The parallel revitalizations of the Los Angeles art and architecture worlds, and the downtown area in particular, overlap in a great many exciting and controversial ways. This is understandable, given how commercial interests frequently undermine the very presence of the artists and bohemian outposts that make a place attractive in the first place. Now a new cultural institution in the heart of DTLA’s historic core, the Main Museum of Los Angeles Art, is poised to bring such diverging interests together.
The completed museum, scheduled to open in 2020, will occupy all or part of three historic buildings on Main and 4th Streets in downtown — the Farmers and Merchants Bank (which will house a gastro-destination restaurant), the Hellman Building (whose street level and lower vaults and engine rooms will be video and exhibition spaces with some rather epic architectural flourishes), and finally the Bankhouse Garage (whose roof will become a sculpture garden, amphitheater, and café). What they are calling Beta Main is located in a rather grand shabby chic 100-plus-year-old entrance hall that will later become the Main’s front door. In the meantime it will host their first pair of short exhibitions — beginning on Sunday, October 30 with a 10-day performance residency by feminist social practice artists Andrea Bowers and Suzanne Lacy. The Main is another in the trend of boutique art museums — but as its founder, architect, art collector, and real estate developer Tom Gilmore, and its director, curator, public programming veteran, and L.A. history buff Allison Agsten explained in a recent interview with Artbound, the Main truly is like no other museum in town.
First, there’s the matter of its almost archeological adaptive reuse architectural approach. Gilmore’s development company is known for its commitment to preserving the history of the structures they work with. “The Main is part restoration, part re-imagination. It’s a way to both honor and interpret these buildings, not just to knock them down and start from nothing.” And the architecture alone really is its own reward — with lofty tiled and columned spaces, and subterranean surprises like old-timey wheel-locked bank vaults, brick walls and Rube Goldberg-like engineering gauges, dials and piping, vertiginous catwalks and turbine halls straight out of a Fritz Lang fantasy.
Second, there’s the matter of its founding, funding, and curatorial structure. “I’m the primary initial benefactor,” explains Gilmore, “but this is not the Broad. I’m not a fan of naming buildings after yourself. This isn’t my museum — it’s the Main Museum. When you see the Broad you see Eli’s taste in art. When you see the Main it may have nothing to do with my own artistic sensibility. It’s designed to be autonomous, to be flexible in how it can to speak to this evolving time and place. It is its own animal, with a template that gets added onto and that will morph over time. It goes way beyond just me.”
That’s where the role of its director, Agsten, becomes so paramount. In her previous post as curator of public engagement at the Hammer Museum, and indeed throughout her career, Agsten has been particularly interested in social practice and avant-garde forms of performance art, especially intimate, experiential, immersive and site-responsive formats — making her a well-suited leader for Gilmore’s project to explore and celebrate the deep neighborhood history of working artists, while at the same time expanding that conversation to include other kinds of local history, innovations in real-time, ongoing support of the present-day L.A. artist community, and contextualize it all in the wider global cultural dialogue about art’s role in civic life. The fact that in contrast to the Broad, which opened with its permanent collection, the Main is opening with a performance piece in a transitional space, immediately followed by an ad hoc locals-only gallery installation, is a gesture specifically meant to set this tone.
It’s clear Agsten’s influence is rubbing off on Gilmore, when he describes the Main’s curatorial approach as a way to “redefine what content can be. People can have a myopic focus on the object, and that’s a false narrative. Process is also content.” This resonates with certain language around ideas like Constantin Brancusi’s “architecture is inhabited sculpture” and its containment of public space as expressive of cultural engagement. “The performance engages the process right out of the box,” Gilmore continues, “and the space is a fundamental component of their performance. They’ve really been embracing the undone-ness of the place, seeing building it as an act they can help undertake as part of their presence.” Agsten points out that Lacy and Bowers specifically operate in the context of “endeavor and malleable use, deconstructing ideas about labor through the visible doing of non-art actions. They love the space. I think it hearkens back to the really raw places where they used to stage their works,” many of which were in this part of town.
During the opening, the artists will build a wall in the space to begin the process of sequestering themselves and to underscore how raw the space is, applying their own creative process to its architecture. This is just the kind of thing that’s been getting Gilmore so personally inspired. “The anthropological nature of the architecture history here through the years is evolving, but this is what makes this L.A. The whole notion of the Main is to be about what makes L.A. important and different. It’s the quality of these neighborhoods that needs to be expressed. We’ve had a short but a compressed history, going through all nine classic stages of urban development in about a two-stage period.” The Main team’s awareness of DTLA’s history and their need to preserve it is perhaps the biggest part of what defines the institution’s mission. And to that end, both Gilmore and Agsten agree, “Outreach to individual artists locally is paramount to ensuring the dialogue stays fostered here.”
And that’s the third and potentially the most unique aspect of what the Main is up to. “Allison especially has been adamant about the residencies,” says Gilmore. “And that will be what separates us from any other L.A. institution ultimately — the focus on supporting individual artists, ensuring that the social democracy that art can create is fostered and nurtured and enabled.” It’s a space created for, with, and by artists, designed to evolve in context of any artistic endeavor. Its use is fundamentally malleable, able to be whatever it needs to be. And keeping it as a production site honors the history of the artists living and working here, then and now. The residencies will be about six months at least, since Agsten feels less is not really enough, but like everything else, that’s flexible. Since the studio spaces are built right into the Beta Main entrance hall, this is not only a program but it also provides content. Some might have a show of what they do, others won’t — anything is possible. Agsten is starting the process of scheduling these residencies with a deliberate focus on artists who are here, now — especially younger artists and others who may not have the physical space to make work, who really need the logistical support the most.
Here is how that aspect is set to shape up: The performance with Bowers and Lacy starts on October 30 and ends November 8. Throughout the staging, both artists will be mapping the history of performance art directly on the walls, and that installation will then be on extended view through November 20. Then begins a period of about two weeks when Agsten will conduct some 50 “studio visits” for which downtown artists will come to the space — and they’ll be invited to leave a piece of art or some documentation behind to be displayed on the back wall. That process will be wrapped up and the corresponding display will be ready in time for the December 8 Downtown Art Walk and stay up for a week. Though the residencies will be occupied and ongoing, the space will then be closed until spring of 2017, when Beta Main will be finished and much of the Main basement and underground vault galleries, mezzanine, catwalk and the glassed-in void encasing the engine room will all be open. Then the roof, slated for construction in 2018, will be coming last.
“Phasing it in was unintended genius,” Gilmore says with a laugh, “as we are making alterations, as we go anyway, this allows for a constant reintroduction of the notion to the public as its stages evolve. I learned from our world here, and the Main is a place where knowledge of this place is accumulated and expressed. I’ve been infected by downtown, by being a part of it. This is about the place in every way — and it is possible to do it right. We wanted to contemplate a different outcome for commerce and culture to coexist, and to make a place [where] artists can stay. It’s in everyone’s best interests — and it’s certainly not boring!”
For more information on the Beta Main’s inaugural events and “Performance Lessons: Suzanne Lacy Teaches Andrea Bowers Performance Art” visit the Main Museum of Los Angeles Art’s website or the museum’s Facebook event page.
Top image by Elon Schoenholz.