Category: LACMA

Federal Agents Raid California Museums

On Jan. 24, 2008, Federal agents raided the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Agents also conducted a raid on the Silk Roads Gallery of L.A. Looking for stolen antiquities smuggled out of China, Thailand, Myanmar, and pilfered from Native American sites, dozens of Federal agents blocked entry to the museums, serving warrants to museum officials that authorized searches of museum computer archives and records, as well as offices, storage spaces and galleries.

The raids were part of an ongoing, five-year long, Federal undercover investigation into an alleged smuggling ring that sought to profit from stolen artifacts. The Feds contend that a smuggler supplied the owners of the Silk Roads Gallery with looted antiquities, the gallery owners would then sell the works to clients who knew the objects were stolen - providing the dishonest buyers with exaggerated appraisals of worth. The payback came when the gallery owners arranged to have the purchased artworks donated to museums - with the thieves enjoying the inflated tax deductions made for the “gifts.” Unbeknownst to the gallery owners, a “client” they were selling stolen objects to was an undercover Federal agent.

The New York Times called the raids and the investigation they sprang from, “a startling development”, and the Los Angeles Times reported the raids “suggest that the involvement of art institutions in the purchase of looted objects is far more extensive than recent high-profile scandals have indicated.” The paper also mentioned “the warrants served Thursday show prosecutors have carefully laid a foundation for the possible indictment of museum staffers allegedly complicit in the looting schemes.”

LACMA director Michael Govan, held a news conference after the raids to affirm the museum’s complete cooperation with the Federal authorities. Govan admitted LACMA had “about 60 objects” in its collection that are related to the ongoing investigation, but according to the New York Times, “he also defended the museum’s process for reviewing potential donations.” Seems that process is in need of a slight tune up. It looks like a season of calamity has descended upon Mr. Govan. The Federal investigation, combined with billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad deciding to keep his massive modern art collection instead of bequeathing it to LACMA, is most likely not the “Happy New Year” the museum director was looking forward to.

Meanwhile, the Federal investigation of the smuggling ring has expanded. In a Jan. 29th article titled “Federal probe of stolen art goes national”, Los Angeles Times staff reporters Jason Felch and Mike Boehm wrote that, “the same day federal agents raided four Southern California museums suspected of displaying stolen art, authorities also searched the private museum of Barry MacLean, a trustee of the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. The newly revealed allegations have significantly raised the stakes of the ongoing investigation, suggesting that a suspected network of illegal art dealers extended far beyond Southern California and included objects far more valuable than those previously revealed.”

Another Oil Slick at LACMA

In March of this year I wrote an exposé that uncovered the relationship between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the multinational oil company, BP (British Petroleum). LACMA is expanding and renovating its facilities, and it has taken $25 million dollars from BP as a “gift” towards the projected cost of the reconstruction, which is $191 million. The payoff is that LACMA will dedicate its massive new entrance gate to the oil giant, calling it - the “BP Grand Entrance.” It was the new Director and Chief Executive Officer of LACMA, Michael Govan, who actively sought the financial support of BP, saying in a Los Angeles Times interview, “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy.” The President of Houston-based BP America, Bob Malone, said the oil giant’s donation represented a “commitment to the arts.”

On October 25th, 2007, international news media reported that BP agreed to pay a whopping $373 million in an out of court settlement designed to stop U.S. Justice Department criminal indictments against the global energy giant’s law-breaking in the United States. Essentially the settlement stipulates that BP must pay for damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and that the company be placed on probation by the Justice Department for a period of three years. The federal government will continue extensive investigations into the energy company’s wrongdoings, and the Justice Department has made it clear that BP is “not beyond prosecution” when it comes to further possible charges. The Associated Press quoted Acting Attorney General, Peter Keisler, saying; “Obviously, the actions we’re responding to today reflect that there were some very serious problems within the company.”

Federal investigators have charged BP with a number of crimes; inflating the price of propane gas and overcharging U.S. consumers millions of dollars - ignoring government safety standards, leading to an enormous explosion at BP’s Texas City Refinery plant that took the lives of 15 workers and injured 170 others - and ignoring government warnings which lead to a spill of 201,000 gallons of crude oil in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, the nation’s largest oil field.

According to the deal with the U.S. Justice Department, BP must pay $303.5 million in punitive fines for conspiring to fix propane prices in 2003 and 2004. They are also required to pay a $50 million fine and plead guilty to a felony for the explosion at their Texas refinery, and BP must also pay $20 million in criminal fines for their oil pipeline leaks in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. ABC News quoted Granta Nakayama of the Environmental Protection Agency as saying; “BP committed serious environmental crimes in our two largest states - with terrible consequences for people and the environment.”

BP America president, Bob Malone, said of the deal with the Justice Department; “These agreements are an admission that, in these instances, our operations failed to meet our own standards and the requirements of the law - for that, we apologize.” Perhaps those are the very words that should be chiseled into the “BP Grand Entrance” that LACMA Director Michael Govan is having constructed for the museum. And speaking of apologies - when will Govan express regret for turning LACMA’s good name and cherished art treasures into a public relations vehicle for BP? When will Govan return the $25 million dollars BP donated to LACMA? - a “gift” that was nothing more than the oil giant’s attempt to “greenwash” its reputation?

Rep. John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, disapproved of the lenient fines BP must pay regarding the Texas refinery charge. The good Senator from Michigan said; “I note with curiosity that when an average citizen commits a felony it usually leads to a prison sentence. Yet, apparently, when a big oil company commits a felony that causes 15 deaths, it pays a criminal penalty equal to less than a day’s corporate profits.” To the Senator’s penetrating remark, I can only add - “And then the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will construct a new building named in honor of the corporate criminal.”

Proposed architectural design for the BP Grand Entrance at LACMA.

[ Illustration for my proposed architectural design for the "BP Grand Entrance" at LACMA. My project calls for a monumental archway constructed of clear plastic - which of course is made from petroleum. The portico will encase a 200 ft. tall functioning oil derrick that actually pumps oil. Every hour on the hour, the derrick will spout a geyser of crude.]

[UPDATE: Smithsonian Balks over Oil Money - It’s instructive to note that LACMA has enthusiastically taken money from BP, while the nation’s prestigious Smithsonian Institution recently shelved plans to accept $5 million from the American Petroleum Institute - the national trade association representing some 400 companies in the oil and natural gas industry. In a Nov. 13, 2007, article titled Smithsonian Questions $5 Million In Oil Money, the Washington Post reported that: "The Smithsonian Institution has taken the rare step of putting on hold a $5 million donation from the American Petroleum Institute after two members of the museum complex's Board of Regents, including a U.S. senator, balked at accepting oil-industry money for a major initiative on the world's oceans." Chairman of the regents’ executive committee, Roger Sant, a businessman who made his millions as an energy industry executive, told the Post: "I think it is in everyone’s mind that oceans and oil are not consistent." Well… almost everyone - apparently LACMA’s Director, Michael Govan, and the museum’s board of directors, haven’t heard that oil and water don’t mix.

On Nov. 17, 2007, the Washington Post reported that the American Petroleum Institute withdrew its funding to the Smithsonian in a tersely worded one sentence letter that simply read: "The purpose of this letter is to inform you that API is rescinding the Aug. 29, 2007, offer of financial support for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Ocean Initiative, effective immediately." ]

Laissez-Faire Aesthetics

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic, and after reading his essay, Laissez-Faire Aesthetics: What money is doing to art, or how the art world lost its mind, it’s not hard to understand why his opinion of contemporary art is generally reviled in some quarters. While I disagree with aspects of Perl’s critique, he still manages to make a few valid points. Perl believes the art world is suffering a grave crisis brought about by forces indifferent to the spirit of art but wholly enthusiastic about art as a commodity. He believes that a gaggle of art stars, influential writers, art institutions, powerful financial backers and collectors, have distorted the world of art to the point of bringing about its demise. The Laissez-Faire Aesthetics essay appeared in the February 5, 2007, edition of The New Republic, here are a few excerpts:

“We are in a period - and it’s certainly not the first one - when art and fashion and Hollywood are often indistinguishable. Amid the gold-rush atmosphere of recent months, however, something very strange has emerged, something more pertinent to art than to money - a new attitude, now pervasive in the upper echelons of the art world, about the meaning and experience and value of art itself. A great shift has occurred. This has deep and complex origins; but when you come right down to it, the attitude is almost astonishingly easy to grasp. We have entered the age of laissez-faire aesthetics.

Laissez-faire aesthetics is fundamentally anti-dialectical, not only because there is no acknowledgment of the need to comprehend the divergent implications of our attraction to high art and popular culture, but also, strangely enough, because there is a refusal to accept the very existence of competing forces. There is no struggle with distinctions because there is no recognition of distinctions. The result is a flattening of all artistic experience. If the clearest expression of laissez-faire aesthetics is to be found in the extent to which fashionable painters are now embraced as simultaneously offering traditional values and Disneyland-style fun, the new mood is also having an impact in the art museums, where pop culture is often sold as the new laissez-faire avant-garde.

Laissez-faire aesthetics is the aesthetics that violates the very principle of art, because it insists that anything goes, when in fact the only thing that is truly unacceptable in the visual arts is the idea that anything goes. At times, amid the chic hedge-fund maelstrom of Art Basel Miami Beach, it could seem that what had died was the modernist century, with its vehement advocacy of certain aesthetic principles. Perhaps we have to accept that it has gone. But what is really in danger now is something much bigger than modernity. It is nothing less than the precious exclusivity of the high-art experience, which stretches from the Tanagra figurines and the Romanesque manuscripts to the paintings of Rembrandt and Poussin and Corot and Mondrian. There is nothing laissez-faire about any of these masterpieces. When we contemplate them in all their particularity - in the almost delusional extremism of their varied visions and in the insistent singularity of their poetry - we are constantly reminded that high culture is anything but easygoing, that it is always daringly, rightfully, triumphantly intolerant.”

Concerned as I am with the future of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the subsequent paragraph from Perl’s essay really got my attention. He contends that American art museums are steadily being transformed into populist “art boutiques” where low-brow culture has equal footing with masterworks. A good example of this would be placing the Hollywood movie prop statue of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or LACMA’s plans to erect Jeff Koons’ giant Train in front of the museum. In the following except from Perl’s essay, he mentions the architectural renovation of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, a project managed by Renzo Piano, the same architect overseeing the renovation of LACMA:

“I worry about the Morgan. Renzo Piano’s ballyhooed addition, which opened last spring, has transformed what was a series of intimate spaces dedicated to the glories of connoisseurship and scholarship into a bunch of art boutiques in a high-modern mini-mall. This is not to say that the Morgan cannot still offer an unforgettable museum going experience. Yet the signs are not good. American museums are full of curators who worry about the malling of the museum, and realize that there are other ways to answer the concerns of trustees who want to bolster the endowment and combat rising costs. But in a country as wealthy as ours, what are generally presented as fiscal decisions can also be a cover for deeper philosophical predispositions. There may not be a museum director in America who is any longer willing to look a trustee in the eye and tell him that he is sitting in a museum and it is no place to talk about pop culture marketing strategies. There may not be a museum director in America who is willing to argue that an art museum is a particular kind of place, and that particular places are friendly to particular experiences.”

LACMA & the Spin Doctors from Hell

I’m not sure just when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired the services of the high-powered public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton, Inc. (H&K), but I first noticed the PR firm’s name included as a media contact on an official LACMA press release dated Feb. 3, 2006. The announcement was for the appointment of Michael Govan as the museum’s new Director and Chief Executive Officer (see the .pdf file.) When LACMA made known on March 6, 2007, that oil giant BP had given $25 million to the museum - LACMA’s official press release again included H&K as a media contact (.pdf file.)

[Update: LACMA has removed the above cited .pdf documents from their press release archive. However, one document from their online public records, the .pdf file titled LACMA Special Events, clearly lists Hill and Knowlton under the museum's "Partial Client List" on page four. The original Feb. 3., 2006 press release regarding Michael Govan having become director of LACMA was replaced with an updated bio on Sept. 30, 2010 which makes no mention of Govan having struck a $25 million funding deal with oil giant BP, nor of Govan agreeing to christen the newly constructed museum entry way, "The BP Grand Entrance."]

I have absolutely no objections to LACMA using a PR firm to effectively promote itself, nor would I criticize an individual for doing the same - but Hill and Knowlton, Inc. has a long and controversial roster of clients that I think readers of my web log should be aware of. A leading public relations corporation, H&K has 71 offices in 40 countries, with specialists in “crisis & issues management” as well as the oil and petrochemical industry. After reading some of the following, you may wonder what on earth has been going on behind closed doors at LACMA’s board of directors meetings.

Hill and Knowlton, Inc. became infamous over its dealings with the tobacco industry in the 1950s. In 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice finally sued the tobacco industry for $280 billion in damages, arguing that in 1953, the five major cigarette manufacturers met with “public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and agreed to jointly conduct a long term public relations campaign to counter the growing evidence linking smoking as a cause of serious diseases.” In August of 2006, a U.S. District Judge ruled that the tobacco companies had violated civil racketeering laws by conspiring for decades to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking - however, the judge did not order the monetary penalty proposed by the government (the case is currently being appealed.)

Lord of the lies; how Hill and Knowlton’s Robert Gray pulls Washington’s strings, written by Susan B. Trento and published by the Washington Monthly in Sept, 1992, detailed much of the PR firm’s skullduggery under the chairmanship of Gray. Trento wrote that for 30 years, Hill and Knowlton, “set a standard - not a particularly high one for what Washington lobbying can get away with (….) Whether the client was Haiti’s ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier or the Church of Scientology, the only criterion was that the client paid - and paid well.” Sheila Tate, a former H&K employee and later Nancy Reagan’s press secretary, described the PR firm as a “company without a moral rudder” for its controversial client list.

The Center for Public Integrity published a 1992 report titled, The Torturers’ Lobby, describing the use of PR firms by repressive regimes (view in .pdf or html.) Hill and Knowlton, Inc. topped the list of earnings, making $14 million in one year by representing governments that abuse human rights like China, Indonesia, Egypt, Peru, and Turkey. Human Rights groups have long condemned Turkey for abusing its citizens of Kurdish origin, but the center’s report stated that H&K earned $1.2 million from Turkey between 1991-1992. H&K even took the Chinese government as a client soon after its massacre of dissidents at Tiananmen Square in 1989 (source: Human Rights in China website - .pdf.) In May of 2005, Agence France-Presse reported that H&K signed a $600,000 contract with the government of Uganda, to “improve Uganda’s stained reputation as a human rights abuser and democracy laggard.”

In December of 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked 40 tons of lethal gas over the city, in what was to become the world’s worst industrial disaster. Some 8,000 people died in the first few days, and approximately 20,000 are believed to have perished in the aftermath. Today over 120,000 people in Bhopal continue to suffer health problems as a result of the disaster - blindness, cancer, serious birth-defects, and other ailments. A proper clean up of the plant and its environs has never taken place, and in Nov., 2004, the BBC reported that thousands of tons of toxic chemicals are still loose on the ground or held in open containers. Hill & Knowlton, Inc. handled Union Carbide’s PR troubles during the disaster, and H&K’s Executive Vice President, Richard C. Hyde, lead the “crisis management” team that assisted Union Carbide.

Hill & Knowlton, Inc. is currently the public relations firm for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the organization that represents the nuclear power industry. In a February 6th, 2006, Wall Street Journal article titled, Nuclear Industry Plans Ad Push For New Plants (Sub req’d), the paper reported that the “nation’s nuclear-power industry is set to roll out a multiyear advertising campaign to build public support for a generation of new plants” - and the ad campaign which promotes a “nuclear renaissance” is run by H&K. In a June 2006 editorial, the Columbia Journalism Review reported that the PR firm helped the NEI form the so-called “Clean and Safe Energy Coalition,” a front group that would sing the praises of nuclear energy for the corporate media. The Review wrote, “We just find it maddening that Hill & Knowlton, which has an $8 million account with the nuclear industry, should have such an easy time working the press.” That multi-million dollar contract stipulates “pre-empting and offsetting criticism from opponents.”

While we’re on the subject - when the Three-Mile Island nuclear plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had a partial core meltdown on March 28th, 1979, it was Hill & Knowlton, Inc. executive, Robert Dilenschneider, who was brought in to handle PR for the plant’s operators, Metropolitan Edison.

Hill & Knowlton, Inc. is probably most notorious for its work with the government of Kuwait in organizing and running the propaganda campaign aimed at getting the U.S. public to support military action against Iraq. On August 2nd, 1990, Saddam Hussein began Iraq’s invasion and 7 month-long occupation of neighboring Kuwait. Within a few days the Iraqis had completely overrun the Kuwaiti Armed Forces, and with more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and 700 tanks on Kuwait’s territory, the Kuwaiti Royal Family escaped to next door Saudi Arabia.

From exile the Kuwaiti government would employ as many as 20 PR firms in its campaign to mobilize U.S. public opinion (source: O’Dwyer’s PR Services Report, Vol. 5, No. 1, Jan. 1991 - “H&K leads PR charge in behalf of Kuwaiti cause.”) But the Kuwaitis would ultimately pay $10.8 million to H&K for a massive media blitz. On October 10, 1990, H&K orchestrated the appearance of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, identified only as Nayirah, before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington. The youngster wept as she told of her harrowing experience in occupied Kuwait City. “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital. While I was there I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns and go into the room where babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”

After Nayirah’s emotional testimony, President George H.W. Bush quoted her many times in addresses to the American people. For instance, at a Nov. 1st., 1990 Republican rally in Massachusetts, he said of the Iraqi invaders, “They have committed outrageous acts of barbarism. In one hospital, they pulled 22 premature babies from their incubators, sent the machines back to Baghdad, and all those little ones died.” At an Oct. 16th, 1990, fundraiser in Des Moines, Iowa, he said of the Iraqi occupiers, “I don’t mean to be overly shocking here - but let me just mention some reports, firsthand reports. At a hospital, Iraqi soldiers unplugged the oxygen to incubators supporting 22 premature babies. They all died. And then they shot the hospital employees.” A number of Senators also used Nayirah’s testimony in the same way, and the shocking story was repeated innumerable times in radio, television, and newspaper reports.

After the war, investigations found absolutely no evidence to support the incubator claims. As it turned out, Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, and her father was Kuwait’s Ambassador to the U.S., Saud Nasir Al-Sabah. The youngster never worked at the al-Addan hospital and under no circumstances had been witness to the butchery she recounted. Nayirah’s story was completely fabricated, and H&K’s vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado had coached the teenager in false testimony.

The record of Hill and Knowlton, Inc. as a dodgy and immoral PR firm is extensive, and itemizing their misconduct and crimes is beyond the scope of this web log. The facts I’ve researched and presented here are public knowledge - one can only imagine the skeletons in the closet. If you take the time to conduct your own research, you’ll find information on many other controversies surrounding H&K. In 1983 it managed PR for the building materials manufacturers, U.S. Gypsum, aimed at downplaying the connection between asbestos and health problems. The firm took an estimated $5 million from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1990 to wage an anti-abortion PR campaign. In 2004 H&K began working with Wal-Mart in order to rehabilitate the image of the Union busting retail company. The larger question is, why did LACMA take into service a high-powered corporate PR firm so tainted with unseemliness?

Conceivably the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in employing Hill and Knowlton, Inc. merely wanted to increase its profile with the general public. Or perhaps, realizing that their relationship with a major oil company would be seen as a liability, the vaunted arts institution decided to implement damage control - my suspicions point to the latter. What LACMA might be paying H&K for its services is not public knowledge, but the PR firm does not come cheap. Likewise, while it’s not known exactly what H&K is doing for LACMA, insiders in the lobbying and public relations industry have a saying, “the best PR is invisible.”

So the next time you’re exposed to a radio spot, television news segment, magazine article, or glowing press review extolling LACMA and its big oil benefactor, you might be consuming propaganda from hired guns Hill and Knowlton, Inc. When you read that Michael Govan, the director and CEO of LACMA, praised oil giant BP for “their commitment to sustainable energy,” you may have the feeling he was coached by the PR firm - and you just might be right.

Jeff Koons: The Schlock of the New

On February 1st, 2007, Los Angeles Country Museum of Art CEO Michael Govan and postmodernist “King of Kitsch” Jeff Koons, were featured speakers at a LACMA public event billed as a conversation on “the role of artists in shaping the museum of the future.” At the event the duo publicly announced plans to erect Koons’ Train, an enormous structure made of an actual 70-foot fabricated steam locomotive hanging from a massive 161-foot heavy construction crane.

To be located at LACMA’s “BP Grand Entrance” on Wilshire Boulevard, the suspended train will spin its wheels, whistle and blow-out steam three times a day; and according to Govan, “The beautiful thing is that we would see it from the 10 freeway and from downtown” - which to those not familiar with L.A. means the structure will be visible from most points in the sprawling metropolis. New York Arts Magazine reported that Govan compared the project to the Eiffel Tower, “expressing hope that the piece would become a landmark for Los Angeles.”

Train - by Koons

[ Train - Model by Jeff Koons Production / Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The 70-foot locomotive dangling from a 161-foot crane, is to be placed in front of the so-called "BP Grand Entrance." ]

If Train reminds you of the works created by the Dadaists or Surrealists, or perhaps the readymades constructed by Marcel Duchamp - think again. The aforementioned were outsiders who used art to blow-up the traditions and power centers of the elite art world. Koons on the other hand is an insider who is wedded to privilege, as is evident from the $1 million given to LACMA by the Annenberg Foundation, funds to be used in conducting engineering studies on the feasibility of Koons’ proposed construction. Train also has the backing of billionaire and LACMA trustee Eli Broad, who has donated $60 million to LACMA for the construction of The Broad Contemporary Art Museum - which by the way will house Broad’s collection of twenty Jeff Koons originals.

Those who attempt to find anything meaningful in Koons’ productions should simply remember the following admonition from him, “A viewer might at first see irony in my work… but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.” There you have it, the perfect art for 21st century America - it won’t make you think! However, there is great irony in Train - though certainly Koons, Govan, Broad, and their supporters are hopelessly unaware of this. The U.S. passenger train and light-rail industry was effectively destroyed through the combined rise of private automobiles, diesel buses, the development of an Interstate Highway System, and the use of trucks and planes for freight transport. Naturally, oil companies and their supporting industries benefited enormously from this shift. The irony is that in order to see Koons’ ludicrous steam locomotive one must first pass through the “BP Grand Entrance” - LACMA’s paean to the power and glory of big oil. Though unintentional, Koons’ Train gives us a representation of the U.S. passenger train industry crucified by the might of the petroleum empire.

More than 25 years ago, art critic Robert Hughes helped to change the way people thought about modern art through his TV series, The Shock of the New. The series was revised by Hughes in 2004 to reflect current realities, and broadcast on the BBC that same year as, The New Shock of the New. Here’s what Hughes had to say about Koons:

“We decided to put Jeff Koons in the new programme: not because his work is beautiful or means anything much, but because it is such an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him. He fits into Bush’s America the way Warhol fitted into Reagan’s. There may be worse things waiting in the wings (never forget that morose observation of Milton’s on the topography of Hell: “And in the lowest depth, a lower depth”) but for the moment they aren’t apparent, which isn’t to say that they won’t crawl, glistening like Paris Hilton’s lip-gloss, out of some gallery next month. Koons is the perfect product of an art system in which the market controls nearly everything, including much of what gets said about art.”

Condemnation of Koons abounds, but one of the finest critiques made of him and what he represents, can be find in D.S. Baker’s February 1993 article, Jeff Koons And The Paradox Of A Superstar’s Phenomenon, a must read for anyone interested contemporary art:

“As Superstar, as real capitalist (a former stockbroker), as real playboy with sex object (see Koons’ series Made in Heaven), Koons inverts Warhol’s position. Instead of being the alienated artist who mimics commodity relations, Koons himself becomes an authentic reified creation, a Superstar. In doing so, he negates any distance from celebrity and the culture industry. Where Warhol could merely declare that he was all surface, it is Koons who officially becomes homogeneous with commodity society - pure surface. Rather than making art from some as-yet-unincorporated enclave, Koons is making art from within the structures of institutional art, as part and parcel of the culture industry.”

The above excerpt from Baker’s article mentioned the series, Made in Heaven, which in my opinion is the best introduction to a vapid artist steeped in narcissism and shallowness. In 1991 Koons married Italian porn-star turned politician, Ilona Staller. Being a shameless self-publicist, Koons had himself photographed naked with his wife engaged in uninhibited sex - the stills becoming the basis for the artist’s Made in Heaven suite of paintings and sculptures. Koons’ had the photos printed in oil based inks on canvas, and insists these abominations are “paintings.” No doubt Billionaire tycoons Eli Broad and François Pinault - who have made the works of Koons a cornerstone of their collections - would agree (You can see the Made in Heaven series here - but be careful, adults only!) In a 1986 interview conducted with the Journal of Contemporary Art, Koons was asked what he thought of advertising, since his works are largely based upon corporate media images, Koons responded:

“It’s basically the medium that defines people’s perceptions of the world, of life itself, how to interact with others. The media defines reality. Just yesterday we met some friends. We were celebrating and I said to them: ‘Here’s to good friends!’ It was like living in an ad. It was wonderful, a wonderful moment. We were right there living in the reality of our media (…) I believe in advertisement and media completely. My art and my personal life are based in it.”

Koons supposedly represents the “best and brightest” from the national cultural scene - a sad “fact” I find utterly disheartening and unacceptable. That LACMA can reward this cipher with a high-profile commission and a place in art history does not bode well for any of us. Robert Pincus-Witten, director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, put it this way; “Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the process. Let’s begin with the commodity.’” In other words - to hell with art, let’s make money.

Drawing from the architecture firm of Renzo Piano

[ An architectural drawing showing Koons‘ Train in front of the so-called "BP Grand Entrance." The Broad Contemporary Art Museum is on the left, with the LACMA Ahmanson on the right. Drawing from the architecture firm of Renzo Piano. ]

Another troubling aspect to Koons being placed front and center at the new LACMA is the effect Train will have on the overall look of the museum, giving it the aura of a commercial entertainment theme park like Hollywood’s Universal Citywalk, confirming the clichés people have about culture in a place like Los Angeles. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was initially selected to redesign the museum, but when his plans proved too costly, he was fired and replaced by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. As Piano drew up plans for the renovated museum, LACMA’s director Michael Govan began to interject his own ideas for the look and feel of the revamped institution - bringing the wretched Koons into the picture. L.A. Times staff writer Christopher Hawthorne correctly but politely referred to this as “pulling focus” from Piano’s graceful designs. Hawthorne wrote that Koons’ Train carries:

“…heavy symbolic weight and a sensibility that couldn’t be more different from Piano’s work. The architect’s recent projects stress rationality, the careful manipulation of light and a seamless, elegant marriage of technology and design. The train, which hangs perpendicular to the ground, seems to be hurtling straight at the pavement, ready to smash all those ideas to bits. In part - and there is really no getting around this fact - the new elements also serve to camouflage Piano’s architecture.”

Koons is deficient in his capacity to draw, paint, or sculpt - and like many other postmodernists, he contracts others to actually create his artworks. The manufacture of his objects is handled by a small army of studio assistants at his outfit, Jeff Koons Productions. In the previously mentioned Journal of Contemporary Art interview, he admitted that “I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities.” Apologists for this type of art production say that its no different than the medieval or renaissance art workshops where apprentices labored under the direction of a master artist; but while the masters of old delegated certain tasks to other artists or assistants, they were more than mere directors, they were intimately involved in the actual work. That could even be said for a modern like Andy Warhol and his factory. The lowliest paint mixer in a renaissance workshop would have been a better draftsman than Koons - but these days, not having the “necessary abilities” is no impediment to becoming an art star with a lucrative career. Nevertheless, Koons is no master artist, and it is an embarrassment that LACMA actively promotes him.

LACMA Director earns more than Bush

UPDATED Jan. 18, 2017: The last available record of Michael Govan’s annual compensation as director of LACMA was made available in 2014; his pay was listed as $1,029,921. LACMA also provides Govan with a free $5-million dollar home; the New York Times noted that benefit is worth “$126,500 a year, according to tax fillings.” Mr. Govan’s salary is now considerably more than that of a sitting U.S. president ($400,000).

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The acts of corruption that have recently played out at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., might be the first in a season of scandal for the art world, but if you look closely you’ll see the rot has spread far and wide. On March 26th, 2007, the top official of the Smithsonian, Secretary Lawrence M. Small, resigned his position against a backdrop of outrage over his having used museum funds for personal aggrandizement.

Had it not been for his resignation, Small would have been compensated $915,698 this year for his work as the Secretary of the Smithsonian. Small’s downfall came about on March 22nd, 2007, when an amendment introduced by Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, proposing a freeze in funding for the Smithsonian - passed the U.S. Senate by a unanimous vote. It was a shot across the bow that couldn’t be ignored. Senator Grassley commented that, “It signals to the Smithsonian that a champagne lifestyle at taxpayer expense is unacceptable.”

However, what really got my attention in the furor kicked up by Senator Grassley, was the specific language in the good Senator’s budget amendment. It explicitly stated that no Smithsonian employee should be paid more than the total annual compensation of the president of the United States: $400,000 a year. That’s when the magnitude of the Smithsonian scandal hit me like a ton of bricks - the yearly salary of the Smithsonian’s director was twice that paid to the president of the United States.

After getting over that initial shock, I decided to conduct a little research into the salary paid to Michael Govan, the new Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). As it turns out, the 42-year old Govan also “earns” more than a sitting United States president. The L.A. Times reported on June 4th, 2006, that Govan is paid “a $600,000 base salary (about $120,000 from the county, the rest from the private, nonprofit Museum Associates). That figure, which excludes housing and car allowances, puts him about $145,000 ahead of his predecessor, Andrea L. Rich.”

Obviously, the duties and obligations inherent in being the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, pales in comparison to the awesome responsibility of directing an art museum with a $48-million budget and 320 employees.

While the mainstream press, art blogs and art world luminaries applaud Michael Govan, no one asks if it’s proper for an art museum director to be paid more than a sitting president of the United States. The unacceptable “champagne lifestyle” that Senator Grassley spoke of now seems firmly entrenched at LACMA, and the museum’s revolving door policy towards major corporate funders seems an open invitation to excess and corruption. But as the old truism goes, “the bigger they come, the harder they fall.”

LACMA: Director Govan & BP Oil

Interesting revelations concerning energy giant BP and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) were made in a March 6th, 2007, article by the Los Angeles Times. The paper revealed that sometime in 2006 the chairman and president of BP America, Bob Malone, asked billionaire Eli Broad - who is heavily financing LACMA’s reconstruction - to recommend causes in L.A. where the oil company “could make a difference.” It was Mr. Broad who first suggested LACMA as a recipient of funds from BP. From then on, Michael Govan, the new Director and Chief Executive Officer of LACMA, enthusiastically cozied up to BP’s top executive officers in London. One can only imagine the exchanges that went on behind those closed doors - but the result was a $25 million “gift” from BP to LACMA and Govan’s pledge to name the museum’s new entry way, “The BP Grand Entrance.” The Times quoted Govan as saying “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy…. We won’t make the transition without the help and cooperation of these major corporations.”

Mr. Govan is undeniably a sophisticated fellow who appreciates the mechanisms of wealth and power in our globalized society, but it is entirely out of the question that he is ignorant of the controversies surrounding BP - one of the world’s most rapacious oil companies. Even the briefest exploration of BP’s dismal record will turn up enough facts so as to throw serious doubt upon Govan’s sincerity and credibility - yet he persists in singing the praises of BP, the “sustainable energy” giant. Here we must consider the likelihood that a high-powered PR firm is coaching Govan’s public statements. In the meantime, read what some critics have to say about BP - Mr. Govan’s new found friends in the oil industry.

LACMA - BP logo

[ LACMA - BP logo. Published in an official March 6, 2007, LACMA press release announcing the oil giant’s "gift" to the museum. ]

Green Logo, but BP Is Old Oil. - By Joe Nocera. August 12, 2006. (New York Times) “Yet at its core, BP remains an oil company, and no matter how much it says it wants to create more environmentally sensitive sources of energy, its basic task is still to stick holes in the ground in search of hydrocarbons.”

Behind the spin, the oil giants are more dangerous than ever. - By George Monbiot. Tuesday June 13, 2006. (The Guardian) “The green rebranding of Shell and BP is a fraud. Far from switching to biofuels, it’s drilling and devastation as usual (…) BP’s rebranding, like Shell’s, has been so effective that you could be forgiven for believing that it had become an environmental pressure group. These companies have used the vast profits from their petroleum business to create the impression that they are abandoning it.”

Oil Slicks: BP’s new eco-friendly ad campaign makes no sense. - By Daniel Gross. Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2002. ( “If our kids should be so fortunate as to live in a world beyond petroleum, one in which cars, factories, and electricity plants are powered by an alternative power source-hydrogen, fuel cells, electric batteries, ethanol, fission, or fairy dust-it’s a virtual certainty BP won’t be the one to get us there.”

Report slams BP, cites organization, safety deficiencies. - By Edward Iwata. Tue, March 20th, 2007. (USA TODAY) “A federal report Tuesday blasted energy giant BP for sweeping ‘organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels’ that led to the 2005 fire and explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 and injured 180. In its largest investigation ever, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found in a 335-page report that 25% budget cuts at BP’s plants, including Texas City, ‘left the Texas City refinery vulnerable to a catastrophe.’ (….) ‘After the 2005 disaster, OSHA fined BP $21 million - its largest penalty in history - for 300 safety violations.

BP chief fields barrage of questions on ethics. - By Andrew Clark. Friday April 20, 2001. (The Guardian) “5% of investors voted for BP to withdraw from its shareholding in Beijing-controlled PetroChina (….) PetroChina is planning to build an oil pipeline through Tibet. Opponents, including the Dalai Lama, say this threatens local culture and will lead to large-scale population transfer (….) The International Campaign for Tibet, suggested BP’s new slogan ‘Beyond Petroleum’ should be changed to ‘Beijing’s Partners’or ‘Backing Persecution’. He said BP was ‘utilizing every arcane and legalistic tool to stifle debate on the matter.’”

LACMA: Broad, Beuys, & BP

Eli Broad is ranked by FORBES as number 42 on its list of 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of over $5.8 billion dollars. Touted as a philanthropist interested in raising the cultural profile of Los Angeles, Mr. Broad (whose name rhymes with “load”), has been busy putting his stamp on L.A. He was the founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and is currently a powerful trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where his $60 million “gift” will build The Broad Contemporary Art Museum to house his massive collection of modern art.

The Broad Art Foundation has made known its unparalleled acquisition of 570 artworks by German artist, Joseph Beuys (pronounced “boyz”). The huge collection was procured for an undisclosed sum, and comprises the most complete body of work by the deceased artist now held in the United States. Eli Broad said of his purchase, “We consider this an opportunity to make a real difference in Los Angeles’ emergence as a world capital for contemporary art. An artist as significant as Beuys should be strongly represented here.” LACMA’s director, Michael Govan, has promised that the works of Beuys will be placed on exhibit when the museum unveils its new multi-million dollar facilities in early February, 2008. Govan said “Beuys is one of the most important artists of the post-war era,” and “therefore ideal to present at the opening of LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum.”

I must admit that I’m not a devotee of German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). He is credited by enthusiasts of postmodernism as one of the most influential figures in contemporary art, but to me his performances or “actions” as he called them, were obscurantist affairs at best - and his installation works were equally baffling. For example, in his infamous 1965 performance/action, How To Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare, Beuys covered his head in honey and gold leaf and moped before a live audience while carrying a dead hare through an exhibit of pictures - all the while talking to the lifeless animal. However, unlike many of today’s conceptualists, Beuys believed in art as a catalyst for revolutionary change. This dedication to a transformative social art was a primary force behind the artist’s performances and artistic activities. In his 1973 statement, Art into Society, Society into Art, Beuys wrote;

“Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art, to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build ‘A Social Organism as a work of art’… every human being is an artist, who - from his state of freedom – the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand - learns to determine the other positions of the total art work of the future social order.”

In 1979 his intense interest in radical democracy led Beuys to found the Green Party along with Petra Kelly and Heinrich Böll. That same year Beuys ran for election as a Green Party European Parliament candidate - an election that the left-wing environmentalist party failed to win. In 1980 Beuys was the leading candidate for the Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia, but again the party failed to get enough votes to enter parliament. Those setbacks notwithstanding, Beuys continued to support the Green Party and the vision of a “free democratic socialism.” In 1982 Beuys began his 7000 Oaks project for the Documenta 7 international art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. The endeavor involved the planting of seven thousand trees across the city of Kassel, a deed aimed at implementing social and environmental change. Beuys fervently believed in art as the key to creating a better world, and he viewed society itself as a constantly evolving work of art where everyone played a creative role - hence his famous statement, “Everyone is an artist.”

Green Party election poster designed by Joseph Beuys

[ Election Poster for the Green Party - Designed by Joseph Beuys, 1979-1980. The legend reads: "With this choice, the Green Party." ]

You just have to marvel over the contradiction of an elite art institution flaunting the artworks of an anti-capitalist, radical environmentalist artist. Beuys once said, “We do not need all that we are meant to buy today to satisfy profit-based private capitalism.” Once the new LACMA opens in 2008, in order to see the Beuys collection in The Broad Contemporary Art Museum, you’ll have to walk through that damned “BP Grand Entrance” pavilion - constructed with the $25 million the oil company gave LACMA. It’s not difficult to imagine what the former Green Party candidate would think of this folly - and what he might do if still alive today. In 1985, just a year before his death, Beuys wrote the words that should be emblazoned on the walls of the BP pavilion;

“Art that can not shape society and therefore also can not penetrate the heart questions of society - and in the end influence the question of capital - is no art.”

LACMA: The Oil Museum

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), after receiving $25 million dollars from the multinational oil company BP (British Petroleum), plans to dedicate a new entry gate and pavilion to the energy Goliath. To be christened the “BP Grand Entrance”, the construction is nothing more than an edifice to big oil and the clearest example yet of the increasing corporatization of the arts in America.

Historically, the largesse of wealthy benefactors has always played a role in the arts, with the names of well-heeled patrons gracing museum wings and collections. But there is something unseemly about naming part of an art museum after a transnational oil conglomerate - especially when considering the increasingly toxic role of oil companies in today’s world. President of BP America, Bob Malone, said the donation represents the energy giant’s “commitment to the arts” - but scrutiny of the oil-smeared endowment reveals a public relations campaign designed to erase public memory of BP’s dirty doings.

Artwork by: Renzo Piano and Building Workshop

[ Aerial view of the model for a proposed new LACMA. Artwork by: Renzo Piano and Building Workshop. Red dot: LACMA West - the former May Company building at Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax Ave. Yellow dot: Location for the so-called "BP Grand Entrance" - a massive entry pavilion devoted to the power and glory of big oil. Blue dot: Japanese Pavillion. Green dot: La Brea Tar Pits. In between the yellow and blue dots, current museum facilities are to be completely renovated. ]

BP’s contribution will go towards a costly three-part expansion and renovation of LACMA’s facilities. The oil leviathan’s cash has swollen the money available for the first phase construction to $191 million. Italian architect Renzo Piano has won the commission to redesign and unify LACMA’s expansive site. Billionaire Eli Broad and his wife Edythe gave $60 million to the overhaul project. The Broad Contemporary Art Museum, to be built just west of the “BP Grand Entrance”, will connect to LACMA’s existing main wing and will house Eli Broad’s collection of modern art. The new LACMA and its edifice to the petroleum industry, is scheduled to open February of 2008.

In a March 6th article on the oil company’s “gift” to LACMA, the Los Angeles Times noted that, “Putting an oil company’s name on LACMA’s doorway brings an unusually high potential for controversy.” Indeed - and here comes the controversy! Despite the endless and well-financed public relations spin concerning BP’s alleged “commitment to sustainable energy”, the fact of the matter is that BP is part of the “OILigarchy” - the rapacious fossil fuel industry responsible for global warming and massive environmental destruction. BP reported profits of $22 billion in 2006, and the company currently has an ongoing commitment to increase its oil production by 5% - a policy that must be linked to the very real crisis of fossil fuel-induced climate change.

Photo by Gary Leonard

[ The "BP Grand Entrance" under construction. Photo by Gary Leonard. ]

BP invests less than 1% of its annual budget in solar and other renewable energy sources - a smaller amount than it spends yearly on public relations and advertising. That fact must be kept in mind, as the “BP Grand Entrance” pavilion will be topped by solar panels allegedly there to help fill LACMA’s energy needs. However, the real task of the solar panels is a propagandistic one. BP wishes to pawn itself off as a green energy company, and LACMA - for a price - is only too happy to collude.

As the L.A. Times noted in its March 6th article, BP has paid more than $125 million in legal settlements in the State of California since 2002. Quoting the L.A. Times article, “BP paid the state $45.8 million to settle a suit over pollution from leaking gasoline storage tanks. Later, air quality regulators sued over leakage of smog-forming chemicals at BP’s Carson refinery. BP settled for $81 million.”

In 2005, BP’s Texas City Refinery exploded, killing 15 workers and injuring 170. U.S. government agencies investigating the blast found that BP’s excessive safety and budget cuts had led to the tragedy. More than 1,700 lawsuits have been filed by injured workers, with some 1,200 claims being settled out of court by BP in order to avoid bad publicity. The oil company has set aside $1.6 billion dollars to settle cases out of court. In the wake of the explosion in Texas, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), opened investigations into two of BP’s Midwestern refineries, finding the oil giant guilty of violating 39 safety regulations. OSHA issued penalty citations totaling $2.4 million dollars - BP hopes to settle out of court.

In 2006 BP was forced to shut down half of its oil operations in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, when the company’s worn-out, corroded pipelines began to leak - dumping an estimated 200,000 gallons of crude oil onto Alaskan tundra. On March 6th, 2007, Reuters reported that “Oil major BP’s failure to maintain pipelines properly at its giant Prudhoe Bay field was a major factor behind Alaska’s worst-ever onshore crude spill last year.” In that same report Reuters interviewed Thomas Barret, the head of the U.S. Department of Transport (one of the U.S. government agencies investigating the spill), who said; “What was most unusual was to have an operator like BP not maintaining these pipelines to the standards we typically see in the industry.”

BP is behind the controversial Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline - the second longest pipeline in the world - transporting crude oil from fields in the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. The pipeline runs across the countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, all of which are conflict zones with notorious human rights records. BP has signed “production-sharing agreements” with the three host governments, neo-colonial contracts that bypass respective national environmental and social laws and place the overwhelming majority of profits in the hands of BP and its partners.

And speaking of oil pipelines in conflict zones, in 2006 BP secretively paid out a multi-million dollar settlement to Columbian farmers who were terrorized by right-wing death squads “protecting” BP’s 500-mile long Ocensa oil pipeline. A thousand poor Columbian farmers filed a human rights challenge in the High Court of London, charging BP with benefiting from the bullying and persecution meted out by the rightist militias. A Columbian lawyer attempting to assist the farmers discovered she was on a paramilitary death list, and fled to Britain where she was granted political asylum. While the total compensation paid to the farmers is unknown, it is believed to have totaled in the tens of millions of dollars. Part of the settlement stipulated BP would bear “no admission of liability” for the beatings, death threats, and property damage suffered by the farmers.

Of course BP has a long history in the Middle East, where seventy percent of the world’s oil reserves are found. Western powers thirsty for petroleum and a need to control the region’s black gold have historically resorted to colonialism, the backing of dictatorships, the proliferation of weapons, and as we see today in Iraq - outright war and occupation.

During the first week of March, 2007, the Anglo-American backed government of Iraq, approved a draft law that will essentially turn over Iraq’s oil wealth to American and British companies. The Iraqi oil legislation bill promotes a “production-sharing agreement” that would guarantee foreign companies up to 70 percent of the revenues obtained from exploiting Iraqi oil, giving U.S. and British oil companies the unrestricted right to take oil profits out of the country, rather than reinvesting them in Iraq. The lion’s share of Iraq oil profits will therefore go to Shell, ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, and yes - BP. The draft law still needs final Iraqi government approval before it can be enacted, but with U.S. and British military might keeping the Iraqi government in power - passage is sure to be a “done deal.”

The roots of BP’s meddling in the Middle East go back to 1909. In that year, through an agreement with the Shah of Iran, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) began to exploit the oil resources of Persia, obtaining petroleum that fed the British war machine during World War 1. In 1936 Persia was renamed Iran, and APOC became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). In 1951 the Iranian parliament passed a bill that nationalized the oil industry, effectively barring British exploitation of Iranian petroleum and causing the Shah - and AIOC - to flee the country. The British then colluded with the U.S. and the C.I.A. to organize the infamous coup that overthrew Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq and his democratically elected government. On August 19th, 1953, Mossadeq was driven from power, the pro-Western Shah was restored, and in 1954 AIOC became known as The British Petroleum Company (BP) - which of course immediately resumed pumping oil out of Iran.

Credited with such a laundry list of misdeeds, it is not surprising that others have taken notice of BP’s destructive schemes, and have called for resistance to big oil’s sponsorship of the arts. The National Portrait Gallery of London, England, was established in 1856, and it’s the repository for some of that nation’s greatest historic portraits. The gallery holds an annual portrait competition that has launched the careers of several portrait artists. Since 2004 the celebrated competition has been sponsored by none other than BP, and the competition is now known as the “BP Portrait Award.”

In response, English artists and environmental activists started a group called, Art Not Oil, which seeks to end oil industry sponsorship of the arts. The group’s mission statement encourages “artists to create work that explores the damage that companies like BP and Shell are doing to the planet, and the role art can play in counteracting that damage.” The misconduct of BP and other oil companies is continually and determinedly exposed through the art exhibits, educational forums and public protests mounted by the artist activists of Art Not Oil. It is unquestionably time to establish a similar organization in Los Angeles - either that or get used to calling LACMA - The Oil Museum.

[ UPDATE: Art critic Walter Robinson at picked up the LACMA/BP story in a March 16th, 2007, Artnet News article titled Stink over BP deal with LACMA.]