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01.27.2009
The Good Fight
As CA museums struggle, architecture and design curators adapt

This year may well be the one that California museums wish to forget. Institutions are reeling from drastically reduced endowments: The Getty Trust in December told The Art Newspaper that its endowment has lost 25 percent since last June. Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles was just delivered perhaps the most public blow of all: donor default. Exacerbated economic woes resulted in a massive drop in donations, forcing the museum to dip into its emergency savings. Financial strain has shuttered its Geffen Contemporary space for six months, and forced the resignation of Jeremy Strick, the museum’s director since 2001. After considering a proposed merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which is partially reliant on government funds), the museum accepted a no-strings infusion of cash from arts super-patron Eli Broad, who promised to match endowment funds up to $15 million. The museum also added a CEO position, naming Charles Young, former UCLA chancellor.

The uncertainty of MOCA’s future has left many pondering the fate of architecture and design departments at museums throughout the state. But a closer look finds them faring far better than anticipated. MOCA’s architecture and design curator Brooke Hodge said she is continuing work on three planned exhibitions, as well as several major projects that are in development. The only significant change so far is to the next architecture exhibition, a survey of local firm Morphosis, which was rescheduled from its March opening to an August date. “It's too early to predict whether there will be any further impact,” she said.

The museum also recently announced a renewed agreement with the Pacific Design Center, where MOCA has had a satellite location since 2000. The space will offer expanded programming with a greater focus on architecture and design, said Hodge. "My aim is to develop an innovative and inspiring program of exhibitions that touches on important issues and developments in the design disciplines both at home and abroad,” she added. Planned for 2009 are two exhibitions exploring the intersection of craft and computation: A site-specific installation by Ball-Nogues Studio, and Boolean Valley, an installation by architect Nader Tehrani of Office dA and ceramist Adam Silverman.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s (SFMOMA) architecture and design department is in the midst of an acquisitions spree since Henry Urbach took over as curator of the department in 2006. An exhibition that closed January 4 showcased over 246 objects acquired by Urbach, as well as the decision-making process that went into each acquisition. It’s too early to know if that pace will change. If art prices go down, that might make acquisitions easier. For spring, Urbach has scheduled the first solo exhibition of the Berlin–based architecture firm J. MAYER H.

Another bright spot for architecture and design is at the Getty Research Institute in LA, which recently announced the formation of a design and architecture department. Headed by Wim de Wit and associate curator Christopher James Alexander, the department will curate the Getty’s already impressive holdings. These include Julius Shulman’s archives and the papers of architects John Lautner, Pierre Koenig, Ray Kappe, Daniel Libeskind, and Philip Johnson, as well as those of critics like Reyner Banham and unique acquisitions like the Bauhaus Papers and archives of the International Design Conference at Aspen. The first exhibition planned under de Wit’s tenure will unite many of these: a survey of California architecture from 1940-1990, tentatively planned for 2013 or 2014.

De Wit will also launch a consortium for architects to share best practices, including practical information about the economy. “These will be to meet and learn more about each other’s works and see how we can help each other,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to more collaborations like the symposium organized in conjunction with the Hammer Museum’s John Lautner show last fall.

While museums are busy saving themselves, chances are there will be less outreach to rescue endangered mid-century modern houses. A few years ago Michael Govan, then newly named director of LACMA, bandied about an interest in acquiring some mid-century architecture to help preserve it, a groundbreaking move. While LACMA has yet to deliver on such a promise, hope may lie in the strength and agility of smaller institutions: The LA-based MAK Center just added a third house to its roster, the Fitzpatrick-Leland House, designed by R.M. Schindler.

Alissa Walker