Have you ever considered Los Angeles to be a cultural capital? Or do you think that our city is still like the one portrayed in the movie L.A. Story (1991), which satirizes the city’s culture or lack thereof? It has been a while since I last watched the film, but I vividly remember this exchange between the two lead characters:
Harris: Well, I was thinking of taking you on a cultural tour of L.A.
Sara: That’s the first fifteen minutes, then what?
It is perhaps not surprising that Los Angeles is often ridiculed for its lack of culture. L.A. did not make Frommer’s list for the ten best cities in the world for museums ; Washington, D.C. and New York City are the only U.S. cities on the list. Similarly, L.A. was not included in the World Cities Culture Report , which examines the cultural offering of twelve of the world’s greatest cities; New York City is the only American representative. (This study gathers evidence on 60 cultural indicators, assessing both the supply of and demand for culture, and reports on the thinking of cultural policymakers in those places.) The only list I could find with L.A. on it was Travelandleisure.com’s 2010 list of cities with the best museums: the City of Angels ranked a disappointing 23rd, well behind other major American cities.
Despite being slighted or altogether snubbed by such lists, Los Angeles is actually a museums capital. Few people know it, but L.A. has more museums per capita than any other city in the world. There are over 840 museums and art galleries in Los Angeles County, including the well-known Los Angeles County Museum of Art (the largest art museum in the western United States), the Getty Center (part of the larger J. Paul Getty Trust, the world’s wealthiest art institution), and the Museum of Contemporary Art. In addition, many art galleries are located on Gallery Row, and tens of thousands attend the monthly Downtown Art Walk there.
Personally, it was not until last year that I realized that Los Angeles has so much to offer in terms of museums. I give credit to my sister for helping me become more cultured. She was the one who encouraged me to visit places like The Met, The Guggenheim, and MoMA while I was vacationing in New York City last year. Inspired and fascinated by what I saw on this trip, I began to explore some of L.A. finest museums upon my return and even became a member of Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). While I cannot possibly list or describe all of our city’s museums here, I would like to highlight a few as examples of Los Angeles’ wonderful cultural offerings.
With 100,000 objects dating from ancient times to the present, LACMA is the largest art museum in the western U.S. The museum shares its vast collections which encompass the geographic world and virtually the entire history of art through exhibitions, public programs, and research facilities that attract nearly a million visitors annually. Two interesting exhibitions currently on view are Metropolis II and Levitated Mass. Metropolis II is an intense kinetic sculpture by Chris Burden, modeled after a fast paced, frenetic modern city, while Levitated Mass by Michael Heizer is composed of a 456-foot-long slot over which is placed a 340-ton granite megalith (“the rock”). I wrote a review on Metropolis which is available at California Planning & Development Report (CP&DR Feb. 8, 2012).
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)
MOCA is the only museum in Los Angeles devoted exclusively to contemporary art. It is responsible for the collection, presentation, interpretation, and preservation of work produced since 1940 in all media. With over 5,000 works and steadily growing, MOCA provides opportunities for education and enjoyment to thousands of visitors. A few months ago, I visited The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA to view the Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 exhibition. This large-scale, historical-thematic show dealt broadly with “Land Art,” which is generally understood as an art form that uses the earth as a medium and locates its unique works in sites far from more familiar art contexts. For my review of this exhibit, please visit Land Art: A Planners Perspective (UrbDeZine July 18, 2012). MOCA will host an upcoming exhibition that will likely appeal to most architects, designers, and planners. A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California will focus on the works of the most expressive, experimental, and avant-garde architects based in Los Angeles. Opening at the Geffen Contemporary in April 2013, this show will highlight how the early works of Frank Gehry, Franklin D. Israel, Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, and Eric Owen Moss allowed for an “expanding of possibilities” of form.
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
The Natural History Museum has amassed one of the world’s most extensive and valuable collections of natural and cultural history: over 35 million objects, some as old as 4.5 billion years. The museum also curates new, immersive exhibitions that give visitors the opportunity to explore the “big picture” of our planet and better understand different specimens and objects, the stories behind them, and the increasing interrelatedness of the natural and cultural worlds. I highly recommend all visitors spend some time at Dinosaur Hall which is one of the most extraordinary dinosaur exhibits in the world. Inside are over 300 real fossils, and 20 complete dinosaurs and ancient sea creatures. City planners and historians should also check out the scale model of Downtown Los Angeles in 1940 in the Lando Hall of California History. This model was a project of the U.S. Works Progress Administration and was built by a team of L.A. City Planning Department model makers, draftsmen, and architects.
California Science Center
An admission-free venue, the California Science Center offers permanent and changing exhibits and related educational programming through several galleries spanning more than 400,000 square feet. The Science Center has received more than 18 million visitors since opening in 1998, and provides a rare model for science learning by combining exhibits with an on-site school and the Amgen Center for Science Learning as well as a teacher professional development program. Currently on display is Endeavour: The California Story which celebrates space shuttle Endeavour’s many scientific achievements and its strong ties to California, where all the orbiters were built. The exhibit includes images of Endeavour under construction locally in Palmdale and Downey, as well as artifacts that flew into space aboard the shuttle.
Architecture and Design (A+D) Museum
A+D is the only museum in Los Angeles where exhibits of architecture and design are continuously on view. Through exhibits, symposia, multi-disciplinary projects, educational and community programming, A+D is a showcase for the work of important regional, national and international designers, providing a forum for contemporary issues in architecture, design and urbanism that are helping to shape the city. A+D was home to Rethink LA which presented bold visions of a future Los Angeles that challenged the thinking and captured the imaginations of Angelenos. This multi-media exhibition included photographs, interactive displays, short films, sound installations, and a 3-dimensional model. For my review of Rethink LA, please visit Gallery Review: Rethink/LA Depicts Creative Visions for L.A.’s Future (California Planning & Development Report (Aug. 18, 2011). An upcoming exhibition of particular interest to me (and maybe other planners too) is Never Built: Los Angeles. The show will look at visionary works that had the greatest potential to reshape the city, from buildings to master plans, grand parks and transportation proposals, any of which could have transformed both the physical reality and the collective perception of the metropolis. Never Built will be on display from March 2, 2013 to April 14, 2013.
Los Angeles deserves to be recognized as a museums capital. It is obvious that a cultural tour of the city would take longer than fifteen minutes. What I have described above is just a sampling of what the city has to offer. Angelenos and visitors alike should take advantage of the city’s unique and diverse cultural offerings by exploring these and other museums in the area. We don’t have any excuse not to go, especially when there are even “Free Museum Days.”
Metropolis II by Julie Yom
Levitated Mass, Natural History Museum, California Science Center, Ends of the Earth banner, James Rojas’ 3-dimensional model by author