The Marciano Museum of Art, LA’s newest site for modern and contemporary art - Interview with NiC

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©Larry Underhill

LOS ANGELES – As announced in the last issue of NiC, participants to the IIC Los Angeles Congress will be offered an exclusive visit to Los Angeles’ newest site for modern and contemporary art – the Marciano Museum of Art.
Although the marble clad Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, designed by Millard Sheets, has been one of the landmark historic structures along the busy Wilshire Blvd of Los Angeles since its construction in 1961, it had been empty for a number of decades, and suffered from neglect for some years before that.
During the forthcoming IIC World Congress in Los Angeles (September 12th - 16th) delegates who sign up for a tour of the building will be treated to an exclusive look at one of Los Angeles’ newest museums of contemporary art. This will take place well before the collection formally opens to the public.
IIC met up with Jamie Goldblatt Manné (JGM), Director of the Marciano Art Foundation, and Tatyana Thompson (TT), a Los Angeles based conservator of paintings who has worked with the Foundation for some years, to ask them what the major concerns and challenges were in planning this extraordinary addition to the cultural landscape of Los Angeles.
IIC: When you first saw the Temple building what were your concerns regarding bringing such a massive structure up to museum standards?
JGM: Bringing the building up to museum standards was a major concern when we first visited the space. Having sat vacant for many years, the building was in no shape to house artworks, or people for that matter. With such a large building (110,000 sq. ft.), one that was constructed in the late 1950’s no less, we knew that it would be a challenge to control the environment throughout such a vast space. The original HVAC system had to be replaced and doing this allowed us to put into place temperature and humidity controls that could accommodate the new use of the building, as an exhibition space for contemporary art.
Despite of all these challenges we were able to envision the potential of what a space like this could offer and how it could radically change the contemporary art landscape in Los Angeles by giving artists and curators the opportunity to show work in a non-traditional setting with very few spatial limitations.

IIC: What were some of the specific challenges involved in adapting this building?
JGM: With any pre-existing structure, there are going to be difficult challenges in terms of bringing the building “up to date.” From the beginning, we were adamant about making as few changes to the exterior of the building as possible. We wanted to keep Millard Sheets’ beautiful and unique design intact and honor that part of our city’s history. It was really the inside of the building that required more attention and careful planning. The entire building had to be abated, the roof had to be replaced and, as previously mentioned, a brand new HVAC system was installed.
TT: Several concerns came to mind regarding the challenges of renovating a historic building into a new space for contemporary art. First, protection of the existing in situ works of art during the construction and the safe de-installation of the works should they be removed. This was no small challenge since there were several monumental and historic murals completed by Millard Sheets himself. Secondly, there were a number of standard concerns such as: climate control, appropriate light levels, eventual onsite storage, mitigation of any air pollution, protection of the works of art while on exhibition. The museum will be primarily exhibiting contemporary works of art which present a particular set of challenges including often complex and unconventional use of materials. These works can be quite vulnerable to damage from light, impact and environmental fluctuations, and the complexity of installations present unique challenges. Additionally, there was a clear need to plan for the interface of the collection with the public.
I must say that the project has been guided by a very diligent, responsive and informed staff and these issues have been addressed.
JGM: Despite all of the necessary improvements made to the building, the original layout actually lent itself quite nicely to the new purpose of the space, with many of our gallery spaces placed right over the previous floor plan.
For example, when we first sought to purchase the building from the Masons, the city allowed us to purchase it with one caveat: that we completely remove
the 1,800-seat theatre on the ground floor due to inadequate parking (there are approximately 200 parking spots on sight).This naturally led us to convert the theatre into a large, and for LA, quite unique gallery space well suited for showing monumental works and installations.

IIC: And what were your general guidelines given the nature of the collection?
JGM: The artworks in the collection consist of a wide variety of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, film, installation and performance. Keeping in mind the variety of media and the various requirements each medium demands, we needed to make sure each space was as flexible as possible. Contemporary art is constantly moving in all different directions at an accelerated rate. Size is no longer a concern or restraint for many artists and we wanted the Foundation to be able to accommodate developments in how artists work today and well into the future. We made sure to address logistical concerns as much as possible before we went into the construction period so as to avoid any future limitations with regards to weight loads and height clearances.

IIC: How are you guided?
JGM: We visit as many galleries, museums and foundations as possible and see what others are doing successfully and where their approaches could be improved. Luckily, we have access to many of the best installers, conservators and exhibition coordinators at each of these types of venues. Their guidance and expertise has been crucial in terms of helping us understand all the small yet crucial details that need to be considered when planning an exhibition space for contemporary art. Our architect, Kulapat Yantrasast of Why Architecture, is also quite familiar with the specific needs of contemporary art spaces due to his prior projects. His knowledge has helped us determine the most efficient and thorough way of making sure the artworks will be kept safe and stable for generations to come.
TT: Having consulted on the adaptive reuse of historic buildings into museums for both MOCA and The Broad in the mid-1980s, I was familiar with the challenges the Foundation would face. It was a privilege to provide guidance regarding conservation standards for the exhibition, storage and handling of contemporary art in such an iconic and historic Los Angeles building.

IIC: We understand that the museum will have a very aggressive and positive approach to supporting the cultural life of Los Angeles. Certainly a big part of that will be making the collection available to the public. The benefits are self-evident, but what are your concerns and how do you feel they balance out with the benefits?
JGM: Yes, we hope that the Marciano Art Foundation and sharing the Collection with the public will be a valued addition to the burgeoning and ever-expanding contemporary art community in Los Angeles. The Foundation will be free and open to anyone who wishes to visit by reserving a time online. In addition to staging rotating shows of the Collection with visiting curators, we also plan to host artist projects, visiting exhibitions and site-specific installations inspired by the Collection. In addition to this programming, we also plan to engage the community by providing a bookstore, workshops, lectures and school visits for local students. Our primary concerns are the safety of the artwork and the safety of our visitors – all other concerns come after that. We will build out our operations program (i.e. maximum number of visitors allowed in the Foundation at a given time, etc.) according to what we deem is safest for both the art and our guests.

Join us in Los Angeles and be a guest of the Maurice and Paul Marciano Art Foundation. Visit this and the many other world class collections of contemporary art in one of the most exciting cities in North America, Los Angeles. Go to https://www.iiconservation.org/congress/2016losangeles and join us in LOS ANGELES!