Academy Museum under construction (center), with LACMA in foreground, and Petersen Automotive Museum at left (© Academy Museum Foundation)

LOS ANGELES — As with all aspects of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly disrupted arts institutions around the world. Galleries and museums have been shuttered for two months, some working to produce content online, while others have chosen to lay off and furlough their employees. While reopening dates keep getting pushed back, construction at some Los Angeles museums has continued throughout the crisis, albeit with social distancing measures in place. This is possible because, unlike in some other states, California governor Gavin Newsom categorized all construction as essential, according to his March 19 executive order.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)’s controversial redesign has continued, with demolition of the Bing Theater beginning last month.

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“Hard demolition of the Leo S. Bing Center is underway. Demolition of the remaining three buildings will be completed in parallel and the work will take several months,” the museum told Hyperallergic in a statement. “Both the County and City of Los Angeles have declared building construction to be an essential activity, and the County has strongly urged us to continue moving forward in our work in the construction of our new building for the permanent collection. Clark Construction are currently practicing safety precaution measures on the construction site that are in accordance with city, county, state, and CDC guidelines.” 

The $750 million, Peter Zumthor-designed project has engendered passionate opinions from detractors who view it as an ill-conceived financial boondoggle and supporters who see a fitting museum for LA’s transformation into a world-class cultural capital. The pandemic-era construction has only heightened criticism. “Should we be using county funds for this building project during a humanitarian crisis?” Rob Hollman, board chairman of Save LACMA, asks in a Los Angeles Times article in March. “It’s public money that should be allocated elsewhere or at least available to be used. And if they are moving forward, they should explain why — why does this make sense now, in light of what’s going on? It’s wrong, ethically and morally.”

Meanwhile, LACMA director Michael Govan painted the construction as economically beneficial. “LACMA will be an engine of job creation and economic recovery,” he told the Times.

The Academy Museum under construction (© Academy Museum Foundation)

Next door to LACMA, the Academy Museum briefly put their construction on hold, but resumed late last month. “As the health and safety of workers remains our top priority, we are implementing operating procedures that strictly comply with CDC, state, county, LADBS, and OSHA standard protocol to protect any employees and contractors on our site,” an Academy Museum spokesperson told Hyperallegic via email.

Devoted to cinematic history and art, the Academy Museum is designed by Renzo Piano, who also designed the nearby Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA, one of the few buildings that will be spared by the wrecking ball. When it finally opens — the tentative opening date is December 14 — the 300,000-square-foot museum will house 5,000 three-dimensional objects from film history as well as millions of photos, screenplays, posters, and other ephemera.

Rendering of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art (courtesy Lucas Museum of Narrative Art)

Another new museum, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, designed by MAD architects, also briefly paused work, but resumed with safety guidelines in place. “Our general contractor Hathaway Dinwiddie suspended construction for two weeks to assess how best to provide an environment that is as safe as possible for the workers on the construction site. They determined that, with additional safety measures developed in conjunction with current CDC regulations and recently released guidelines from the City, they were able to restart construction at the site,” Alex Capriotti, director of communications and marketing at the museum, told Hyperallergic. “The health and safety of the workers is our number one priority, and we will continue to ensure that we are in compliance with CDC guidelines.”

Rendering of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art (courtesy Lucas Museum of Narrative Art)

Slated to open late next year on an 11-acre site in Exposition Park, the museum was founded by filmmaker George Lucas with the goal of celebratingthe power of visual storytelling in a setting focused on narrative painting, illustration, photography, film, animation and digital art.”

Rendering of the Annenberg Terrace, completed 2019 (courtesy Hammer Museum)

Over in Westwood, the Hammer Museum is undergoing a transformative project that will provide 40,000 feet of new space, with 60% more gallery space. “Our construction project has been ongoing, in phases, for a few years now. Our current phase has slowed down due to COVID-19 and the safety of our workers, but it is continuing,” Scott Tennent, Chief Communications Officer at the Hammer told Hyperallergic. The redesign led by architect Michael Maltzan is estimated to cost approximately $80 million, $30 million of which was a gift from philanthropists Lynda and Stewart Resnick. “We continue to monitor this situation, but as of now it’s premature to say whether or how the overall timeline will shift,” Tennent said.

Despite the continuing construction, the Hammer, affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), laid off 150 part-time student employees this past March, echoing similar layoffs at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Broad, in a troubling sign of the financial uncertainty that the pandemic is causing.

It remains unclear when we will be able to visit museums and galleries again, but the construction that’s been going on while we’ve been sheltering in place suggests that there’ll be a different art landscape when we reemerge.

Update, 5/18, 18:25 (ET): The Hammer museum has clarified that they issued a “work curtailment,” not layoffs, to their student employees. They will be paying students and part-time employees from March 14, when the museum closed, through mid-June. “The students are still classified as UCLA employees and we look forward to bringing them back when we re-open,” the museum’s Chief Communications Officer, Scott Tennent, wrote to Hyperallergic.

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.