Despite record-breaking attendance and membership in recent years, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is struggling with a series of challenges that are beginning to cloud the museum's future.
A year ago, new memberships at LACMA soared to an all-time high, thanks largely to the wildly popular "Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam" exhibition, which attracted nearly 1 million visitors during its 17-week run in the winter of 1999.
Public interest in the Van Gogh exhibition was so overwhelming that LACMA extended its run by more than a month and kept the show open 24 hours to accommodate visitors. In addition to padding LACMA's coffers, the blockbuster exhibition added approximately $120 million to the local economy, according to tourism officials.
The unprecedented commercial and critical success of the Van Gogh exhibition stands in sharp contrast to LACMA's current "Made in California: Art, Image and Identity" exhibition which, since its opening on Oct. 22, has received negative-to-lukewarm reviews.
Some critics have criticized the sprawling five-section exhibition (the largest LACMA has ever organized or hosted) for trivializing its subject. Others, like Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, have been more blunt, acerbically referring to the show as "five floors of fiasco."
But LACMA officials vigorously defend the exhibition, saying it is meant to "go beyond a standard presentation of California art to offer a revisionist view of the state and its cultural legacy."
"The subject has not been trivialized," said Kirsten Schmidt, LACMA's media associate. "We just brought in historical documents posters or brochures to help contextualize the material. It's a thematic exhibition and a wonderful way for a lot people to view the material because it lends a broader understanding of the historical context in which it was created."
Neither Ilene Susan Fort, curator of American Art and one of the core organizers of the exhibition, nor Andrea Rich, LACMA's president and director, could be reached for comment. But in a prepared statement, Rich also defended the show's revisionist content and approach. "This stimulating and in-depth presentation of California imagery will appeal to a wide-ranging audience and will offer our members and visitors an opportunity to reconsider California from a new perspective."
In addition to the "Made in California" controversy, Rich's first year as LACMA's director and president has elicited a small-but-shrill chorus of criticism. Not so much because Rich lacks administrative savvy and skills, but because she came to LACMA straight from academia, lacks an advanced degree in art history or significant curatorial training and experience credentials which some critics say are crucial to a museum's success.
A former UCLA vice chancellor and communications studies professor, Rich replaced Graham W. J. Beal in 1999 to become the museum's sixth director. Since then, she has weathered a slow-but-steady barrage of criticism for some of her curatorial and administrative decisions.
Apart from the "Made in California" criticism, Rich and other LACMA officials have come under fire for allegedly blurring the line between commerce and art during the recent "Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention" exhibition, when the LACMA gift shop stocked the very same designs of Eames furniture that were being displayed in the museum's galleries.
Further complicating matters, pieces of Eames furniture made by Herman Miller Inc., the manufacturer that sponsored the show, were also being sold in the LACMA gift shop during the Eames exhibition.
"Herman Miller had absolutely no input concerning the content of the Eames exhibition and there was nothing improper about the sponsorship money LACMA received," Schmidt said. Nevertheless, the allegations of artistic and ethical improprieties have cast a dark shadow over an otherwise well-received show.
In addition to these controversies, LACMA officials have also been criticized for emphasizing modern and contemporary art in four recent exhibitions when its mandate covers thousands of years of global art history. At the same time, the museum has been battling to retain the new memberships purchased during the Van Gogh exhibition, many of which have now lapsed.
Still, LACMA is not the only local museum that has been struggling with problems in recent years.
LACMA's challenges arise at a crucial time for Los Angeles museums, which, though enjoying unprecedented public popularity, are facing growing pressure to both educate and entertain an increasingly diverse and easily distracted audience.
For now, LACMA officials are focussing on the many new exhibitions that are slated to open at the museum this year, such as the "Road to Aztlan" exhibit which runs from May 13 through Aug. 26, and the only West Coast showing of "Winslow Homer and the Critics: Forging a National Art in the 1870s," which runs from June 10 through Sept. 9.
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