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Thoroughly Modern Mo(CA)

A Museum Breaks the Rules


Men Seldom Make Passes at Girls Who Wear Glasses is the title of a painting recently acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (MCA). When the La Jolla branch of the museum reopens in early March after 18 months of construction, the work, by Los Angeles artist Alexis Smith, will be permanently installed near the entrance. It should tease a smile out of incoming visitors and, whether intended or not, supply a coy motto for the museum’s long-awaited expansion, its makeover, the better to woo an appreciative, adoring audience.

Gone are the days of museums as austere, academic archives, formal and remote. Though museum attendance nationwide is stable, if not growing, institutions have to provide more and different services to attract and keep audiences. Politely offering an outstretched gloved hand doesn’t do the trick when people expect to be grabbed around the waist and sent twirling.

“The museum is no longer a pompous place but should be lively,” says Robert Venturi, the architect commissioned to unstarch MCA. “It’s a place for social activities, ceremonies and community activities,” as much as for private meditation. The museum of the ’90s, now including MCA, sports a hip cafe (“What? No cappuccino? And you call this a museum?”), a gift shop as full of baubles as books, and an “orientation gallery” where you can browse the Barnes Collection, the Frick or London’s National Gallery in cyber-space while resting your feet.

While demands on museums grow and their mandates stretch, government support of the arts falters. Downsizing might seem safer than upgrading at a time like this, but if audience is the key to survival, style and sex appeal are the keys to the audience.

In 1984, when formal discussions began, the plan sounded fairly simple. The La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, as it was then called, was nearing its 50th anniversary and needed to expand—in size, scope and visibility. Trustees and the museum’s new director, Hugh Davies, agreed that for $3 million to $4 million, they could double the museum’s exhibition space and sweep up the sawdust in time for a big birthday bash in 1991.

Cut to 1996, as construction winds down and the public relations machine gears up for the March 10 public unveiling of the museum’s updated, upscale facility. The party is five years later than planned, the galleries are not much bigger than when construction started, and the work cost three times more than expected.

But Davies, now in his 13th year at the museum, is not about to be swallowed up by the chasm between where plans started and where they actually ended. It’s a triumph in itself to be so near the destination, still in possession of his dignity and a healthy pulse. The one with the cheerleader’s bounce is now the building itself, thanks to “starchitect” Venturi of the Philadelphia-based Venturi Scott Brown & Associates, working with his wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown.

The museum used to sit back quietly, a cool distance from the street, almost defiant in its cubic austerity. Now its façade is closer to passing traffic and echoes the curve of Prospect Street with a welcoming embrace. Large and small arched windows punctuate the front walls, and a broad-columned pergola frames the entrance. Set back slightly are a smaller, more delicate pergola and arched entry, reconstructed to appear as they did in 1916, when the legendary Irving Gill (1870-1936) designed the building as a home for philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps.

From the outside, the museum now has a grace and warmth that it lacked for decades, when the exterior mimicked the predominantly minimalist, sensually stingy collection of art within. Now it does more than stare back. It appears friendly, a genteel character in pleasant, familial conversation with the other Gill buildings in the neighborhood—the La Jolla Woman’s Club, La Jolla Recreation Center and the Bishop’s School. It’s ironic, though, that Venturi, an architect perched on the cutting edge, would go so far back in time to bring a building up to date.

Venturi’s projects have earned him international attention since the 1960s for being droll and decorative, awash in history but not always mindful of its rules. In recent years, he has designed the new Seattle Art Museum, added a wing to London’s National Gallery and received the Pritzker Prize, one of architecture’s highest honors.

For all his irreverence, Venturi does have his heroes, and Gill occupies a prime place in the pantheon. Gill helped usher in modernism in the United States through the geometric purity of his clear, reductive designs, boldly executed in concrete. In 1947 Venturi first saw the house Gill designed for Ellen Scripps, just six years after trustees of the fledgling Art Center in La Jolla bought it for less than $11,000 from the Scripps estate. (Scripps died in 1932.) The house had not yet undergone any of the changes that were to bury Gill’s design, and Venturi remembers it as quietly stunning, “one of the greatest buildings in the history of architecture in the United States.”

Venturi’s “visceral” response to Gill attracted Davies and his trustees when they were shopping for an architect for the museum project. Venturi’s compulsion to liberate the original façade of the house, as much out of historic responsibility as a sense of style, fell right in line with their expectations for the museum.

“We wanted a building that respectfully fit into its context in a responsible way,” Davies recalls. “We wanted something that would heal this part of the village.”

Historic preservationists uttered barely a peep in the ’50s and ’70s when local architect Robert Mosher and his partners closed up Gill’s façade and squared off his signature arches, as preferred by the museum’s board at the time. Now, champions of Gill can celebrate his revival, but purists might find Venturi’s reinterpretation of the modernist master hard to swallow.

“What we’re doing could be very easily misunderstood,” Venturi admits. “You could see us as copying history but not doing a very good job, because it’s not Gill. Our forms are analogous—we’re using the whitish color, the arches, the forms or geometry, but we’re making the openings larger. The building has a more civic scale. We’re like Gill, but we’re not like Gill.”

Davies remembers looking for an architect who would respect the building’s history rather than asserting a strong thumbprint of his own. In Venturi, he got both.

STEP INTO THE MUSEUM’S new 4,500-square-foot foyer, the Axline Court, and Venturi’s love for popular culture, his “less is a bore” sensibility and his preference for “messy vitality” over “obvious unity” all become startlingly clear. Gray “Dalmatian spots” on the terrazzo floor draw you toward the court’s centerpiece, a 27-foot-high, seven-pointed star-shaped clerestory. Large perforated, patterned, neon-edged fins radiate from the center of the star, modulating both the natural light entering the space and the sound within it. The court is the architectural equivalent of a comic-strip explosion, much like those immortalized in the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein.

“This is a time of hype sensibility,” Venturi explains. “Music is loud; skirts are above the knee. We’re accommodating that, and we’re being less delicate. We’re doing things that are ‘wrong’ in quotation marks.”

The fanfare of the Axline Court leaves no doubt that the museum got a bang for its buck. Elsewhere in the museum, past the façade and entry court, it’s harder to see where the expansion’s $9 million budget went. Approximately $3 million, Davies explains, was applied toward long-deferred maintenance of the building, improvements that are invisible and unglamorous but crucial. Many were unanticipated needs that presented themselves only when the lower level of the museum was “disemboweled” to make room for more storage, educational facilities and a larger library.

Another $500,000 or so was spent unexpectedly to bring the museum up to code with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed into law after MCA’s plans had already been drawn up. Sherwood Auditorium, where the museum holds its lectures, films and performance programs and where several other organizations stage their chamber music concerts, has been spruced up cosmetically, and the air-handling system, which used to give performers seismic shivers, has finally been unbolted from the floor of the stage.

Venturi left the layout of the galleries much as Mosher conceived it, but in several strategic spots he added windows to the west—“little intermissions,” he calls them—slivers of the most entrancing view of all: the great Pacific. Whereas Mosher answered to a director who coveted wall space and shunned natural light, Venturi and Davies agreed that windows allow spaces—and their occupants—to breathe.

The entire museum breathes better now, Davies believes. Before, he says, “it was all impacted, totally coagulated. Now it flows. We’ve accessed a lot more space, which is now public, including the garden, so I think the building will function as a much bigger building from the public’s point of view, even though in terms of new square footage it’s not a significant gain.”

Originally, plans called for an additional 10,000 square feet of gallery space, but that wing got clipped early on. When the master plan was drawn up in 1988, estimates came in at around $14 million, while campaign feasibility studies indicated that the museum could expect to raise only $7 million. Phased construction was the only answer, Davies recalls, and the gallery wing was relegated to Phase 2.

When that added gallery space was put on the back burner, however, a new pot was already simmering on the front. The Shimizu Land Corporation had offered the museum a freestanding wedge-shaped building in its America Plaza complex at Kettner and Broadway. The building, with 6,000 square feet of exhibition space, sits across from the Santa Fe depot, next to the proposed site of a new central library. MCA’s 99-year lease with Shimizu satisfied the developer’s public art requirement (stipulated by the Centre City Development Corporation) and gave the museum the solid downtown presence it had long desired. The downtown space opened in 1993.

“That’s the new wing,” Davies says with a laugh. “It just happens to be 12 miles away.”

FOR A SPELL IN 1985, museum trustees had considered moving the entire operation downtown, financed by a sale of the La Jolla facility. A group of La Jollans, as intent on keeping the museum in town as on keeping developers out, quickly mobilized to designate the area around the museum a “cultural zone,” complete with height restrictions and complex code requirements that limit the property’s resale potential. The designation became official in 1986 (by then, Davies and the museum board had committed to staying put, but did open a small, temporary annex in the Gaslamp Quarter).

Ironically, the museum has raised close to $14 million, the figure initially dismissed as unreachable. Fund-raising during a recession was no joy ride, Davies admits, but as construction schedules and budgets “drifted,” so did the museum’s campaign goals. Bucking all predictions, the museum not only raised close to the $9 million in construction costs but almost $2 million more to augment the museum’s endowment, $1.25 million to improve the downtown site and $1.75 million to cover the campaign itself and the inaugural year’s expenses.

Gifts of more than $500,000 came from Jackie and Rea Axline, Jean Black, Carolyn and Jack Farris, Frank and Susan Kockritz, the Shimizu Land Corporation, the James S. Copley Foundation, Sue and Charles Edwards and the Kresge Foundation. The campaign also got substantial funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In true Southern California fashion, the Museum of Contemporary Art hit 50 and signed up for cosmetic surgery. Now facelifted and body-toned, beautiful and a bit brassy, MCA is ready to bask in the broader possibilities opened up by its new identity. On grand reopening day, March 10, new shows open at both venues. La Jolla hosts “Continuity and Contradiction: A New Look at the Permanent Collection,” while the downtown space features photo and text works by John Baldessari, who took his first wry stabs at the art world from his hometown of National City in the late 1960s.

Davies expects that the best curatorial and educational uses for the two sites will reveal themselves gradually over the next few years. Not one to rest on his laurels, he says, “I’m still hopeful that if the building is well enough received by the community, people will support the notion of building the wing.” That amorphous if-and-when wing of galleries would cost another $10 million, Davies guesses, if built five years from now. But such plans and numbers have been known to change.
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