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South L.A.’s modest bungalows can seem worlds away from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where stylish millennials snap selfies in front of Chris Burden’s iconic forest-of-lampposts sculpture, Urban Light. The city has always been an archipelago that clusters wealth in islands cut off from needier neighborhoods by an asphalt sea and rivers of traffic. A simple trip to LACMA from Watts can feel like an epic journey.
Michael Govan, the institution’s director, dreams of changing that. If the residents of L.A.’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods struggle to come to the museum, then LACMA will bring the museum to them.
Govan might just have found his perfect testing ground in a revitalized park near the corner of Slauson and Avalon. This past spring, the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks signed off on a proposal from LACMA to repair and retrofit an abandoned 84,000-square-foot warehouse at the recently restored South L.A. Wetlands Park. “That building’s been empty for 35 years; it’s a real problem for the community,” Govan says.
But where local government might see a costly cleanup job, Govan sees opportunity. After all, he made his name helping to convert a shuttered 19th-century factory in Massachusetts into Mass MoCA. (“I was like, I know what to do with that!” he recalls.) L.A.’s all-powerful city council still needs to approve the Wetlands project, but Govan’s latest vision is undoubtedly tantalizing: a new campus set apart from LACMA’s tony Hancock Park digs, with programming inspired by, and geared toward, the local community.
It’s also an ingenious solution to a perennial problem. Like all museums its size, LACMA can showcase only a small slice of its collection, with the rest housed in basements or off-site warehouses. “Why store the works in some dark corner far away?” he asks. “What if you make the museum into a larger network of spaces, rather than a single site?” Moreover, he believes such spin-offs should be set in the underserved neighborhoods of the city. Govan sees the outreach as an investment in the future. “These are vibrant communities, certainly the most diverse,” he says. “And with the youngest demographic!” Indeed, according to Govan, 9,000 schoolchildren reside within a single mile of Wetlands Park.
Like most major museums, LACMA already has off-site programs. It spends over $1 million a year on sending artists to schools, bringing mobile classrooms to distant neighborhoods, and partnering with local galleries. Some years ago, the museum invited local artists Mark Bradford and Ruben Ochoa to create an exhibition at Charles White Elementary in the immigrant-filled MacArthur Park neighborhood. Thus began an ongoing partnership with the school, which will open its art gallery this fall (outside school hours, naturally) for “A Universal History: Those of This America,” an exhibition that will place the works of local artists in dialogue with objects from LACMA’s permanent collection.
But such efforts have all been trial balloons. What Govan envisions in South L.A. is of a different nature entirely—a building and a site that the community can call its own. In fact, Govan doesn’t have any specific program in mind; the point is to see what emerges organically. LACMA just held its first public-comment session to find out what residents would like to see in the new museum. Ideas ranged from sculpture gardens and better lighting for the park to opening hours that complement, rather than conflict with, the school day. “It’s a huge opportunity on both sides,” Govan says.
The project would bring new blood and fresh points of view to inform LACMA’s overall identity, and, if it was successful, Govan sees it as a template that could be replicated throughout the city’s other far-flung, overlooked communities in East L.A., deep in the San Fernando Valley, and beyond.
A successful museum at the South L.A. site would also serve to expand the notion of what a museum can be. As Govan tells it, pushing beyond gilded, starchitect-designed spaces would invigorate arts institutions and keep them alive by transforming their mission for the 21st century.
“The history of art is long; the history of museums is short,” he says. “The idea that a museum is a box you walk into and there’s artwork inside—that’s a relatively new idea. The form of the frame is going to keep changing in ways that we can’t yet predict.” lacma.org
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