When one pictures the city of Los Angeles, a myriad of images flood the mind - palm trees, Hollywood, movie studios, Beverly Hills, Disneyland, orange groves, suburban sprawl, Mulholland Drive, swimming pools, tennis courts, and endless freeways with their sometimes dense, suffocating smog. What one doesn't often think of is art museums, although the palatial, hilltop Getty is changing that somewhat. But before there was a Getty, even before there was a Hollywood, there was LACMA - the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It's not exactly the most glamorous name anyone ever suggested for an art museum, nor does it fit the usual stereotype for such an official repository for all things artistic. It doesn't look anything at all like the Beaux-Arts, or Ionic, art temples one might expect either. Situated on Wilshire Boulevard in what's called the "Miracle Mile" area near the La Brea tar pits, the sprawling conglomeration of mid-twentieth century Post-modern style buildings has more the look of a movie studio than an art museum. With its restrained, modern architecture, its courtyard, its Japanese Pavilion, its Palm and Eucalyptus trees, it's designed to be attractive, functional, and roomy. It seems very aptly Californian.
In so many respects LACMA is uniquely Californian. California is ethnic. The museum has huge holdings in Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Pre-Columbian, Southeast Asian, and Latin American art. Like the inhabitants of the city of Los Angeles, nearly everything is "from" somewhere else. That's not to say there isn't the expected collection of European and ancient Western art. LACMA owns Rembrandt's dramatic The Raising of Lazarus (1630), for instance, as well as works by DŘrer, CÚzanne, Gauguin, Degas and other European masters. Its American collection includes Homer's watercolour, After the Hunt, Mary Cassatt's Mother About to Wash her Sleepy Child (1880), and the English transplanted home boy David Hockney's Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio, as well as works by native son Richard Diebenkorn.
As one might expect, being just down the street from Hollywood, the museum has an impressive textiles department filled not so much with movie costumes but artistic fashion statements by international design artists such as the French Christian Lacroix and Japanese dress sculptor Issey Miyake as seen in his striking, silver "Staircase" series dating from 1994. From China, there's the nineteenth century royal fashion statement, Emperor's Twelve Symbol Dragon Robe. But it's the UNexpected that is most memorable about LACMA. We find Buddhas from India, such as a silver and copper altarpiece from the ninth century; from Tibet comes an eleventh century copper Buddha calling the Earth to Witness. From Japan we find a delightful standing dragon of painted wood, and from the other side of the world, a Italian dragon doing battle with St George as depicted on a Medieval triptych altarpiece. From Mexico comes a Pre-Columbian serpentine Olmec Man-Jaguar figure, and from Egypt comes a second or third century Pre-Columbian glass beaker painted with a theatrical scene. The whole museum seems to be a land of art immigrants.
As major museums go, LACMA is not huge. By that I mean its collection is limited to around 100,000 works (as compared to the Met's two million). Yet next year alone, the museum plans to add an additional 20,000 works of art to its permanent collection. And unlike most museums in major cities, LACMA is blessed by space, not just inside but outside as well - space to grow in the future. Blessed also by its relatively modern architectural styling, it is free to sprout as many contemporary wings as it pleases, to accommodate both art and art lovers without worrying about style conflicts. Despite its sprawl and location, it's a museum with free parking next door. It's a museum with more volunteers than paid employees. It's a museum that reflects in its collection the entire Pacific rim of which it is a part. But most of all it is a museum that is sublimely Californian in every sense of the word.