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Focused on Residencies, the Main Museum Tests a Different Model in Downtown LA

Founded by two real estate developers, the Main Museum is a non-collecting institution concentrating on Los Angeles artists.

“Performance Lessons: Suzanne Lacy Teaches Andrea Bowers Performance Art" at the Main Museum, October 30 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
“Performance Lessons: Suzanne Lacy Teaches Andrea Bowers Performance Art” at the Main Museum, October 30 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — Eschewing the pomp and fanfare that typically greet the opening of a new art institution, the Main Museum recently made its debut quietly, not with a star-studded gala but with a low-key performance. In the museum’s unfinished space in the historic Farmers and Merchants Bank building, artists Suzanne Lacy and Andrea Bowers began a durational performance that would extend over the course of 10 days. Seated at separate tables facing each other, the two wrote out statements, propositions, and questions before taping them to the wall, as part of a durational work titled “Performance Lessons: Suzanne Lacy Teaches Andrea Bowers Performance Art.” It was a follow-up to 2014’s “Drawing Lessons,” a nine-day performance at New York’s Drawing Center in which Bowers taught Lacy to draw. At the Main, visitors were invited to watch the pair work for the whole run of the performance, which ended on Election Day.

Director Allison Agsten in front of the Main Museum.
Director Allison Agsten in front of the Main Museum

Founded by real estate developers Tom Gilmore and Jerri Perrone, the Main Museum is a non-collecting institution focused on LA artists. Instead of an art collection at its core — as with the city’s other newcomer, the year-old Broad Museum — the Main will be structured around a residency program. “I believe really strongly that in order to support artistic production in Los Angeles, we have to be able to find spaces for our artists to work,” Main Museum Director Allison Agsten told Hyperallergic. Lacy and Bowers both stayed at the institution during their performance, in two rooms overlooking the central space, and once they were done, the museum’s first two resident artists, Sid Duenas and Star Montana, moved in.

The museum is now in what organizers have dubbed “Beta Main,” an experimental phase that will run concurrently with construction over the next few years (the entire institution is expected to open in 2020). It’s a test period when they can try out different ideas, “refining its visions and methods to make the greatest possible impact as a cultural catalyst in Los Angles,” as the website states. Agsten has been busy familiarizing herself with the local artistic landscape, through an “Office Hours” program whereby she invites artists based in Downtown LA into her office to meet with her. “It’s starting to feel like a durational performance for me,” she joked.

Project description at the Main Museum.
Project description at the Main Museum

In addition to its loose and still-evolving programmatic structure, the museum’s architecture expresses an unconventional approach. Instead of picking a starchitect to create an iconic building, the Main’s founders chose Tom Wiscombe, a young local architect, to carve the museum out of already existing structures: the Farmers amnd Merchants Bank, the Hellman Building, and the Bankhouse Garage. “It’s a new form of museum, woven into the fabric of the city,” Wiscombe told Hyperallergic at Beta Main’s opening. “It will never have a fully iconic presence. We’re not going to raze these buildings and build a new project.”

The Main will not be structured around traditional exhibition galleries, but around flexible spaces that can accommodate a variety of functions. “I love the idea of having spaces of discovery, large, open spaces where it’s not overly curated with art objects everywhere, but basically spaces where things can happen,” Wiscombe said. These will include residency studios, some exhibition spaces, an amphitheater, rooftop sculpture garden, and café, spread out over the 100,000-square-foot complex.

The Farmers & Merchants Bank building.
The Farmers and Merchants Bank building, new home of the Main Museum

Like the neighborhood of Boyle Heights to the east, Downtown LA has been undergoing its own gentrification struggles over the past few years. Any project of this size, especially one spearheaded by developers, is bound to spur debate over the effect it will have on the surrounding community. This is an issue that was mentioned by Agsten and by Bowers in a public talk preceding her performance; both of them acknowledged that there is no easy solution.

"Performance Lessons: Suzanne Lacy Teaches Andrea Bowers Performance Art" at the Main Museum, October 30
“Performance Lessons: Suzanne Lacy Teaches Andrea Bowers Performance Art” at the Main Museum, October 30

“I think this museum is exactly the kind of cure for that,” said Wiscombe optimistically. “The point isn’t to gentrify the area, but to stop conventional gentrification, where there are certain stores and retail outlets on every single corner.”

Whether the Main Museum will be able to accomplish that lofty goal remains to be seen. But, unlike other institutions that make their debuts fully formed, it at least has a few years to figure it out.

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