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Ahmanson Foundation cuts off gifts of art to Lacma

Foundation president cites concern over a dramatic museum redesign that could force works into storage

A rendering of the new design for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Ahmanson Foundation, a longtime leading donor to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), is suspending gifts of art to the institution out of concern that a redesign of its campus could prevent many works from being exhibited, the foundation's leader says.

William H. Ahmanson, president of the Los Angeles-based foundation and a Lacma trustee, says that he has been trying for nearly two years to obtain information from Michael Govan, the museum's director, about how the new viewing spaces will accommodate highlights of the permanent collection like gifts from the foundation. "I’m disappointed because the new building does nothing for future growth and it’s going to limit how we collect as well as those who may want to donate collections," he says.

The foundation's decision to suspend gifts was first reported by The Los Angeles Times.

In the coming weeks, four Lacma buildings will be leveled to make way for a single dramatic one-storey structure designed by the architect Peter Zumthor that will span Wilshire Boulevard. The $650m project has stirred controversy, with some critics contending that it will result in a reduction of gallery space at the museum by as much as 33 percent.

“We’ve been unable to understand after years of asking the question, how much of the European collection will be shown," Ahmanson said in a telephone interview. "I think that's because they're between a rock and a hard place because of the reduced square footage." He says he fears that many of the masterworks presented as gifts to the museum will go into storage.

Since the early 1970s, the Ahmanson Foundation has spent about $130 million on around 100 works of art for Lacma, including masterworks by such artists as Georges de La Tour, Rembrandt, Bernini, Veronese, Titian and Bellini. Ahmanson says that historically most of the works have remained on view at the museum, with the exception of 42 French oil sketches that are sensitive to light.

Reached by phone, Govan emphasised that all of the new Zumthor building's gallery space, some 110,000 sq. ft, will be devoted to exhibiting the permanent collection. Three other Lacma buildings will be partly devoted to its display as well, resulting in a total of 150,000 to 160,000 sq. ft of space dedicated to the collection, he said, adding, “That's a lot of space.”

In a somewhat controversial move, Lacma has signalled that it will host temporary thematic shows drawn from its collection in the new building, scheduled for completion in 2024, and that it will dispense with the separate exhibition spaces for different departments typical of an encyclopaedic art museum.

Georges de la Tour, The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame (around 1635-37) Gift of the Ahmanson Foundation/Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Asked what space will be allotted to the Ahmanson's gifts, Govan said: "Curators over time make decisions. Art history changes. We all trust our curators and our staff to understand and to also change when necessary with the times.’’

"The museum cares deeply" about the Ahmanson works, he adds. "The museum is immensely grateful. We have always shown especially the masterpieces—I know that it’s an out-of-fashion word, people’s favourites, whatever you want to call them—and there’s no reason to believe that curators will fundamentally change anything on that level." He added, "We have a beautiful track record."

Govan indicated that he hoped that the foundation's gifts would resume. “We are very hopeful that when the misunderstandings subside and the museum emerges, that there will be a lot of confidence," he said, “and yes, the fervent hope is that they will be excited to continue to support us.”

"I like Michael Govan as a person, but we're having a major difference when it comes to this," Ahmanson said. He said he hoped that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which approved the Zumthor building last spring and allocated funding for the project, would re-evaluate it. “Once that wrecking ball starts to hit the buildings," he said, “there's no turning back and we're stuck.”