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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

New LACMA a Tall Order for Money Patrons

New LACMA a Tall Order for Money Patrons

By LAURENCE DARMIENTO and MICHAEL STREMFEL

Staff Reporters





Why?

That’s the question that comes to mind following the decision last week by the board of the Los Angeles County Art Museum to essentially demolish its existing campus and start over, with the exception of a handful of buildings.

Yes, the campus will be designed by Rem Koolhaas, a world renowned architect whose design could well become a signature building for L.A., not unlike the new Disney Concert Hall and Getty Center.

But raising upwards of $300 million or more within a reasonable time frame, and during a period of staunch fiscal conservatism, represents a huge challenge for LACMA officials.

And in making way for Koolhaus’ innovative superstructure, which features a single three-level building topped by a translucent tent-like roof, the board has decided to not only tear down the three original buildings dating back to 1965 but even the Robert O. Anderson Building, completed in 1986. (Left standing will be a parking garage, the 1988 Pavilion for Japanese Art and the former May Co. building purchased in 1994.)

Ironically, Koolhaas’ knockdown and rebuild plan is estimated to cost a bit less than the competing proposal by finalist Jean Nouvel, which called for rehabbing the existing buildings.

Koolhaas’ construction estimate is $210 million, while Nouvel’s was $220 million to $230 million. Those estimates are only for construction costs and do not include the “soft” costs of architectural, engineering, consulting and project management fees, landscaping and interior build-out of permanent exhibition spaces.

“It is a daunting task to raise that kind of money in this environment,” said Michael Speaks, an architectural expert and director of post-graduate program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

But numerous sources familiar with such undertakings agreed that raising money for a from-scratch architectural statement by the world-renowned Koolhaas will be far easier than raising money for a mere rehab by the lesser-known Nouvel.

“By making the boldest possible move, they would have a better chance of reaching their (fundraising) goal, instead of proceeding in a more conservative way,” said Richard Weinstein, professor of architecture at UCLA.

Better for fundraising

Even the local architect chosen to guide Nouvel’s team, Olivier Touraine, conceded that Koolhaas’ project would be a sexier draw for contributors.

“The approach of the winner was probably more appropriate from the aspect of fundraising,” said Touraine, principal of Venice-based Touraine + Richmond. “Psychologically, it’s easier to focus energy and raise money for one major move than for a fragmented and discreet project, like the one we were proposing.”

Also contributing to the decision is that the LACMA project is emerging at a time when other major cultural landmarks, all designed by world-renowned architects, are being erected in Los Angeles, most notably Disney Concert Hall and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Arguably no force gave Koolhaas more of an edge than being the preferred choice of billionaire Eli Broad, a LACMA board member who has pledged to be a major contributor to the Koolhaas project.

“I think he’s the brightest architect in the world today,” raved Broad.

Another factor that gave Koolhaas the edge, several sources close to the process said, was his considerable charisma and familiarity with American culture.

“His time here dates back to the ’70s, when he was a student living and writing about New York,” said one member of the Koolhaas team. “He has complete mastery of the English language and a solid grasp on American culture. That made for a greater ability to communicate with not only Eli, but with (LACMA President) Andrea Rich and the other board members.”

As for Nouvel, “his English is pretty halting,” the architect said.

Touraine added that Broad may have opted for Koolhaas’ approach because it represents a from-scratch signature piece of modern art that Broad could, in effect, add to his collection.

“Eli Broad would be much more interested in collecting a piece of Koolhaus rather than a piece of Nouvel,” Touraine said. “The collector aspect of this is very strong.”

Broad declined to specify how much he would give. But he did say: “Between my gift and the other trustees, (we have) about a third of the money right now.”

That level of contribution obviously gave Broad serious sway in the decision, leading to widespread speculation that his preference alone carried the decision.

“As a European, I feel strange that LACMA would have followed the will of one person, as powerful as this person is,” said Touraine, a French native. “If it’s true, I think it’s a pathetic commentary on the state of public cultural institutions.”

‘It became a tidal wave’

Broad and Rich both insisted the decision was not merely Broad’s. “They voted unanimously for Koolhaas,” said Broad, describing the board’s action.

“It became a tidal wave, a movement of enthusiasm,” added Rich.

But what about LACMA’s pre-existing donors, who put up multiple millions to have their names emblazoned on the buildings now slated to be razed?

Broad said that “Bob Ahmanson has been talked to and he does not have a problem with it.”

Robert Ahmanson is president of the Ahmanson Foundation, and the family’s name graces LACMA’s largest building.

Robert Ahmanson did not return a phone call last week, and the family’s matriarch, Caroline Ahmanson, declined comment. But another family member, Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., son and namesake of the family patriarch, was less than pleased upon learning that his family’s building will be demolished.

“I just heard about this two hours ago,” he said. “My question is, ‘Why?’ If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If (Koolhaas) were planning an Arts & Crafts-style building, I would be thrilled, but I don’t think that’s his style.”

Ahmanson said his family’s foundation has a regularly scheduled meeting in February, and that the LACMA project would undoubtedly be an issue.

Rich said she was disturbed by the prospect of demolishing the Roy O. Anderson Building, which is only 15 years old. But ultimately, Atlantic Richfield Co., the main contributor (Anderson was long-time CEO of Arco) said knocking the building down would be OK if the company, which has since been acquired by British Petroleum, received some recognition in the new structure.

“It was very generous of them,” Rich said.

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