A Soaring Arts Scene in Los Angeles Confronts a Changing Landscape

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an open construction pit these days, surrounded by 12-foot-high wooden fences, with cranes rising across now open skies. Most of its midcentury modernist complex on Wilshire Boulevard was quietly demolished during the Covid shutdown to make way for a wavy $650 million light-filled building spanning the boulevard and designed by the architect Peter Zumthor.

LACMA, as it is known, has long been a cultural anchor for Southern California, extraordinarily popular and as responsible as any institution for helping define the region’s cultural identity. “New Galleries. More Art. Opening 2024,” promises a sign in the courtyard. But the success of its next incarnation is hardly assured as the museum seeks to redefine its mission in a smaller building whose design, if adventurous, is not universally acclaimed.

It is not only LACMA that finds itself in a moment of transition. Before the pandemic froze California in a wave of shutdowns and disease, Los Angeles had established itself as a cultural capital with its galaxy of museums, galleries and performing arts institutions, defying dated stereotypes of a superficial Hollywood with little interest in art. It now confronts uncertainty across its cultural landscape.

Los Angeles institutions share many of the same challenges that their peers around the world face in trying to recover from the pandemic: bringing back wary audiences, confronting the expense and technical challenges of making their spaces safe, and raising money from philanthropists and government in the face of competing demands in a time of economic struggle. They are in precarious financial condition after a calamitous loss of revenue forced many to lay off staff members and abandon leases on theaters and galleries.

But they face the added complications of recovering without the help of many of the old guard philanthropists who helped establish the civic and cultural scene here. That was underlined by the death last month of Eli Broad, 87, a billionaire philanthropist who played an outsized role in creating many of the region’s marquee cultural institutions, among them Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Broad, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and one of the buildings left standing at the LACMA complex.

There is cautious optimism that the region will return to its upward trajectory as the virus recedes.

“Los Angeles, like New York, is a resilient city full of entrepreneurial creative people who will get back up on the horse,” said Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum, which was also in the midst of an expansion project in Westwood when the pandemic hit.

But in many ways the challenges here are more intense and complex, in no small part because the virus hit at a time when so many things were in flux. The next steps — by cultural institutions, wealthy philanthropists, government and audiences — could well determine whether Covid will have derailed, or merely delayed, the city’s ascendance as a cultural destination.

For all its wealth, Los Angeles has always been a challenging fund-raising environment. Michael Govan, the director of LACMA, struggled to raise money to build the Zumthor building. The project turned the corner after David Geffen, 78, an entertainment magnate who has become a major arts benefactor, agreed to donate $150 million.

The death of Mr. Broad has rattled a Southern California arts world already worried about whether donors will come forward to help at a difficult time. Although he stepped down from public life in 2017, leaving the field to a new generation of benefactors, Mr. Broad had a history of being there at moments of need — getting the Walt Disney Concert Hall project back on track after it stalled in the 1990s, and offering a $30 million bailout for the Museum of Contemporary Art when it was on the verge of collapse in 2008.

Mr. Broad was a singular figure in many ways — part billionaire philanthropist, part civic bulldozer — and it’s hardly clear who can (or even should) step in to fill in the gap he left. “It’s a little scary to imagine Los Angeles without Eli Broad,” said Donna Bojarsky, the founder of Future of Cities: Los Angeles, a nonprofit civic group.

The pandemic was economically ruinous for many cultural organizations. The Los Angeles Philharmonic slashed its annual budget from $152 million to $77 million. Museums lost millions in revenues. The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills had to lay off 30 people.

“It will probably take us 12 months to three years to get back to the same level of operation,” said Rachel Fine, the executive director of the Wallis.

In addition to the challenge of philanthropy, the sheer difficulty of getting around this city — one sure sign that the recovery is at hand is that traffic has returned to roads and freeways — has long made it harder for theaters, music halls and galleries looking to draw crowds. The transit system is in the midst of a dramatic expansion, funded by a $120 billion mass transit plan. But it will be many years before it is completed.

“It’s a wonderful place to live and it’s a wonderful place to work,” said Deborah Borda, who was the president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years before becoming president of the New York Philharmonic. “And it’s truly a receptive place for the arts. But if you want be there for a 7:30 concert, you really have to leave at 6. I knew people who used to come but stopped: That would be a reason that they would give.”

Los Angeles has long been a cultural magnet, and not just for the creative classes who flocked to Hollywood. It has drawn composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, writers like Thomas Mann and Joan Didion, architects like Frank Gehry and artists like David Hockney. It took longer for the city to establish institutions: Mr. Broad, who played a key role in establishing the Museum of Contemporary Art, recalled in a 2019 essay that while Los Angeles had long been home to brilliant artists, great art schools and leading galleries, it had lacked a modern or contemporary art museum when he got there.

And pandemic or not, the next three years promise to be transformative, with a series of openings of major projects that Los Angeles officials believe will dramatically expand the cultural offerings here.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a $482 million complex designed by Renzo Piano next door to LACMA, is scheduled to open by the end of the year. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a sprawling futuristic $1 billion building being financed by George Lucas, is scheduled to open in Exposition Park in 2023.

“We are slowly climbing back,” Mr. Govan said. “I think the big institutions will survive. It’s been hard. But I can’t be anything other than optimistic.”

Chad Smith, the chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said that as recently as three weeks ago he was resigned to staging a handful of concerts this season at the Hollywood Bowl, expecting to be able to seat only 4,000 people in the 18,000-seat amphitheater. Now, the Bowl is planning 50 events and is hoping to fill 65 percent of capacity, reflecting the dramatic decline of the virus and the lifting of regulations.

This is critical because the Bowl, with its diverse mixture of outdoor programming — from Beethoven to Car Seat Headrest — is a major source of revenue for the Philharmonic.

“At this point, we see ourselves coming out of this, with these 40 or 50 concerts at the Bowl,” Mr. Smith said. “Our financial situation will improve. It has to improve. We have been relying entirely on contributions.”

The arts scene is animated here not only by big institutions but by an estimated 500 small nonprofit arts organizations. Many were forced to abandon leases on performance or exhibition spaces over the past 14 months, and some are now in danger of fading away.

“We see a lot of the arts, especially the performing arts, as being the last to recover,” said Kristin Sakoda, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture. “We know there is a long road to recovery.”

In response, a group of philanthropists has created the L.A. Arts Recovery Fund to help theaters, music halls, museums and galleries survive the transition. “For Los Angeles to regain its prowess as a leader in the arts we need to come together,” William Ahmanson, the president of the Ahmanson Foundation, said in a letter seeking contributions.

The Recovery Fund set a goal of $50 million, and has already raised $38.7 million. But even before Covid hit, cultural institutions were struggling to compete for philanthropic dollars, and there is concern that this trend will only continue.

“The demand for social services and social justice funding is just ramped up so significantly, somewhat at the expense of performing arts,” said David Bohnett, a philanthropist and member of the board of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “That was already happening. But we are coming out of this learning the value of the performing arts to social service and social justice initiatives.”

Still, arts executives are hopeful that a soaring stock market has created a new class of donors. “There is enough to support both social services and the cultural sector, and we just need more people to step forward in civic-mindedness,” Ms. Philbin said.

Mr. Geffen, an art collector, said he was hopeful younger people who were getting wealthy and buying art would eventually become donors, though arts professionals said that transition has been slow to happen in Los Angeles. “I would think that young people who are making incredible amounts of money in tech,” he said, “will be generous in the future.”

Still, he acknowledged the difficulties LACMA had faced before he wrote his $150 million check. “L.A. deserves a world class museum,” he said. “And it didn’t seem like anyone else was stepping up to the plate.”