PRINT October 1973


The Long Beach Museum of Art is to build an entirely new structure in the heart of the city, with funds and land already available. Estimated cost for the new museum is from 14 million to $6 million. It is expected that officials will name the architectural firm by June of 1973. Early this year Museum Director Jan von Adlmann and a representative for the City of Long Beach will visit some eight to ten new institutions in the interest of obtaining the best in concepts of the nation’s finest new museums. Some of the museums the pair expect to visit are the Everson Museum, the Milwaukee Art Center, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the University Art Museum, Berkeley, California.
Press Release, February, 1973
Long Beach Museum of Art

THE DEHYDRATION OF THE SOUTHERN California art world is not an evaporation of physical facilities (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, Newport Harbor Art Museum, University of California at Los Angeles Galleries, and several other college spaces), but rather dissipated or flagging energy; the last thing we need is another shiny shell. (What might seem like a local problem is only too easily extended. The trouble with art patronage outside the Eastern seaboard lies not with the easy stuff—fanfare and new hardware, new executive appointments and fund-raising campaigns—but with the hard things—catalogued shows of difficult art, collection of same, hard-nosed criticism of same, and circulation of art and artists into the greater intellectual community.)

Long Beach is a former big Navy town of about a half-million souls located 30 miles south of Los Angeles; it boasts its own newspaper and squat skyline, but no television station. Any sense of city is debilitated by the Southern California megalopolis: to get from L.A. to Long Beach you slide into a freeway ditch and roar 25 minutes through an unrelieved sea of pastel, single-story stucco mortgage obligations. When you exit at Long Beach you’re in the fringe of used-to-be, not in the midst of new. Although heavily dosed with plump, white, retired Midwesterners (jokers call it “Iowa’s largest seaport”), Long Beach comprises acres of camper-infested suburbs and a good-sized black ghetto, the best pool of athletic talent in the region. It’s in a funny position—neither sufficiently removed from the specter of Los Angeles to manifest its own identity, nor approximate enough (like Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, or Pasadena) to participate in the cultural ambience of smogtown. But it has an art museum, a refurbished, large wooden bungalow, carriage house, and grounds on a bluff overlooking the sunbathers and drilling islands. When I worked there as a curator, from 1964–65, we (the director, a secretary, a custodian, a part-time “aide,” and a handful of volunteer booksellers) mounted impoverished, but respectable little shows documenting the second skin of Southern California “contemporary art” (the specialization of most small museums with no budget for collecting). Its most valuable service was the last surviving regional “annual,” one of those open, competitive safety valves for mittelkunstlers. Since those days The Long Beach Museum of Art (LBMA) has fared about the same, with an occasional hotshot exhibition. Unlike sister institutions with a few thousand mildly disinterested citizens a year ambling through, LBMA has been sitting around for several years under two previous directors and a new one while the city fathers tried to talk them into building a new plant. Questions arise: Does a city the size and situation of Long Beach need a new contemporary art museum? Does the Los Angeles (area) art scene need one?

America (perhaps not alone) suffers from a tendency to justify through hardware. A couple of years from now, no matter what the overruns, dwindling attendance, and dissatisfaction with the exhibition program, a few people—that “middle ring” between the artists and the public (other art-world professionals, Jaycees, social lions, collectors, faculty, auxiliary ladies, and some merchants)—will take comfort in the sight of a clean facade, the mechanical cooling breeze of air conditioners, and the smooth hiss of aluminum and glass doors. It may seem ungrateful if not entirely tasteless to the “middle ring” that anyonein the art world could not want another museum: another set of openings, parties, young artist shows, fliers, catalogues, press releases, and gossip. But what good will it do, given the already gossamer thin support system? Long Beach’s booster problems aside (real enough, but the art world can’t handle ’em), is it reasonable to assume significant contemporary art, by the time the building’s finished, will still consist of painting, sculpture, and a fringe of other stuff? If so, is it reasonable to construct another white-walled mausoleum for oversize stock certificates? (One thing even alkyd-enamel formalists must admit, that day is done; painting and sculpture per se are henceforth going to be only two flowers, however scented, in a bouquet of pluralism. Artists, if we aspire to treat them as artists, will have to be allowed to do things entirely inappropriate to even such gritty publicly sponsored galleries as that of the University of California at Berkeley.)

A museum directors’ colloquium, sponsored by LBMA, aboard the retired Queen Mary in February, 1973, was an unabashed booster session; five heads of post-1965 buildings were flown in to testify before the locals on the virtues (esoteric and exoteric) of a new museum, to lay on a little inside poop about architects, fund-raising, and maintenance. The grand ballroom of this aging queen is just too faded-elegant for a socialist meeting hall, but you can smell a heritage of chicken à la king seeping from the rich, rounded, paneled walls; the majority of the audience, by unscientific survey, consisted of overdressed corporate wives escorted by lots of burgundy doubleknit slacks, blazers, and white shoes. The mentality of the whole business is apparent in a reply by von Adlmann to Tom Marioni, San Francisco artist and director of his own brainchild, the Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA), who’d gotten wind of the event:

We would be delighted to ask you to talk at some future date at the Long Beach Museum concerning the interest of your particular museum. However, the “underground” museum of which we spoke in our news release was in reference to the literally underground museum designed by Philip Johnson in Connecticut. We were not, therefore, speaking of such rarefied developments as conceptual museums or “the underground.” Perhaps our news release was misleading in this regard.1

The panelists (William Agee of Pasadena, Tracy Atkinson of Milwaukee, Cathleen Gallander of Corpus Christi, James Harithas of Syracuse, and Peter Selz from Berkeley) acquitted themselves succinctly if not enthusiastically, ’fessing up readily to the difficulties of choosing architects, assuaging trustees, and most of all, raising enough dough at the outset for building, maintenance, staff, program, etc. If the luminaries seemed to convey anything through “vibes,” it was something like, “We’ll be glad to let you in on the triumphs and trauma of giving birth to museums, but that doesn’t mean you oughta go out and do it.” A frisson you could feel in your shoes rippled through the crowd when word tumbled from the podium that you need a million bucks for a postconstruction first year. But LBMA saw only onward and upward:

The new building, if it is a genuine artistic monument, will serve as a spur to local architects and architecture students, as well as to the construction of further great architecture in the city. The Solomonic proportions of this decision are frightening, to say the least. Nonetheless, your Museum staff is determined to provide the City of Long Beach with its first great public architectural monument. Your insistence on quality will assist us in making our decision.2

Two reasons for the insistence on building are: first, habit, a hangover from the ’60s culture boom and loose money, when the simultaneous answer to culture and hipness was a gleaming public gallery adorned with field paintings; second, that new art museums are built for neither artists (as ideal showing spaces) nor the general public (a plebiscite would be fatal), but for that “middle ring.” This constituency, of course, is also a prime source of income:

. . . and I am sure it will be very clear here, that the money is available, and there are a lot more people that are passionate about it once the idea is ambitious enough! But it is also a fabulous opportunity, an absolutely crucial opportunity, for you to raise a little bit more, so that those first few years, when you are trying to find your feet, when a museum is trying to get itself together, it can continue to operate.3

Long Beach’s projected museum addresses itself inevitably to this audience; it’s loosely conceived as part of a civic center whose further purpose is a shot in the arm for a low pressure economic pocket. Given the dubious assumption that a freshly minted contemporary art building will even mildly elevate the citizenry as a whole, will it accomplish anything serious vis-a-vis its chosen expertise, contemporary art, that will come close to justifying the time, money, and energy spent on it? Probably not.

How do I know Long Beach aims at neo-Pauhaus respectability? If it’s not viscerally obvious that the city fathers would allow nothing less salient than, say, an imitation of Corpus Christi’s Philip Johnson treasure house, you taste it in the promotional rhetoric:

The Art Museum building should be an exceptional work of art itself, being designed to house works of art. . . . The museum building offers an unsurpassed opportunity for a community to raise its cultural image and attractiveness to tourism. (The Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi—a city of 200,000—has garnered 70,000 visitors in its first year!) The assembling of a Permanent Collection of Oriental and American art of the first order will be another task undertaken by your staff in the coming months and years. It is perhaps needless to point out that attracting distinguished collections to this museum will be immeasurably easier if the building itself is a “working work of art.”4

Corpus Christi, of course, is 200 miles off any beaten track and south Texans have nowhere else in the city to go for art when and/or if they want it; moreover, what attracts the visitors in the first year is the novelty of the building. After that it’s downhill all the way.

In the midst of cooperative flack concerning the necessity of a new building (resulting in the dubious conclusion that “the ultimate choice of the architect should be left to the museum director and staff, since it is they who will not only work with the firm during the designing of the building, but also will be charged with the developing of programs in the new building, as well as become its ”working inhabitants“—for how long), a voice pipes up: ”As a matter of fact, being in the old building yesterday, I hoped very, very much that it could be maintained. It is a marvelous, marvelous building."5 True. And true, too, the old building is a creaking converted residence. But it’s the kind of real-world (albeit choppy) space which welcomes art. I’ve a hunch that should a new building result there’ll be considerable hindsight bemoaning not remodeling the older one at a tenth the cost, just as there’s considerable I-told-you-so sentiment that the old Pasadena museum should have been rewalled, rewired, and refloored, with a relatively inexpensive administrative office block added on the parking lot next door.

In answer to the questions 1) “is building a new museum the best thing which can be done with the money” and 2) . . . “what about converting existing commercial/industrial plants,”6 von Adlmann replied:

The Long Beach Museum of Art is to be constructed under the Joint Powers agreement—that is, it will be jointly financed by the City of Long Beach and the State of California. Such monies may only be used for construction and, therefore, building a new museum is the only thing which can be done with the money.7

Ignoring for a moment the bureaucratic logic (spend it ’cuz you’ve got it according to a priori, irrelevant rules), you notice it dovetails ever so sweetly with a decidedly unrecyclable outlook of architects on new versus refurbished quarters which resembles, if you will, the stance of trial lawyers on no-fault car insurance. I.M. Pei speaks:

How do you feel about “preventative architecture,” that is, the concept of using vacant buildings or structures with some architectural value as museums?

This is a separate problem altogether. I’m in favor of preserving works of architecture of the past that have merit. Some works of architecture may not be masterpieces but do represent an era. But I don’t feel that it is necessarily right to preserve a building and then, because you have preserved it, make it into a museum. Some buildings are right for that kind of use. Some simply are not.8

It sounds reasonable until you query: just what the hell is so difficult about running a museum, especially a contemporary museum, in a rebuilt warehouse, plant, or department store? Hundreds of commercial galleries in every major city mount beautiful, difficult shows, and satisfy their own conservation requirements (you can’t sell damaged goods) in second-floor walkups and remodeled storefronts. The Pasadena museum functioned much better esthetically, everyone knows, in a dank old Chinese barn on Los Robles. “Tough” artists seem so demanding of museums/staff, it seems to me, at least in part as a reaction to the Chamberof-Commerce, plaster-jockey pretentiousness of new museums. In dumb, friendly spaces the same artists will work around anything. As far as crowd handling goes, I’ve never heard anybody complain about a difficult trek through a good show, only about lousy, underbudgeted exhibitions smothered in funeral-parlor splendor.

Even quality, however, doesn’t make a solution. Take Pasadena (PMMA) for instance. In spite of one of the most admirable if not brilliant exhibitions records, and in spite of its being half the distance from L.A. City Hall as Long Beach, the museum is only now groping its way from the swamp:

During fiscal 1973 the financial condition of the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art continued the momentum of improvement noted at last year’s annual meeting, primarily as a result of the ongoing “austerity” program. . . .

From an operating standpoint, income before special contributions declined from $330,000 to slightly under $275,000. Unfortunately the principal factor was a continuing decline in membership dues. However, operating expenses were even further reduced during the year from $545,000 to approximately $475,000. As a result, the loss from operations declined from $215,000 in 1972 to approximately $195,000 in 1973. . . .

As a result of the favorable cash gain achieved in 1973, the Museum has been able to effect a further net reduction in its accounts payable and bank indebtedness by more than $100,000. At the present time our liabilities have been reduced to $850,000 of bank debt and approximately $80,000 of accounts payable. It is hoped that further progress in the year and years ahead will ultimately eliminate such liabilities.9

And what did Pasadena do to deserve all this?

With some hindsight we can see that the Jasper Johns exhibition of 1965 gave us a new view of the brushstroke of Abstract Expressionism. . . . the Cornell show (1966) gave a sense of precariousness of the most banal objects. . . . The Kirchner retrospective (1969) held roots of the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism. . . . Cezanne’s watercolors (1967) forced everyone to look at watercolors as they hovered on the surface and flattened pictorial surfaces (an important quality of contemporary art). . . . Richard Serra’s logs created much pain for the viewer. It was a once in a lifetime experience. The scale and configuration were reminiscent of ruined Grecian temples. The Pasadena Museum also presented opportunities for the public to see exhibitions of Marcel Duchamp, 1963 . . . Rene Magritte, 1966 . . . Frank Stella, 1966 . . . Roy Lichtenstein, 1967 . . . Allan Kaprow’s “Happening,” 1967 Serial Imagery, 1968 . . . The New York Show, 1969. . The Bauhaus, 1970 . . . and more recently Claes Oldenburg, 1972, Larry Bell, 1972, and Agnes Martin, 1973.10

Pasadena’s plight, naturally, isn’t a direct result of those ambitious, sensitive shows, but rather of the grandiose error of a needlessly expensive and badly designed new plant, with too little money and consideration left for staff, shows, and electric bills. (The psychology of patrons, upon which any museum depends, is: everybody’s happy to give to the building, but few want to buy art for it, and nobody wants to keep the drinking fountains running.) Still, the underlying attitude of many, but not all, museum professionals toward art is either secondary or patronizing. Witness:

As for the artists’ living expenses meanwhile: everyone has to make a choice as to how he/she wants to manage. Some artists may choose to dedicate their whole time to their art and live on welfare. Others may choose to do part-time teaching. Others carpentry. I chose a full-time job as museum curator (which isn’t heaven, as you know), at the great detriment and delay of my personal development as an artist. Some kind of job for making a living is always available, if one is willing to sacrifice part of one’s art work. It is an unfortunate compromise, but it is a hard necessity in present society. . . . It’s time for artists to organize and find better solutions for themselves. . . . After all, I’m putting in all the work to organize this thing [a videotape show] for the benefit of the artists—and the audience (the museum as an institution makes no profit from it; it simply serves more or less well one of its purposes).11

What then are the prospects for Long Beach, with practically no collection, an exhibition momentum hardly comparable with old Pasadena’s, and a nebulous (at best) cultural ambience? Well, Dorothy Parker is supposed to have said, “My advice to all you young people out there who are thinking of getting married—don’t.” William Agee, after the colloquium, supplied this scenario:

1. A medium-size city decides to build a new museum and hires an energetic new director to do it.

2. City fathers and businessmen are enlisted in the cause by the argument that the new museum is generally “good for the community.” A kickoff booster session is held.

3. A publicity campaign informs the public of the plans, and the process of choosing a great or about-to-be-great architect (e.g., a competition) begins.

4. The first difficulty: the city fathers turn out to want a local and/or cheapie architect, while the museum wants a visionary. A compromise architect (e.g., a conservative “name” or the best local firm) is chosen.

5. Construction is bogged down by strikes, supply difficulties or special problems (e.g., humidity control, lighting, etc.) and costs mount.

6. Nevertheless, a gala opening of the completed edifice convinces the city fathers for the moment that a citywide “renewal” is under way; the art world, meanwhile is temporarily excited by a new vein to mine.

7. Everybody comes to see the new building and attendance is astounding.

8. The director installs an initial series of ambitious shows. Although the art world is impressed, the city fathers have doubts about the esthetics and budgets.

9. After a while (say a year) attendance falls off. The building is no longer a novelty and the art doesn’t attract the general public.

10. Concurrently, patron support (men’s committee, ladies’ auxiliary, docents, etc.) wanes, and the museum sees its finances drop off.

11. The big split: the director wants an expanded budget for spectacular, risky shows to “keep the building on the map,” while the city fathers want budget cuts and “relevant” (middle-of-the-road) art. After prolonged bickering, the director resigns.

12. The art world, smelling blood, turns on the museum, saying it is a waste of money and of no benefit to real art. Meanwhile, the city fathers search for a “tool” director to run a quiet museum economically, without fanfare.

13. The museum hits the doldrums: a near-new building, but no support, audience, morale, staff, or decent art.

Alternatives are several, but I can think of an attractive one. MOCA (Museum of Conceptual Art), a one-horse loft operation in San Francisco, defines itself as “dedicated to the presentation of performance sculpture” and Conceptual art—“idea-oriented situations not directed at the production of static objects.” It further specifies:

MOCA is a non-profit corporation and a tax-exempt educational organization. It is the recipient of a museum grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a government agency. . . . From December, 1972 to the present, it has been located at 75 3rd Street where it occupies 10,000 square feet on two floors. The first floor is Breen’s bar and restaurant. It functions as a reception hall for exhibitions held upstairs and has on two occasions functioned as an exhibition space . . . . As part of the exhibition program, MOCA is open to the public. Every Wednesday afternoon from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. for unscheduled events: the showing of video tapes made by artists and/or a social day for the community to meet. Free beer is served to the public every Wednesday afternoon.12

Surely, I don’t suggest a replica MOCA for Long Beach, but consider what could be accomplished with $4-6 million and a MOCA outlook: perhaps five or six storefront museums, each with a specialty, a neighborhood, each with a sense of “real” space, and the tacky verisimilitude of a serious commercial gallery. A million bucks each, half for renovation, half for staff, program, and upkeep. Most likely a modicum of imagination and a few good lawyers could successfully argue such a conglomerate meets the requirements of city/state funding law.

I said much of this three years ago when the University Art Museum (UAM) opened at Berkeley, but by then it was too late—the concrete had hardened. In retrospect, much has smoothed itself out; that building’s irrevocably there, several deserving artists have had shows, the college kids come and go and see and learn. Nevertheless, UAM seems like a lot of tons for a little art, and more importantly, it perpetuates the edifice complex. If contemporary art can put itself through the continuing agony of constant redefinition and violent metamorphosis, the least the (contemporary) museum people could do is tailor themselves a little less to the black-tie circuit and the Building Contractors of America. Nobody wants to be the one who pulls the trap door under the new LBMA, but they really ought to think it over, or, failing that, stage a colloquium of artists—the real working inhabitants of any museum.



1. Jan von Adlmann, letter to Tom Marioni at MOCA, February 9, 1973.

2. Long Beach Museum of Art Bulletin, Spring, 1973.

3. James Harithas, remarks at the colloquium (transcript p. 71.

4. Bulletin.

5. Peter Selz, colloquium transcript, p. 9.

6. My letter to colloquium participants, February 19, 1973.

7. Jan von Adlmann, reply to my letter, February 23, 1973.

8. I.M. Pei, “On Museum Architecture.” Museum News, September, 1972, p.14.

9. Coleman Morton, “Treasurer’s Report,” PMMA Annual Report, lune, 1973.

10. Shirley Blum, address at the PMMA Annual Meeting, lune, 1973.

11. Letter to Tom Marioni, posted on a wall near the entrance to MOCA, from a museum curator who will remain unnamed.

12. MOCA Press Release, June, 1973.