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The Impermanent Permanent-Collection Display: LACMA Follows MoMA’s Dicey Example

Memo to LA Times art critic Christopher Knight: You were mistaken when you wrote the last week that “an impermanent permanent collection”—such as what is being proposed by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for its planned Peter Zumthor-designed galleries—”is unprecedented.” It’s already happened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—a cautionary tale that should give pause to art-loving Angelenos.

In a far-ranging interview with Knight, LACMA’s director, Michael Govan, revealed details of his installation strategy for the transformed museum, where groundbreaking is expected to occur next year. (Zumthor was first engaged to rethink LACMA’s sprawling campus in 2009.)

Rendering of a proposed LACMA gallery
Atelier Peter Zumthor

Knight seems ambivalent (although cautiously optimistic) about Govan’s plan to “install the [permanent] collection as a continuing series of temporary exhibitions—crosscultural and interdisciplinary.” He should revisit the Museum of Modern Art, where the director and curators have already acted upon their belief that the permanent collection displays were too static for both curators and visitors.

Back in 2009, Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator, gave the press an early warning about her plan not merely to refresh the displays but to radically rethink their presentation.

Ann Temkin
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Back then, I wrote:

Ann informed us that about a quarter of the painting-and-sculpture galleries (which have now become more hospitable to related works in other media) will be rehung every 18 months or so. A full rotation of the galleries, she said, would take about five years. (Actually, an 18-month schedule would take six years to cycle through the entire space, but these are all approximations.)

Here’s the shocker: She said that only about 10 works—TEN WORKS!—would be considered inviolable: so important and iconic that they would always remain on view.

We felt the effects of this concept in MoMA’s year-long installation that ended in March—From the Collection: 1960-69, which displaced many masterworks from 1940-1980 that had ordinarily been arrayed on the fourth floor.

Now commandeering that fourth-floor space is the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective (to Sept. 17), which is exhilarating near the beginning, with its vibrant agglomeration of his celebrated Combines…

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…but uneven and anticlimactic at the end:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

At the same time, a permanent-collection focus show—Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction (to Aug. 13)—has taken over the third floor:

Foreground: Ruth Asawa, “Untitled,” 1955, promised gift. Right: Magadelena Abakanowicz, “Yellow Abakan,” 1967-68
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The problem with such space-hogging theme shows from the permanent collection (as distinguished from smaller focus shows) is that some artists deserve better representation than the limitations of MoMA’s collection allow. A case in point is this modest Eva Hesse:

Eva Hesse, “Untitled,” 1966
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

If, like me, you’re an avid museumgoer, you probably have certain touchstone objects that you look forward to seeing when you visit familiar institutions. In his report on the new LACMA, Knight notes that “right now, I know exactly where to go on the Ahmanson Building’s third floor to see Rembrandt’s ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ and Hendrik Goltzius’ ‘The Sleeping Danae Being Prepared to Receive Jupiter,’ two of my favorites in LACMA’s collection.”

For many, no visit to MoMA would be complete without ogling this one:

The scrum in front of van Gogh’s “Starry Night”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

So far, the van Gogh selfie-magnet is staying put. But these and many other icons (which I photographed at MoMA two weeks ago) will soon go AWOL, to be loaned (Oct. 11-Mar. 5), not to a sister museum but to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris. They are part of a 200-work survey drawn from all of MoMA’s curatorial departments, “reflecting the history of the institution and its collecting.” I’ve seen the entire (tentative) checklist and many works are relatively minor.

But there are quite a few are A-listers, including these:

Cézanne, “The Bather,” c. 1885
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Picasso, “Boy Leading a Horse,” 1905-06
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Dalí, “The Persistence of Memory,” 1931
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Duchamp, “Bicycle Wheel,” 1951 (after lost original of 1913)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I suppose the new policy of rotating many masterworks off display means that they can be shipped off, en masse, to other venues, perhaps for a hefty rental fee. (MoMA wouldn’t discuss the Vuitton financial arrangements when I asked about them.)

The museum’s coffers may be the richer, but its visitors are the poorer. With what is arguably the world’s premier collection of modern and contemporary art, MoMA used to be the place where you could best learn about and appreciate the full sweep of recent art history.

Not any more.

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