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Abatement sparks confusion over LACMA demolition

DEMO-NO

Abatement sparks confusion over LACMA demolition

Abatement, the first step in a demolition process, has started at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as of January. (Carol M. Highsmith/Wikimedia)

Contrary to earlier reports elsewhere, demolition work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) hasn’t officially begun. Instead, the abatement process is underway with crews working to figure out best practices for removing asbestos and advancing environmental remediation at the site. 

According to Save LACMA, the nonprofit responsible for the recent petition to stop the project, the actual tearing down of structures has yet to take place and could still be put on hold if LACMA doesn’t come up with enough money for the controversial new design. A specific timeline to demolish the four aging buildings in question—starting with the William Pereira-designed Ahmanson, Bing, and Hammer Buildings, all constructed in 1965, and the 115,000-square-foot Art of the Americas building from 1986 by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates—has not been released. Images from local residents on Twitter show that workers have just started the gutting process by knocking a hole into the Ahmanson Building.

Rob Hollman, director of Save LACMA, told AN that abatement could take months since the laws surrounding the exposure of hazardous materials are so strict in California. “It gives us more time to work on halting or slowing down the demolition as well as the opportunity to have LACMA and the County reconsider what they’re planning to do.” 

Hollman and his team believe a key determinate of moving forward is based on a large discrepancy in how much the project will cost and how much the arts organization actually has in its pocket or can realistically fundraise.

“LACMA has been carrying a $30 million deficit,” he said. “They will need to go back to the county to ask for more funds at some point and there’s a possibility that the county will freeze those funds. We believe if enough evidence is shown and critical public sentiment continues then we will have a real opportunity to have a greater discussion about the kind of shape LACMA is in.”

Aerial view of updated LACMA proposal with winding amorphous roof in skyline
Aerial view of updated LACMA proposal (Courtesy Peter Zumthor)

In total, the megaproject is slated to cost the museum $650 million. Based on LACMA’s 990 Forms from 2012-2017, which AN accessed through GuideStar, Atelier Peter Zumthor, the lead design architect, was paid about $10.6 million already. Skidmore, Owings & Merill, brought in as consultants later in the process, were reportedly paid $10 million as well. More recently, the museum has spent $6 million in moving and storage of its assets ahead of anticipated demolition. 

“That annual cost (for storage) will balloon exponentially over the next several years as this project continues,” said Hollman. “It also doesn’t account for the over $1 million a year that LACMA pays in office space across the street and we know there will be none in the new building, nor storage. The expenses are just going to skyrocket.”

Last November, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight published findings that LACMA’s fundraising efforts for the project had stalled. He estimated that the museum, headed by director Michael Govan, likely had about $80 million left in the bank account for the building project. “Weak philanthropy,” as Knight said, isn’t the culprit when it comes to such a large financial discrepancy. 

“The new plan is to convert some of the permanent collection into temporary theme shows in a building that is actually smaller than what already exists—the Incredible Shrinking Museum—while outsourcing other parts of the LACMA collection to ill-defined future satellites to be scattered around the country. The distinctive value of encyclopedic collection, which brings global art together in one place, gets undermined. What has taken half a century of curatorial and philanthropic labor to assemble is about to be dissolved.” 

All that’s at sake sits upon a shakey system of cost estimation, according to Knight. For years, Govan and his team have been setting the fundraising goals and coming up short at the end of the tax year. In 2018, pledges came up $40 million short. This also explains why the project’s timeline keeps getting pushed back and is now set for completion in 2023. In his article, Knight argued the biggest issue is that no one in L.A. wants to pay for Govan’s “shortsighted” vision for LACMA. 

File photo of the old LACMA complex
If construction goes according to schedule, the museum’s original William Pereira-designed buildings will be demolished in early 2020. (Wikipedia Commons)

Now that more information has been revealed on the museum’s money problems, Save LACMA and critics of the project are still aiming to get a measure placed on the next Los Angeles County ballot that would allow the community to vote on the Zumthor redesign and Govan’s plan. Though it’s technically a publicly-owned project, Hollman thinks the public has barely been involved and that there’s still time for a fight. 

“We’ve never even seen the numbers related to renovating the buildings, especially the Pereira ones,” said Hollman. “These decisions have been made behind closed doors and, even though LACMA is benefiting from taxpayer dollars, there is little known about how much this is actually going to cost in the end.”

Going ahead with demolition, Hollman believes, is a “bluff to motivate” people to give more money to a sinking ship.