eliminates the other voices that this grand opera needs. There is no basso profundo here. For Govan, the inspired ends of Zumthor’s emotionally charged atmospheric spaces justify the short cuts. But the ends we saw in the 2013 show, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA, still look prosaic, painfully derivative, and conceptually flawed rather than inspired, so the ends, such as they are, don’t justify the means: rather they indict the means. The flaws are not only in the design but also in a process still going on.

A victim of a sense of urgency and his own enthusiasms for a favorite architect, Govan skipped over too many of the stepping stones normally leading to responsible museum design, starting with how to choose an architect for a project of this scope. In an editorial in The Architect’s Newspaper, Los Angeles architecture critic Sam Lubell called Govan out for choosing Zumthor “without even a semblance of public input or awareness”:

No competition. No public discussion or review. Yes he made the public aware of the Zumthor scheme with an exhibition, a public session with the architect, and in articles in the press, but only after the architect was chosen and the plans were well along.

What actually happened was that the board discussed and dismissed renovating the current core buildings. It then considered Renzo Piano to build on his previous work, and Rem Koolhaas, to take up again his moribund proposal from a competition he won in 2001. The fourth possibility was Zumthor. It was behind closed doors that the board “unanimously and enthusiastically approved the Zumthor concept pending financial and practical feasibility,” according to an email from Tennent. In 1988, by way of contrast, a panel of well-informed, disinterested experts invited an experienced group of four finalists — the best architects of the time — to submit designs for what became Disney Hall. The rest is history.

Zumthor is clearly Govan’s pet architect, brought over from his days as director of Dia in New York when the two collaborated on an art pavilion that was never built at Dia:Beacon, a Minimalist (one-story) museum outpost on the Hudson. According to a 2013 profile in the Wall Street Journal, Govan called the Swiss Minimalist even before Govan’s appointment in 2006 was made public: such was Govan’s belief in the emotional power and experiential presence of Zumthor’s buildings, “he placed a phone call that he said would forever change the way art museums engage the public in the 21st century.” In the WSJ interview, Govan spoke enthusiastically about LACMA’s 22 acres, already anticipating the architecture to come and the architect he would hire. Zumthor and Govan were joined at the hip.

Without Govan, Zumthor would probably not have made it to a short list of candidate architects, and maybe not even onto a long list, since he has no experience designing a museum anywhere near this scale and complexity, or in fact any kind of building of similar scope. Zumthor speaks eloquently about experiencing architecture and art directly, occupying the existential moment, and he represents a valid, if somewhat anti-intellectual, single-issue position in the field. But a professional search committee simply would not have qualified him on the basis of his résumé. Under Govan, LACMA sidestepped the customary selection process with an architect selection committee that would normally issue a formal Request for Qualifications (RFQ), the first step in fielding a list of candidates. Govan even defeated his own argument for choosing Zumthor when he cited the qualifications necessary for the LACMA design commission in the KCRW interview with Frances Anderton:

When you have big civic projects that involve either very large sums of money and very technical things there are only a few firms that are qualified; and then also when you have to raise money from many, many sources you definitely have to pick an architect who has had experience and who you can find some agreement on.

Zumthor simply does not have the experience for a job of this size. He may not also have the conceptual agility.

There was no selection process, no due diligence with a committee of expert architectural advisors, merely ratification of Govan’s recommendation after Piano, Koolhaas, and the renovation possibilities were eliminated. A board playing the deal close to the chest is all the more alarming because LACMA, though working as a public/private partnership, is a county-owned subsidiary, unlike Dia or the Guggenheim: the board privatized what should have been a transparent, public process, arrogating a decision without what many observers — such as Sam Lubell — consider due public process. Govan’s success at LACMA is precisely that he has attracted the public into its precincts; the failure of the architecture selection and design process is that the same public has been marginalized. A public museum has a responsibility to its constituency.

Sitting in his Alpine valley thinking about the design, Zumthor so far has produced schematics that hardly rise above the level of an architecture school project. But then again he doesn’t have to do more. Tennent, the LACMA spokesperson, said that there is no strategic plan that supersedes the 2009 plan (which is in any event mute about this project), and so there is no strategic plan laying out reasonable expectations for when, for example, he should hand over deliverables. No new drawings or renderings were available for this article, and the only known floor plans of the current proposal are the sketchy outline of a building bridging Wilshire published in the Times many weeks ago. After four years, the absence of plans shows either an alarming lack of progress or an alarming state of secrecy.

Given the conceptual drawings we have seen so far, disturbing for their lack of specificity, there is no evidence that LACMA has developed a building program that details the museum’s space requirements and priorities such as net versus gross, adjacencies, entry, art delivery, and back of house. According to several published articles, the operative program is the brief issued for the 2001 competition, now 15 years out-of-date. And if there is a project manager to oversee the compliance with the budget, he or she has little work to do since the project is still too sketchy to confirm hard numbers. “At the moment we don’t have a detailed estimate of construction costs,” Tennent says. “We have a budget based on a calculation of planned square footage, basic structural elements, and materials.” That is not reassuring.

The slow pace of Zumthor’s ruminations puts Govan in the uncomfortable position of having to defend an architect who has very little to show for the four years and his millions in fees (the 2014 fiscal budget alone notes that he earned $1.1 million last year). More detailed, long deferred plans, though promised nearly two months ago, are now expected this September, and over the next six months, “we plan to complete the schematic design, develop a more detailed budget, and a structure for the capital campaign,” says Tennent, as part of a feasibility study. However, as long as the basic design continues to bridge Wilshire, no matter how “developed” the plans and “detailed” the budget, the whole project will remain fundamentally flawed.

As for the budget, one nationally prominent museum consultant, who like most other experts asked not to be named because of LACMA’s potential impact on their careers, fears the all-in construction figure could be somewhere between $800 and $900 million. The Board of Supervisors is under the optimistic, certainly naive impression that construction costs will be $360 million, with an additional $240 million for development, design, and preconstruction costs. That’s a disparity of about $250 million between hunches. No figure has been published for the extra cost required for bridging Wilshire and the additional foundation work required on a two-acre site.

Apparently unaware of all the missing checks and balances, the supervisors drank the Kool-Aid, much like the LACMA board, and blithely voted to issue bonds. The supervisors trustingly agreed to finance a project of indeterminate cost.

¤

The push for approvals, commitments, and fund-raising for the Zumthor project — a push that is unwisely premature given all the unresolved questions — has also overlooked the larger picture. Fairfax and Wilshire seem to be at the nexus of an historic convergence of forces. This is a marking event for Los Angeles. A city dispersed by the car is suddenly coming together on this stretch of Wilshire, catalyzing a new synergy in a new cultural district, a rare epicenter in Los Angeles’s dispersed urban field.

First there is the new LACMA under Govan, who has transformed the museum into a cool spot where you can get great panini before using your smart phone to walk into the museum.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, by Piano, will effectively extend the campus to the east, presumably making a consistent urban whole out of the architectural fabric that he already started (except for the signage of course). The lease rate for the May Company building may be painfully low, but the movie museum gives the neighborhood a strong anchor that will attract tourists and visitors. The Petersen Automotive Museum across the street from the Movie Museum is being renovated with a metal facade by Kohn Pedersen Fox of New York, and its streaming lines will soon give it a striking new physical presence based on visual flows.

As importantly, the Purple Line along Wilshire is being extended to Fairfax, and once open in 2023, it will infuse this nexus of museums with patrons.

With the three remodeled or expanded museums, the entire strip has the potential of being shaped and themed like the Dallas Arts District, each parcel a piece in a larger, cohesive ecosystem. The savvy and strategic Los Angeles developer, Wayne Ratkovich, for decades an innovator, has already transformed the 32-story 5900 Wilshire, so one major piece is in place, waiting.

Still missing in this emerging cultural district are viable plans for the Ogden and Spaulding sites: no one really knows what they should be. Hold the horses.

¤

Beyond the absence of a comprehensive strategic urban plan, the bonds are an immediate problem. Servicing the debt at $33 million a year wipes out LACMA’s two principal sources of income, the county’s $26 million annual stipend and the board’s $8 million dues contribution. The Moody report of 2013 stated the endowment relative to its debt is thin (now at $128 million), and with the new debt, the endowment will be proportionately skinnier. The 50th anniversary gala earned $5 million and a trove of donated art, but the corresponding fund-raising drive, which was quietly launched and just as quietly dropped, yielded little or nothing. Asked by Mike Boehm in the Los Angeles Times about the goal for the drive, Govan declined to give a figure: “We’re already tens of millions into our campaign for the anniversary [but] I don’t want to spoil the fun of the announcement.”

But at the gala, strangely, there was no announcement. Tennent emailed: “There was not a ‘50th anniversary Fundraising Drive.’”        

Strange.

Absent a huge endowment that is now no more than a twinkle in Govan’s eye, the rest of the income depends on the kindness of friends and the robustness of the economy. But the philanthropic picture these days has changed; LACMA no longer has a near monopoly on donors’ wallets as Los Angeles’s predominant cultural institution. Now the cultural scene is crowded: MOCA, the Hammer, the Music Center, the Colburn School, even USC and UCLA, and soon the Academy Museum next door (which will be vying for movie money), are all competing for donations and grants from the same sources.

The board cannot cavalierly dismiss out of hand the potential income from a Spaulding tower simply because the director thinks a museum works best on one floor, like a department store or mall: an apple is not an orange. Substantial bond debt unmitigated by additional income puts LACMA at financial risk going forward, especially when a new building will require, despite protestations of new energy efficiencies, increased costs of maintenance. MoMA has an endowment of more than $870 million, and yet is still allowing the development of another skyscraper on its property to raise income. As New York socialites say, you can never be too rich or too thin, and in the museum world, you can never be too well-endowed. Architecture is only one part of a much more complex picture.

American museum history is littered with the story of new buildings that cause their institutions and directors to fail. No less than New York’s Museum of Modern Art is saddled with a poorly planned $900 million addition that caused the institution to lose its soul to the escalators. Cost overruns with Santiago Calatrava’s design for the Milwaukee Art Museum destabilized the museum financially: its director left, and staff and programs were cut. After building its new home, the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan couldn’t support its debt load when the national economy headed south in 2008: it sold its building to its neighbor, MoMA, and a fine piece of architecture has been demolished. Its beauty didn’t protect it.

But museum history is also marked by triumphs, by new buildings that define a museum’s character and standard of quality, becoming in effect the largest work of art in the collection and a major asset. Some even establish precedent in architecture as a field. Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim changed contemporary cultural and architectural history, not to mention the urban history of Bilbao. His most recent triumph, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, immediately established the credibility and identity of the foundation.

Museum commissions hold tremendous risk and tremendous opportunity.

The LACMA project is off to a very worrisome start, impractical at many levels. Backroom deals have made it seem like it’s Chicago here in Los Angeles, and as stated in previous articles, the mediocre design is fundamentally, irreversibly flawed. The project is ill founded and institutionally threatening, not only architecturally wrong but also expensively wrong, costing too much in land and debt. LACMA cites the environmental sustainability of the proposal without bringing up the financial sustainability of the whole institution. That is no way to handle a spreadsheet. You can’t cash charisma at the bank. It’s time to stop, reassess, and reconsider the whole project, including basic business decisions, with a more rational process before it reaches, step by incremental step, a point of no return. The LACMA board and the board of supervisors, custodians of the public interest, need to reset their GPS to land at a different place. The project as currently conceived is setting the institution up for failure long term.

Think of the mastodons sipping at the tar pits. LACMA now risks the same fate.

¤

Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc.


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