A Museum's Welcoming Charm

When it comes to its layout, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has always looked much like the city it calls home -- an urban sprawl. The museum, which opened in 1965 and has been expanded several times since, now consists of six structures, including a pagoda-like Japanese art pavilion and an Art Deco former department store, all strung along a 20-acre parcel in the center of the city. "It was an architectural mess," says board member Eli Broad.

That will change somewhat with a $172 million face-lift now under construction and supervised by Pritzker prize-winning architect Renzo Piano. On Jan. 26, the museum unveiled a blueprint of the new design, as well as the identity of two previously anonymous donors, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, who will have the museum's new entrance named in their honor. It's due to open next year.

For Piano, a native of Genoa, Italy, the project is a chance to put his stamp on yet another great American art institution. He's currently working on redesigns of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. His goal, he says, is to integrate the museum more with the city. "One day the people of Los Angeles will wake up and find they have a new park," he says.


  The redesign includes a huge expanse of grass that Piano hopes will one day host outdoor concerts, a new three-story structure that will be among the largest contemporary art spaces in the world, and a 20,000-square-foot glass-enclosed entrance pavilion that Piano calls a "flying carpet full of life." Inspiration for it all comes from the small towns of Piano's home country, where winding, pedestrian-friendly streets and plazas create a sense of community.

Tall and soft-spoken with a distinct Italian accent, Piano shows none of the bombast or sartorial showiness of other prominent architects. Asked what he thought was the most prominent feature of the redesign, he said it was its scale: "It's not too big to be big, not too small to be small."

Board member Lynda Resnick, who contributed $25 million with her husband, says the remodeling showcases modern thinking about how museums should look. "It's not a 19th century Robber Baron palace," she says. "It's not an intimidating structure high on a hill that you're supposed to be lessened by."


  The Resnicks are art collectors and entrepreneurs who own a string of businesses, including California farmland, Teleflora flower delivery, Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice, Fiji bottled water and the Franklin Mint, the maker of collectible tchotchkes whose role in the family fortune she downplays. "It's less than 10% of our business," she says.

Resnick says she hopes the new design will encourage people of all ethnic backgrounds to come together and enjoy the museum's treasures, which span from Pre-Columbian Peruvian textiles to a collection of Korean paintings and ceramics considered the largest outside of Seoul. Art, she says, will help Los Angeles' diverse citizenry "learn to respect each other and have a dialog for the future."

Broad, who made a fortune in home building and financial services, has contributed $50 million to the project. He says he hopes the remodeling will help make Los Angeles the contemporary art capital of the world. He notes the synergistic presence of sister institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, which he co-founded, the Armand Hammer Museum, and art schools such as the Art Center College of Design in nearby Pasadena. "We have the second-largest concentration of working artists in the world," he says. And soon, a new place to showcase their work.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.