LOS ANGELES – In 2017, David Geffen – the billionaire entertainment executive, producer and philanthropist who co-founded DreamWorks SKG and whose name is synonymous with Hollywood – made history, donating $150 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It was the largest cash gift from an individual the museum had received.
“I am excited to see the positive effects this new building will have on Los Angeles’s art and architectural communities,” said Geffen, who is considered one of the most powerful gay people in America, at the time. “This innovative addition to the LACMA campus will ensure ongoing and expanded access to their permanent collection. LACMA will be able to touch millions of lives and create an even healthier and more vibrant community for everyone.”
With Geffen’s contribution, LACMA inched closer to its $650 million goal to fund a project that would replace four of the museum’s seven buildings with new galleries. With his donation outpacing all the others, the museum announced the galleries would be named the David Geffen Galleries “in honor of his extraordinary gift.”
Designed by Peter Zumthor, an award-winning Swiss architect, the museum touts Project “Building LACMA” as “more than a renovation.” It’s “a completely new way to understand our relationship to the arts and culture of the past, the present, and the future,” according to the project’s website.
Nearly five years later, construction is underway, hoping to complete the project in 2024.
Though LACMA has relied on large private donations, like Geffen’s, when the building is finished it will essentially be owned by the people of Los Angeles County – underscoring the importance of private-public partnerships in the arts.
“At a time when federal funding for the arts is threatened, it’s important that we foster public-private partnerships, like this one, to support arts and cultural institutions,” said Geffen. “Together, we can and must make sure every person has access to the arts.”
The history of the project goes back more than a decade, with the museum landing Zumthor all the way back in 2009. Four years later, Zumthor presented “The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA.”
The design was tweaked but ultimately approved by LACMA’s board of trustees in 2014, beginning a long and relentless fundraising campaign to bring Zumthor’s vision to life.
The David Geffen Galleries was conceived as a “building of and for Los Angeles,” according to LACMA. When finished, it will be a long, horizontal, glass-and-concrete structure, stretching along Hancock Park and across Wilshire Boulevard.
The main floor will feature an approximately 110,000-square-foot exhibition space, elevated 30 feet above street level. It will also provide spaces for education, public programs, a 300-seat theater, retail and restaurants.
“The horizontal design eliminates traditional cultural hierarchies, literally placing all works of art on an equal footing, on a single level,” said the LACMA, adding that the “architectural context will encourage the development of fresh selections of works of art and new historical narratives, and allow LACMA’s curators to create more diverse and inclusive presentations.”
Though the museum promises great impact, the project has received its fair share of criticism for its cost and decision to demolish the original building, according to commercial real estate development news site Urbanize LA.
The majority of the project’s funding came from private donors, like Geffen, amounting to $525 million of the total $650 million initial goal. However, the County of Los Angeles made up for the missing $125 million. LACMA also upped its goal, now raising another $100 million.
The project has also amassed debt, something the museum addresses on an FAQ page. “The private donations are generally paid over a period of time,” it read. “Therefore, as part of the plan of finance approved by the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, there will be $300 million of debt issued by the County of Los Angeles to be fully paid for by Museum Associates (LACMA) from private donations.”
Critics have also charged that, despite its budget, the new building will have less space. According to LACMA, the new facility will be approximately 347,500 square feet, while the previous was roughly 393,000 square feet, making for a reduction of about 45,000 square feet.
LACMA notes that the demolished buildings may have “many serious structural issues and problems with plumbing, sewage, and leaks, compromising their ability to hold our collections and host our visitors and staff.” In fact, one of the project’s goals is to replace “inefficient, deteriorating buildings with new, environmentally sustainable structures, embracing state-of-the-art resource management and technology resulting in the project achieving LEED Gold certification.”
“The proposed building was slightly reduced in size to achieve a balance of quantity and quality of interior space, while upholding the design intent in a sustainable, seismically resilient manner,” the museum added. “The design of the new building will allow LACMA to program more flexibly and dynamically, allowing the galleries to rotate more frequently and for more art to be displayed over time.”
And still, the project remains one of the most high-profile changes along the Miracle Mile.
“If museums are designed properly, they can be as open and accessible as a public plaza, and as intimate and intellectually spiritual and personal as a single encounter with a work of art,” LACMA said on its website. “That’s really what we’re going for here in the new building.”
The David Geffen Galleries will be made up of three different configurations: Terrace Galleries, Core Galleries and Courtyard Galleries – all of which differ according to their shape and light.
The Terrace Galleries will be lit by floor-to-ceiling windows, making the three-dimensional objects it features “come to life,” according to LACMA. This part of the museum will also offer views of the city and the park surrounding the building.
The Core Galleries will be enclosed rectangular spaces filled with works that require controlled light – from prints and drawings to photos and paintings. “The majority of the core galleries feature a single entry and exit point, encouraging focused and contemplative viewing,” said LACMA.
Finally, the Courtyard Galleries will connect the other two galleries. “Glimpses of the perimeter will allow visitors to orient themselves and remain connected to the city around them throughout their visit,” the museum said.
None of this would be possible without the contributions of Geffen, who became one of the first business executives to come out as gay in 1992.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times after he donated, Geffen shrugged off a question about his legacy. “I think medicine, education and the arts are extremely important to the community,” Geffen said. “It’s about creating opportunities for young people to become inspired.”
“I’ve lived here for a very long time and I believe in the power of these institutions to change people’s lives,” he said. “I think it’s valuable to support them, and I’m fortunate that I can. There are many others who also can, and hopefully will do so in the future.”