The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s quest to conspicuously suspend a steam locomotive high above its Wilshire Boulevard campus is a project that remains up in the air.
The financial hurdles are significant – and so are some pointed questions as to whether this installation is what Los Angeles wants as its newest, permanent icon. But LACMA’s president said the museum is committed to raising the money to hoist the locomotive, and superstar artist Jeff Koons told the Business Journal last week that he’s ready to start construction on the project.
“This will be a huge effort. The museum is committed to realizing this artist’s vision,” said museum President Melody Kanschat. “It will be a real bell tower for LACMA, providing a very dramatic statement.”
The museum needs to raise at least $23 million more for the project to proceed, no simple feat in a deep recession. Kanschat didn’t know when that may happen, but she said that fundraising had quietly begun.
Koons also said that he remains committed to the project and is ready to start casting the locomotive’s front end. But he acknowledged that the recession would probably slow completion until 2014, about two years later than planned.
“(The delay) is quite reasonable given the economic times that we’re in,” said Koons in a telephone interview last week from his New York studio. “We’re really at the point of going into construction.”
The installation was unveiled in February 2007 during a museum event featuring Koons, a prominent international artist famous for his oversized sculptures, several of which are on display at LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum. At the time, LACMA Director Michael Govan compared the piece to the Eiffel Tower.
The exhibit, appropriately titled “Train,” certainly would be large and, at $25 million, the most expensive piece of art ever commissioned by a museum, by one account.
Just the locomotive – a replica of a 1943 Baldwin steam engine – would be 70 feet long. It would be suspended from a crane near the museum’s entrance plaza. With a total height of 161 feet – as high as a 16-story building – the structure would be visible from the Hollywood Hills and the Santa Monica (10) Freeway. Several times daily, the working locomotive would entertain visitors by spinning its wheels and spewing out steam.
Los Angeles philanthropist and LACMA trustee Eli Broad, a major collector of Koons’ work, said he is hopeful that the museum will be able to raise money for “Train,” but unsure when that might be.
“I think Jeff is the most important sculptor and painter of his generation,” Broad said in an e-mail to the Business Journal. “I hope someday LACMA will find a way to get (this) done.”
Broad, whose $60 million donation in 2003 for the BCAM exhibit hall remains the museum’s single largest donation, did not indicate whether he would be willing to donate money for the installation.
The artwork had an auspicious beginning.
After the plans were announced, the Annenberg Foundation, a leading L.A. charitable group, donated $2 million to get the project started. The money was spent on feasibility studies and engineering plans based on detailed scans of a 1940s-era locomotive housed in Albuquerque, N.M.
However, Annenberg Chairwoman and Chief Executive Wallis Annenberg apparently has soured on the idea, saying in an October profile in Vanity Fair magazine that it would be up to other trustees to donate the remainder of the money.
“I personally think Los Angeles deserves a much finer icon than a train hanging by a crane,” she was quoted as saying.
Annenberg did not respond to several calls and a spokeswoman for the foundation would not comment for this article.
But others have wondered about the project. Since it would be so tall – so conspicuous – it would be something Angelenos would have to live with, like it or not.
“Regardless of its aesthetic merit, I think it’s the wrong project, at the wrong place, at the wrong time,” said Debra Levine, a freelance arts journalist who co-founded Save Film at LACMA, a campaign to convince the museum to restore its long-running film program.
“It’s crazy to put that kind of money into one project when multiple projects could be funded,” she continued. “If they think they got an earful on the canceling of the film program, they better buckle their seatbelts for how people are going to get crazy if they put that train up there.”
‘Write us a check’
Meanwhile, the recession has taken a huge toll on the art world, including the finances of museums, making them wary about taking on big installations. LACMA hasn’t been an exception, with its endowment falling from $254 million in 2007 to $196 million last year.
But LACMA remains committed to the project, despite reports to the contrary.
A recent article by Bloomberg News, picked up by other publications including the New York Times, reported that the work’s future was in doubt.
“We wouldn’t do it unless someone funds it. Someone has to write us a check,” one museum official was quoted as saying.
Govan was not made available for comment, and Kanschat acknowledged that the installation could not proceed unless more money was raised. But she maintained the museum is deeply committed to the project: “We are going to make this happen, though we can’t tell you exactly when.”
The museum is seeking to establish an endowment that would pay for operation and maintenance of the locomotive.
For his part, Koons said the locomotive project has continued to intrigue and stimulate him. He said he first got interested in working with cranes about a decade ago after seeing one abandoned in the Swedish countryside.
“It was like a stairway to heaven, a transcendence of matter,” he said. Later, during a train ride with his now 8-year-old son, the artist became fascinated with the power of steam. “I remember being amazed. It just felt like a life-force power.”
Eventually, Koons built a model in his New York studio. Four years ago it was visited by Broad and several other representatives of the county’s art museum, and the project sprang to life.
Despite any criticism of the work, Meg Cranston, chairwoman of the fine arts department at Westchester’s Otis College of Art and Design, believes that if the installation is completed, LACMA’s profile will be raised worldwide.
“Koons is a major international artist, and this work is profound but lighthearted,” she said. “A city needs landmarks to establish a sense of place and build its identity. There are lots of cities in the world that would want this; I think it’s a coup that it’s coming to L.A.”