Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Architecture As An Accessioned Work of Art?

DISCLAIMER: This article references my employer, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The views expressed on this blog are solely my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of LACMA, LACMA's leadership, LACMA's Board, or LACMA's staff. Furthermore, the views posted on this blog have not been influenced in any way by the aforementioned parties.

The scope of collecting getting larger and larger -- literally!!!

Today, on The Times' blog, Culture Monster, Christopher Hawthorne posted a brief write-up on the potential for museums to start collecting irreplaceable works of architecture as part of their permanent collections. The Indianapolis Museum of Art is on the right track by following through with a deal to acquire Eero Saarinen's Miller House from the surviving members of the Miller family. I think that this action finally breaks the ice for museums that have long wanted to pursue this kind of activity, but have been hesitant to do so -- especially during the current economic downturn. Concurrently, it potentially sets the stage for a tug-of-war between museums, foundations and other non-profit ownership of residential architecture.

Eero Saarinen's Miller House, 1952
The Indianapolis Museum of Art

Setting up a non-profit foundation with an endowment is key for ensuring long-term sustainability for significant structures like these. Strong examples include the Eames Foundation and the Philip Johnson Glass House (under the opposes of the National Trust for Historic Preservation). Any property owner can tell you that owning a building has it's ups and downs, especially if it's a historic one. Neutra's VDL II House in Silver Lake is a good example of how a lack of funding and a starved endowment -- and in my opinion, a real lack of financial commitment by Cal Poly Pomona -- can perpetuate a structure's continued disrepair. Let's not kid ourselves, there's plenty of bureaucratic fat that can be trimmed at the administrative level of any university in order to fund a worthwhile project like this.

Ray and Charles Eames built the Eames House (a.k.a. Case Study House No. 8) in 1949.

I know that LACMA has expressed interest in possibly pursuing such avenues, but they should perhaps remain a bit on the cautious side. While it's nice to have historic modern homes in your collection, they should only do so if (a) the price is really too good to pass up or (b) it's a donation, as was the case in Indianapolis. Anything other than those two approaches should be pursued with the utmost caution and precision. A part of a museum's responsibility to the public is to collect and present objects of exceptional aesthetic quality, and place them into an art historical context. In a traditional museum, you can achieve this with great success when you're dealing with easily movable objects, let's say, sculptures, paintings, antiquities, decorative arts, etc. However, collecting architecture is a bit more tricky because of issues pertaining to geographic location, high maintenance costs and the ability to have consistent attendance without alienating the neighbors around you. In other words, you can't treat residential architecture in L.A. like the Cloisters.

Houses were really designed to be functional places to live in, not for curious museum goers to trounce around in. I know my argument may seem a bit uptight, but the best way for this concept to work is to have these structures remain independent and occupied by passionate people who understand their importance to the community at large. Perhaps, we could see the formation of a consortium of modern houses in L.A. that works together to offer tours of various houses in the L.A. area on an ongoing basis? One thing is definitely clear -- more must be done about this situation because time is running out to save the irreplaceable.