Culture Club: Los Angeles is Museum Mecca

Culture Club: Los Angeles is Museum Mecca

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will take over a spot in Exposition Park where USC fans previously enjoyed tailgating before Trojans games. 

“Our site used to be asphalt,” said museum director and Chief Executive Sandra Jackson-Dumont of the planned 300,000-square-foot space that will be home to a vast collection of 100,000 photographs, book illustrations, paintings and comic book drawings. 

Situated across from USC’s campus and adjacent to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Natural History Museum, the institution was funded by “Star Wars” filmmaker George Lucas and his wife, Mellody Hobson, co-chief executive of the asset management firm Ariel Investments. 

The main building on the 11-acre campus was designed by Ma Yanson of MAD Architects, whose West Coast offices are based in Santa Monica, with Michael Siegel of Stantec acting as executive architect. The structure, which would look at home in any of Lucas’s sci-fi sagas, will feature a surface made of more than 1,500 curved fiberglass-reinforced polymer panels. The building’s main 86,000-square-foot gallery space on the fourth floor is as big as one-and-a-half football fields.

“It’s going to be an incredible facility,” said Jackson-Dumont. “With classrooms, theaters, a restaurant … we’re rethinking how museums connect to the community.”

The campus has been constructed with an eye on sustainability, and the surface on the roof of the main building has more than 24,000 square feet of photovoltaic cells that will provide the building with additional energy. Other sustainable measures in the building include displacement air for optimal space conditioning and LED lighting throughout. 

The campus park and gardens were designed by Mia Lehrer of Studio-MLA, based in Boyle Heights. The green space will offer more than 200 new trees, an amphitheater and a pedestrian bridge with programs for museum goers and the local community. On the northwest corner of the campus a waterfall-like fountain that will act as renewable cooling for the main building. The falling water will connect with the building’s geothermal system of 765 wells and 113 miles of piping. 

The project has partnered with local unions and work development nonprofits to employ more than 4,200 workers, more than 60% of whom live in Los Angeles County. 

The museum is expected to open in 2025, seven years after breaking ground. The opening has been pushed twice. It isn’t clear how the delays have affected the cost of the building, but Lucas has pledged $1 billion for construction of the project. 

Admission fees are still under consideration, said Jackson-Dumont, who noted that the museum leadership wants the space to be accessible to all Angelenos. 

“Our first priority is Los Angeles,” she said. “We’re committed to a rising tide lifting all boats.


The Hammer Museum has been under construction for more than two decades, but you might not even have noticed. 

Tucked into a Westwood office building along the Wilshire Corridor, the Hammer has undergone a slow transformation that its leadership hopes will welcome a larger audience in Los Angeles and beyond. 

“This latest phase did a lot for awareness and presence,” Scott Tennant, chief communications officer at the Hammer, said. 

In March, the Hammer wrapped up its $90 million renovation project, which includes street-facing art. 

“We now have large windows to see into the lobby,” said Tennant. “There is also a large outdoor sculpture, ‘Oracle.’” 

A redesigned entrance now guides visitors into a spacious lobby that will feature regularly changing art installations. The museum has a new exhibition gallery built in a former City National Bank site, which added 5,600 square feet of gallery space and extended the museum’s ground floor to span an entire block. Admission to all the museum’s exhibitions and public programs remains free and open to the public.

“We are thrilled to welcome everyone to a reimagined Hammer,” Museum Director Ann Philbin said 

Los Feliz-based Michael Maltzan Architecture served as the project architect on the renovations, with downtown-based MATT Construction taking on the role of contractor. The renovations added 10,120 square feet of gallery space, upping the museum to 27,875 total square feet of gallery space. 

“It’s beyond gratifying to see these new spaces filled with powerful artworks spanning an entire city block of Wilshire Boulevard, inviting the community into the museum,” Philbin said in March upon completion of the renovations.  “It’s been a joy to work so closely with Michael Maltzan all these years and to celebrate this moment together.”

The Hammer has gone from 35 to 100 full-time employees, and its endowment increased from $35 million to more than $125 million, according to the New York Times. The institution has also collected more than 4,000 pieces of contemporary art during that time. 

During its transformation, the museum added Lulu, a restaurant that is now open for lunch and dinner. The eatery was conceived by farm-to-table advocate Alice Waters and Chef David Tanis. The institution also hosts more than 300 programs throughout the year – including readings, lectures, film screenings, music performances and workshops for families.

“We have a strong commitment to Los Angeles artists,” said Tennant. “We have a biannual `Made in LA’ event and those artists go on to incredible things.”

Despite many renovations going on at multiple museums around the city, Tennant noted that “the museums aren’t competitive with each other.” 

“The success of one museum is success for all of us,” he said. “Our competition is the beach and Disneyland.” 


In October, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art revealed that construction of its new David Geffen Galleries was 50% complete. The building, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor, will serve as the new home for the museum’s permanent collection.

Renovations and construction at the museum, which began in 2020, has included the installing 1,500 deep foundation piles and seismic base insulators, in addition to foundations, basements and above-grade walls and decks. 

LACMA said it has reached $736 million in its fundraising campaign, only $14 million shy of its original goal for its renovations. Los Angeles County contributed $125 million of that total, with the remainder paid for by private donations. The county will own the David Geffen Galleries and receive a 4:1 match for its contribution.  

The project is expected to generate $1.2 billion in output and $698 million in value added for the Los Angeles County area and create 9,370 jobs both directly and indirectly. The renovation is projected to generate $182 million in local, state and federal taxes. Construction is expected to be completed in late 2024.

The renovations have faced delays and some criticism, including from Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work calling into question the overhaul of the space. The plans were initially for a total of 387,500 square feet of space, which was reduced to 347,500 square feet. 

“LACMA has become the Incredible Shrinking Museum,” Knight wrote. “I couldn’t name another art museum anywhere that has ever raised hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on reducing its collection space.”

The museum has explained that it had to replace some of its aging buildings due to serious structural issues and problems with plumbing, sewage, lack of seismic isolation and methane mitigation, defunct waterproofing and leaks. 

LACMA has also defended its horizontal design, claiming it offers an “egalitarian experience of LACMA’s diverse collections.” 

“There is intentionally no designated path through any of the galleries,” Michael Govan, LACMA’s chief executive and Wallis Annenberg director, said. “The new building has an elevated gallery level that spans Wilshire Boulevard in order to open 3.5 acres of new park and outdoor space for visitors. 

“The glass-and-concrete structure curves freely across the boulevard and is supported at ground level by seven art towers that provide park level spaces for education and public programs, a 300-seat theater, retail and restaurants, all seamlessly integrated with the park. The new 3.5 acres of public outdoor space will be an invaluable resource in our dense urban community and will become home to new sculptures.”

The new building will have 110,000 square feet of gallery space, down from the 120,000-square-feet the museum had previously. The construction cost is approximately $1,400 per square foot, which the museum states is at the low end of the range for new museum construction. 

And for Angelenos concerned about the Urban Light installation, the iconic street lamps along Wilshire, the museum says that the famous piece will stay in place. 


The La Brea Tar Pits is the only active excavation site in a major city, and now the museum is preparing it for the next half-century of research and public service.

Many Angelenos may have driven past the Mid-Wilshire site and seen the iconic mammoth sinking in tar. The cultural attraction opened to the public in 1977 as a destination to “connect Earth’s past, present and future, including what lies ahead as climate and habitats continue to change,” said Lori Bettison-Varga, president and director of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County.

Bettison-Varga oversees the La Brea Tar Pits, in addition to the Exposition Park-based Natural History Museum and the Newhall-based William S. Hart Museum.

“From the start of the La Brea Tar Pits reimagining project, NHMLAC has created an open and inclusive process, which has included public listening sessions and a rigorous process of study, research, information collection, testing and analysis,” said Bettison-Varga.

While the museum was initially built to display excavated fossils, the reimagined space will have more room to showcase the number of specimens pulled from the location, in addition to featuring the scientific research that occurs on site.

The upgrades include a new exhibition building, a visible fossil lab, outdoor classroom at excavation Pit 91, rooftop terrace, shaded entryway and an expanded central green for public recreation. The goal is to improve access and engagement with the La Brea Tar Pits.

“We are reimagining the gateway to the Ice Age, a living laboratory for the local and global community to discover groundbreaking research and watch excavators dig for plant and animal fossils trapped in the tar pits 10,000 to 50,000 years ago, and connect those stories to contemporary life on Earth,” said Bettison-Varga.

In 2019, the museum held a public architectural competition, and through a series of public meetings, online surveys and onsite exhibits selected New York City-based architectural firm Weiss/Manfredi to create the master plan for the institution’s new design. Dubbed “Loops and Lenses,” the design concept includes a 1 kilometer pedestrian path in the shape of a double helix, outdoor recreational and learning spaces, renovations to the current Page Museum building and an expansion of a second structure to house exhibitions and programming spaces.

The project is expected to be a multiyear process of master planning, design and public review before construction begins. The budget for the upgrades is still under review. According to museum leadership, the project has received support from Los Angeles County and the state of California during the current early stage. The plan is currently going through a county-led public environmental review process. Construction and completion timing are yet to be determined.

“There is global interest in the iconic La Brea Tar Pits,” said Bettison-Varga. “Our mission to inspire public passion for and trust in science as the foundation for understanding our natural and cultural worlds has never been more important.”

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