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The Bizarre Story Behind the Newspaper Ads Criticizing LACMA’s Expansion Plan

On Sunday, full-page ads appeared in both the New York and Los Angeles Times with the slogan “saveLACMA FROM TANKING.”

Architect Peter Zumthor’s current concept for the LACMA redesign (courtesy Building LACMA)

LOS ANGELES — On Sunday, full-page ads appeared in both the New York and Los Angeles Times with the slogan “saveLACMA FROM TANKING.” The ads attacked the museum’s current redevelopment plan, which will replace four outdated campus buildings with a dramatic single story, amoeba-like concrete building that spans Wilshire Boulevard, designed by enigmatic Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.

“The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is replacing four campus buildings with a dysfunctional, unaffordable, budget-busting billion dollar building that will dismantle the historic collections that have made LACMA the largest encyclopedic museum west of the Mississippi,” the text continued, below a photomontage of a rendering of Zumthor’s building plunging into the ocean (presumably inspired by architect Stanley Tigerman’s iconic 1978 photo-montage of a Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall sinking into Lake Michigan). 

LACMA’s plan, spearheaded by Director Michael Govan, has been controversial from the start, inspiring passions from those who view it as a much-needed makeover that will transform the museum into a world-class architectural icon, as well as those who see it as a financial boondoggle that will leave LACMA with less gallery space. The project won unanimous approval from County Supervisors last April, with a pledge of $117.5 million in public funds, not to mention the support of notables including Brad Pitt, Diane Keaton, and artist Thomas Houseago. Just last week, the museum secured a $50 million pledge from the W.M. Keck Foundation, raising the total amount pledged or donated to $640 million. On the other side, critics, including the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Knight, have lambasted the project, attacking everything from the ballooning budget currently at $750 million, to the design (likened to a traffic booth or an oil slick), the lack of transparency, and the inflexible design of the concrete building, which will end up 10% smaller by some estimates.

One of those critical voices has been Save LACMA, a nonprofit founded last summer by Kim Cooper, Richard Schave, and Rob Hollman with the intention of giving voice to those who feel LACMA’s plan is not in the community’s best interest. 

Save LACMA is here to add to the essential and eclectic voice, our voice, to the renovation conversation. Save LACMA is here to advocate for LACMA at times like the present, when its leadership has appeared to have perhaps lost its way,” reads a letter from Hollman on the group’s website. Given that Sunday’s ads were tagged with the slogans and social media accounts @saveLACMA and @saveLACMAnow, one would perhaps surmise that the ads were paid for by the group. But that would be wrong.

The ad in today’s NY Times was not created by Save LACMA. It was written by an individual with his own personal agenda who is not related, in any way, to Save LACMA … but who now knows the difference between ‘loose’ and ‘lose,’” read a tweet from the @saveLACMA twitter account, which is connected to the nonprofit. So, what’s going on?

The ads were actually placed by “The Citizens Brigade to Save LACMA,” a group founded by Greg Goldin and Joseph Giovaninni, journalists who also have been vocally critical of LACMA’s new plan. Last April, Giovannini wrote an extensive takedown of the proposal for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Just last week, Goldin and Giovannini posted a two-part video to YouTube titled “A Pattern of Deception: Michael Govan’s Plan for a New LACMA,” in which the pair discuss their criticism of the plan over glasses of red wine.

According to Hollman, Save LACMA was approached by Giovannini last summer, who said he had secured funding for the ads, but needed a nonprofit to place the ads through.

He wanted us to give him the non-profit. We told him we can’t just raise these funds to publish the piece. That couldn’t be done, there are ethics, rules, laws, surrounding nonprofits,” Hollman told Hyperallergic when reached by phone. “It was becoming increasingly clear he had a vendetta against Govan, his only motivation was to shame Govan.” As of this writing, Giovannini has not answered email requests for comment.

As Hollman tells it, their talks ended with Hollman telling Giovannini not to use their name. “They’ve been told repeatedly to cease and desist,” he said. Although it is difficult to find accurate ad rates online, Hollman surmises the combined cost of the ads is $140,000. “That’s money which could have been better used to create more accountability for LACMA, it’s outrageous,” he said, explaining that he’s contacted both the New York and Los Angeles Times to issue retractions.

According to Giovannini’s partner Greg Goldin, the ads were paid for by anonymous donors and he estimates that the ads cost far less than Hollman’s figure. In an email to Hyperallegic, Goldin wrote: “We plan to continue with a further ad campaign, billboards if possible, and protests, all urging the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to reconsider their approval of the building and also to pledge that the County will give no further subsidies as the true costs of the building come to light.”

As far as the name dispute, Goldin said he was not aware of any discussions between Giovannini and Hollman last summer. “We are not affiliated. No grievances. The more opposition, the merrier,” he wrote in the email.

In the end, Hollman put out the possibility of working together, provided there’s no confusion. “We’d love to work with whomever. We don’t have any truck,” he said, “but don’t use our name.”

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