Category: LACMA

Michael Heizer’s City A Scar On The Earth

This is a tale of two cities, though I imagine Charles Dickens never imagined anything like the following. The story has to do with one garden city where gentlepeople exalt art, and another cosmopolis… actually the very same burg, where those identical magnificos step over bodies to see first-class art exhibits.

Wherever you are in Los Angeles, you will come across the homeless, their tent cities sprout up in parking lots, intersections, and under every freeway overpass. Despite the liberal halo of the city many denizens ignore the sight of unhoused people sleeping and living on bus benches, in busses and subways, in parks, and in the doorways of businesses after closing time. I have even witnessed homeless people sleeping in store isles.

“Homeless man, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Hollywood Boulevard.” Photo: Mark Vallen.

Many of the homeless are decent people, their numbers include Vets and those who simply can’t afford rent, especially after the “Covid crisis” threw many out of work. Conversely, a huge number suffer from drug addiction and mental illness. Everyone in LA has seen disoriented souls shuffling around in filthy rags, pushing shopping carts filled with their worldly belongings. In 2022 the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority estimated there are over 69,000 homeless people living on the streets; I’m inclined to believe that is a low count.

“Homeless man, downtown Detroit, Michigan.” Photo: Mark Vallen.

There are many grim stories in LA’s homeless crisis, some are frightfully tragic, others simply disturbing.

However, the suffering is not unique to Lost Angeles, chronic homelessness exists in the US from coast to coast; I have personally seen it in San Francisco, San Diego, and also in Detroit, Michigan.

Since the war between Russia and Ukraine began Biden has sent more than $65 billion in aid to Ukraine—without the slightest bit of accountability or transparency. Meanwhile, Americans who are homeless live and die on the streets.

Which brings me to the magnificos and their cutting-edge art exhibitions.

Michael Heizer produces “land art.” Beginning in the late 1960s “land artists” altered wild natural landscapes, creating site specific earthworks based on conceptual and minimalist art aesthetics; they mostly used rock, earth, clay, sand, tree branches and twigs, and other natural objects to create their works.

“A Line Made By Walking.” Richard Long. 1967. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Concurrent with the newfound environmentalist movement, land art oftentimes reflected the concerns of that crusade. One ludicrous example is Richard Long’s minimalist A Line Made By Walking (1967), literally a line worn into a field by the “artist” walking back and forth.

As with Long’s Line, land art is usually extensively documented with photography, and the photos are exhibited in galleries and museums.

In 1969 Heizer created his first land art project in the desert of Moapa Valley near Overton, Nevada. In dynamiting two trenches 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep he removed 240,000 tons of sandstone.

The open trenches cut across the gaping collapsed edge of an eroding plateau; together the geological formations, one natural the other man-made, presented negative space. Heizer titled his dig Double Negative; reportedly it was a statement on the human impact on the environment. But it was really a Double Entendre blasted out with dynamite.

“Double Negative.” Michael Heizer. 1969. Photo: Retis (CC BY 2.0).

Land art was reputedly a way to defy the commercialization and commodification of art. Let’s see how that worked out.

In 2012 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), at the behest of its director Michael Govan, paid Michael Heizer $10 million for a 340-ton boulder Heizer titled Levitated Mass. The huge granite rock was mounted over a slot located outdoors on the LACMA campus, which allowed viewers to walk beneath it.

For the lowbrow crowd the boulder was a backdrop for selfies. Prior to selling the boulder for $10 million, art-world gatekeepers and their plutocrat allies considered Heizer an exemplar of the postmodern school of art; the boulder sale confirmed that title. On Feb, 25, 2012 I wrote a parody of Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” that I titled Alleviated Masses.

Ironically, Michael Govan decided to demolish the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and build a new LACMA on its ruins for the reputed cost of $750 million. Beginning Jan. 2020 the wrecking cranes and bulldozers began to destroy the museum. By Feb. 2021 LACMA had been totally obliterated. Naturally, Heizer’s Levitated Mass survived the demolition. Ruins on top of ruins.

Heizer reemerged in Aug. 2022 when the media and art world gatekeepers began promoting his just finished project called City, which opened to the public on Sept. 2, 2022. Heizer started building City in 1970. Located in a remote area of the Nevada desert, the ersatz metropolis is a land art cityscape of dirt and clay mounds, gravel covered plazas, roads leading nowhere, and huge useless concrete structures. It’s all vaguely evocative of ancient pre-Columbian cities.

“City” as seem from the air. Photo: Google Maps.

City is a mile and a half long, and half a mile wide. It was not built to house or shelter anyone, it was meant to be empty.

In 1998 Heizer founded the Triple Aught Foundation to support and maintain his City project. The foundation was joined by bigwigs in the art world like Michael Govan—destroyer of LACMA, and Glenn D. Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Now the foundation runs the amusement park for Heizer, and has to date raised a $30 million endowment for it. Govan said of City:

“It’s an artwork aware of our primal impulses to build and organize space, but it incorporates our modernity, our awareness of and reflection upon the subjectivity of our human experience of time and space as well as the many histories of civilizations we have built.”

Ultimately City cost around $40 million to construct.

Concrete monument “45° 90° 180°” at Heizer’s “City.” Photo: Triple Aught Foundation/Ben Blackwell ©

Here’s where the magnificos of the patrician art world and mass media enter the picture. With their liberal politics how do they not see that the spectacle of dedicating a huge sham city for $40 million—a fake urban center meant to house no one, is an obscenity while an estimated 550,000 Americans are homeless? I’m afraid the magnificos understand this all too well… they just don’t care.

US inflation has reached a level not seen in 40 years. Hard-working Americans can only afford enough gasoline to take them to and from work, while a gaggle of bourgeois art buffs swoon over a $40 million boondoggle in the desert.

“Homeless woman, San Francisco, California.” Photo: Mark Vallen.

The long-winded pseudo intellectuals of the art world will tell you that Heizer’s City is a work about “our primal impulses to build and organize space,” as our cities deteriorate and homeless Americans die on the streets.

The Triple Aught Foundation can raise $30 million to sustain Heizer’s vacant empty dead space, but the 69,000 homeless people living on the streets of Los Angeles, well… they don’t have a highfalutin, hoity-toity, blue ribbon art foundation backing them.

At the bottom of the Triple Aught Foundation webpage one finds this statement:

“Triple Aught Foundation respectfully acknowledges that City has been created within the ancestral territories of the Nuwu (Southern Paiute) and Newe (Western Shoshoni), who lived in and around the vicinity and call this land home, as their ancestors did before them.”

Since Heizer and his foundation “respectfully acknowledges” that City is built on land the Paiute and Shoshoni call home, what then do indigenous people receive in exchange, I mean… aside from a pat on the head.

City isn’t a commemorative monument to the Paiute, Shoshoni or any indigenous tribe. While art snobs may compare Heizer’s “masterpiece” to the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatan, it’s a false comparison. Heizer created an outrageously expensive imitation settlement feigning indigenous aesthetics. It sits on Indian land pretending to be profound. Liberals ordinarily condemn such nonsense as “cultural appropriation,” but all I read are accolades for Heizer.

Fake Aztec pyramids at Heizer’s “City.” Photo: Triple Aught Foundation/Tom Vinetz ©

One could construe England’s prehistoric site of Stonehenge as “land art,” it was created over 4,000 years ago by unknown clans. You could interpret the native American Mound Builders of 5,000 years ago as “land artists.” Or, it might come to mind that Heizer has inappropriately exploited the culture and identities of the ancients, and that today’s art and aesthetics are moving backwards.

My problem with City is that it is a heartless work, created during a period when art had already become senseless and indifferent. Heizer’s works, especially City, summarizes the “luxury politics and aesthetics” of today’s postmodern art; it is a monument only to the narcissism of its creator.

I speak as a humble working artist who believes art is a healing force for humanity. I’m not a theologian or moralizer, but as the fussiness surrounding Heizer and City clearly illustrates, today’s art world has a broken moral compass.

I’m not opposed to generous amounts of money being used to create art, or artists profiting from their works, but we’ve swaggered way beyond that. Today’s vainglorious and self-righteous art world gloatingly dances around the Golden Calf… it has become an abomination.

I believe an artwork can be “priceless” in a spiritual sense, but when you start talking about a $40 million dollar imitation city, my eyes glaze over. What price do we put on the lives of homeless Americans? What cost do we put on shattered American communities and hollowed out ravaged municipalities?

“Blossoming Cactus Flower.” Photo: Mark Vallen.

Michael Heizer built City somewhere in the Nevada desert. A desert’s ecology is not barren, lifeless, or quiet. You just need to rediscover how to look and listen.

Learn to hear the raven’s call carried on the wind. Watch for bighorn sheep and the tortoise. The desert is brimming with magic.

The sun brings the world life each morning at dawn, the moon and stars cradle all with silvery light. The universe can be seen in a single blossoming cactus flower. Be silent and calm and you will feel the wandering indigenous and pioneer spirits stirring. The desert is a sacred place I love to visit. But Michael Heizer’s City is not hallowed and sacrosanct… it is a scar on the earth.

The Rise and Fall of LACMA

"Ahmanson Annulled." What was left of the top floor of the four-story Ahmanson Gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) once the wrecking crane was finished on May 13, 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"Ahmanson Annulled." What was left of the top floor of the four-story Ahmanson Gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) when the wrecking crane was finished on May 13, 2020. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

As a Los Angeles born artist, the tale of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is a personal story for me; I’m actually older than the museum. My anecdotes will offer a glimpse of its glory days, and my photo essay will depict its inevitable physical destruction under its Director and Chief Executive Officer, Michael Govan. Mr. Govan decided to demolish the old LACMA, and so commissioned Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to design a new LACMA. The price of this unnecessary project? A purported $750 million dollars.

Over the decades I attended countless exhibits at LACMA, and spent innumerable hours wandering though the museum’s halls, sketching, studying, drinking it all in. The following are but a few of the exhibits that not only inspired me, but impacted the wider community of Los Angeles and beyond.

"Headed for Oblivion." The Art of the Americas building faced Wilshire Blvd and housed American, Latin American, and pre-Columbian art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 9 2020.

"Headed for Oblivion." The Art of the Americas building faced Wilshire Blvd and housed American, Latin American, and pre-Columbian art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 9 2020.

In April 1965 I was a budding 12-year-old artist dabbling in oil painting when my working class parents took me to Wilshire Boulevard for the grand opening of LACMA. It was an event never to be forgotten. Designed by William Pereira, the museum complex was surrounded by a man-made shimmering lagoon. The campus was evocative of Italy’s city of Venice, or the ancient Mexican Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan—itself a metropolis built on a lake and crisscrossed with canals, bridges, and waterways. Fireworks were set off over LACMA at the end of the festivities, and I marveled at the display mirrored in the museum’s reflecting pool.

Of course LACMA is built on land where crude oil, methane gas, and tar have bubbled up from beneath the ground for thousands of years, creating giant pools of oil and tar that are still active; an outstanding locale for an art museum. The land is also home to the landmark La Brea Tar Pits. By 1966 the tar and oil oozed into LACMA’s once sparkling lagoon, despoiling the ersatz Venice and eventually necessitating the draining and removal of the body of water. This unfortunate event can be seen as a metaphor for LACMA’s destiny.

"The Amazing Shrinking LACMA." View of the museum from Wilshire Blvd. on April 10, 2020. The Bing Theater had met its demise and in the background the Hammer Building, which displayed special exhibits, was being destroyed. The Art of the Americas building at left would soon be razed. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"The Amazing Shrinking LACMA." View of museum from Wilshire Blvd., April 10, 2020. The Bing Theater had met its demise and in the background the Hammer Building, which displayed special exhibits, was being destroyed. The Art of the Americas building at left would soon be razed. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1966 my mother took me to see the Edward Kienholz exhibit at LACMA, his “Back Seat Dodge” assemblage was sending polite society into a tizzy—the LA Board of Supervisors called it “blasphemous” and many wanted the offensive Dodge coupe removed. As a 13-year-old I was surprisingly well versed in DaDaism and Surrealism, but Kienholz drove home to me how art could inflame and provoke… well beyond my then adolescent dreams.

I was 23 when the United States celebrated its 1776-1976 Bicentennial. As part of that observance LACMA presented Two Centuries of Black American Art—the first survey of art by Black Americans held in the U.S. While it featured the work of 63 artists, it was the art of Charles White that truly captured my imagination. Because of his humanistic and poignant figurative realism, in particular his sensitive black and white drawings and lithographs, I always considered him to be a mentor; the LACMA exhibit poster for the show featuring a drawing by White remains in my collection.

"Bing Theater Crater." Facing the Wilshire Blvd side of the LACMA campus, the Bing Theater was the museum’s main venue for symposiums, performances, meetings, art classes, and cinema. It was demolished and most of its rubble bulldozed away by April 10 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"Bing Theater Crater." Facing the Wilshire Blvd side of the LACMA campus, the Bing Theater was the museum’s main venue for symposiums, performances, meetings, art classes, and cinema. It was demolished and most of its rubble bulldozed away by April 10 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

I was 25 when I stood in line for hours to see Treasures of Tutankhamun (Feb. 15-June 15, 1978), the most well attended exhibit in LACMA’s entire history. 53 stunning artifacts from the tomb of the young Egyptian Pharaoh were on display, including his hauntingly beautiful burial mask. Some 1.2 million Angelenos viewed the show during its four month run.

At 33 years of age I attended the groundbreaking exhibit Impressionist to Early Modern Paintings From the U.S.S.R. (June 26-Aug. 12, 1986). I rejoiced in seeing works from the Hermitage and Pushkin museums; Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and many others. I still have hanging in my home LACMA’s exhibit poster for the show that features Guaguin’s Aha Oe Feii (Are You Jealous?).

The exhibit was presented during the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviets were slugging it out in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and beyond. Of the 40 paintings exhibited, 33 had never been seen in the United States. Given the political environment, it was a miracle the show happened at all. The Republican business magnate Armand Hammer (1898-1990), a trustee of LACMA with close ties to Soviet leaders, made possible the cultural exchange.

"More Art." Like so many other lies from the year 2020, the new LACMA will actually have 80% less gallery space, and no room for the exhibit of Permanent Collections, which will be stored offsite. In other words LACMA will offer "Less Art." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

"More Art." Like so many other lies from the year 2020, the new LACMA will actually have 80% less gallery space, and no room for the exhibit of Permanent Collections, which will be stored offsite. In other words LACMA will offer "Less Art." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

I was 38 when I viewed Degenerate art: the fate of the avant-garde in Nazi Germany, LACMA’s most scholarly—and dangerous exhibit (Feb. 17-May 12, 1991). It was a chilling recreation of the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) show mounted by the Nazis in 1937 Munich.

That year the Nazis banned and seized art they viewed as Jewish, communist or “anti-German”; the art was confiscated from museums, galleries, and private collections and derided as the product of insanity. It was then displayed in the Entartete Kunst exhibit. Art was purposely hung lopsided, lit poorly, and placed next to slogans painted on the walls reading “Nature as seen by sick minds,” “Madness becomes method,” and the like. When the exhibit run concluded the Nazis auctioned off what art they could, and destroyed the rest by fire.

All of this was recreated by LACMA. Remarkably, 175 surviving works from the original Nazi show were displayed. What’s more, they were shown with the same cockeyed hanging, pitiable lighting, and mocking wall slogans! The exhibit was a blistering curatorial denunciation of Nazi horror, but also a warning against totalitarian systems of culture and thought. Since then LACMA has never mounted such a formidable exhibit, and in these overly sensitive politically correct times, it likely won’t do so again.

"Door to Nowhere." A taped-off door at LACMA’s gutted Art of the Americas building, served as a forlorn message concerning the ill-fated museum. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 10 2020.

"Door to Nowhere." A taped-off door at LACMA’s gutted Art of the Americas building, served as a forlorn message concerning the ill-fated museum. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 10 2020.

I attended many other world-class exhibits at LACMA before the tenure of Michael Govan. The museum continued to be an invaluable cultural institution, until Mr. Govan took over as director in February of 2006. I always said he would destroy LACMA, but I had no idea that my dire premonitions would end up being an actual physical reality.

Govan became the perfect postmodern museum director, a promoter of kitsch, installation art, and conceptual art; someone at home in the circus world of vapid art stars and tasteless collectors. But instead of advocating the museum as an institution that acquires, conserves, and displays works of historic import and technical skill, he became a purveyor of the museum as citadel of entertainment and spectacle. And so Govan arranged the exhibitions Stanley Kubrick (Nov 1, 2012–Jun 30, 2013) and Tim Burton (May 29–Oct 31, 2011).

Ironically, Michael Govan’s ultimate contribution to LACMA might be his having molded the museum—according to a 2016 fluff piece by CNN, into the “World’s most Instagrammed museum.” Though even there it was put in 4th place.

"Gutted." The Art of the Americas building on the LACMA campus, facing Wilshire Blvd.—its interior metal parts gutted and bulldozed into a gigantic heap. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 26 2020.

"Gutted." The Art of the Americas building on the LACMA campus, facing Wilshire Blvd.—its interior metal parts gutted and bulldozed into a gigantic heap. Photo Mark Vallen ©. April 26 2020.

I first felt something was awry when I discovered in 2007 that Michael Govan’s annual salary as Director of LACMA was $915,000—twice the amount of a sitting U.S. President ($400,000). Investigating further I found his actual compensation, after perks, was $1,029,921 per year. LACMA provided Govan with a free $5.6 million house in Hancock Park worth $155,000 a year, according to tax fillings. Clearly, the U.S. presidency with its formidable world-shaking powers, is insignificant when compared to the directorship of LACMA.

In 2007 Michael Govan and Jeff Koons, the “King of Kitsch,” announced their plans to erect a monumental public art “sculpture” by Koons in front of LACMA. Titled Train, it would be an actual 70-foot-long steam locomotive hung from a massive 161-foot heavy construction crane; three times a day the Choo Choo Train would blow its steam whistle and spin its wheels. Of course this would give the museum the look of an entertainment theme park, but Govan compared Train to the Eiffel Tower, saying he hoped it would become “a landmark for Los Angeles.”

The Koons Train project was estimated to cost $25 million, incredibly LACMA was awarded $1 million from the Annenberg Foundation to conduct a “feasibility study” on constructing the curio. Due to the collapsing economy of the Obama years, LACMA was unable—thankfully—to raise enough money to build the banal edifice. Heaven knows where the feasibility study money actually went.

"Dragon Lair." Like a dragon coming out of its lair, a bulldozer pops out of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to dump the guts of the museum in a pit of rubble. But in this tale there’s no Saint George to slay the beast. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

"Dragon Lair." Like a dragon coming out of its lair, a bulldozer pops out of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to dump the guts of the museum in a pit of rubble. But in this tale there’s no Saint George to slay the beast. Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 14 2020.

Also in 2007 Govan commissioned conceptual artist John Baldessari to design the gallery space for LACMA’s exhibit Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images (Nov 19-Mar 4, 2007). I always favored the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, both for his technical skills as a realist painter and his playful wit. However, Baldessari’s scenography garnered more attention than Magritte’s sixty-eight paintings and drawings. And it didn’t help that Magritte’s beautiful oil paintings were surrounded by twaddle from collagist Barbara Kruger, plagiarist Richard Prince, and “works” from other postmodern whiz kids.

Next came a 2008 commission for a large-scale public artwork from performance and installation aesthete Chris Burden (1946-2015). He was best known for his 1971 Shoot performance piece, which involved an assistant shooting Burden in the arm at 15 feet with a .22 rifle. Naturally this hokum made Burden famous, the performance was celebrated as a reaction to nightly news reports on U.S. television regarding the Vietnam war. If so then Burden should have had himself shot with an M16 rifle with its more powerful 5.56mm round, that’s what U.S. troops used in Vietnam… but then, I’m an artistic purist.

"The Ruins." It was the most artful thing I'd seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in some time; made me think of that old Situationist slogan, "Playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today." Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"The Ruins." It was the most artful thing I'd seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in some time; made me think of that old Situationist slogan, "Playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

Chris Burden’s commissioned piece turned out to be Urban Light, a grid of 202 antique metal street lights that once illuminated the avenues of Los Angeles in the 1920s and ’30s. A contractor sanded the columns, painted them grey, capped them with period glass globes, wired them, then raised the street lights—as per master Burden’s instructions, in front of LACMA. There they remain, a backdrop for tourists, fashionistas and their endless selfies.

Here’s the truly grotesque thing about Urban Light. As I photographed the demolition of LACMA starting in April 2020—over the months, despite the racket of jackhammers and bulldozers, the clouds of pulverized concrete, the heaps of crumpled metal, wire, and broken cement, and the sight of LACMA’s walls crashing to the ground; people continued to obliviously flock to Urban Light for selfies. If the new LACMA is never completed they will still gather around those damnable street lights like moths to a flame.

"Selfies." In the background you can see wrecking cranes and tractors pulverizing LACMA into dust, as people take selfies at the Urban Light "sculpture." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 13, 2020

"Selfies." In the background you can see wrecking cranes and tractors pulverizing LACMA into dust, as people take selfies at the Urban Light "sculpture." Photo Mark Vallen ©. May 13, 2020

In 2012 Govan acquired and installed Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass for an estimated $10 million. Considered a “great sculpture” by the postmodern crowd, Levitated Mass is simply an enormous un-carved 340-ton granite boulder that straddles a deep concrete trench and path that allows people to walk beneath it. If archaeologists from the distant future ever dig through the colossal mountains of commercial detritus formally known as Los Angeles—smashed titanium bicycles, shattered liquid crystal displays, crushed cars made from carbon-reinforced plastic, mashed kevlar bulletproof vests… what on earth will they think of the 340-ton boulder?

"Skeletonized." As good as any abstract painting formerly displayed at the museum, is my demolition photo of the nearly demolished Wilshire Entrance of LACMA, taken April 25 2020. Photo Mark Vallen ©.

"Skeletonized." As good as any abstract painting formerly displayed at the museum, is my demolition photo of the nearly demolished Wilshire Entrance of LACMA, taken April 25 2020. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

For me the coup de grâce was the Ahmanson Foundation refusing to gift LACMA with European Old Master paintings and sculptures. The decision came in Feb., 2020 after a 60 year relationship that saw the Ahmanson donate more than $130 million in art treasures to LACMA. The Ahmanson Foundation had provided the core of the museum’s European art collection, and its founder, banker Howard Ahmanson, played a pivotal role in the creation of LACMA.

The Ahmanson ended its relationship with LACMA because Govan’s new museum will not provide dedicated exhibition space for the display of permanent exhibits, which the Ahmanson acquisitions were meant for. Instead, the art will end up in offsite storage; some of it will see the light of day at the new LACMA only if selected for rotating exhibits. That means paintings by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Titian, and many others will languish in storage. This is not how a prestigious art museum serves a community—but it is a prime example of Michael Govan’s total lack of leadership. The entire postmodern putsch is a war against art.

"Going, Going, Gone." Emblazoned on the wrecking crane slamming the facade of LACMA’s Ahmanson Building is the slogan of GGG Demolition Inc., the company that conducted the destruction of the museum. Aptly enough, the three Gs stand for "Going, Going, Gone." Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Going, Going, Gone." Emblazoned on the wrecking crane slamming the facade of LACMA’s Ahmanson Building is the slogan of GGG Demolition Inc., the company that carried out the destruction. Aptly enough, the three Gs stand for "Going, Going, Gone." Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Reflections." Across the street from LACMA is the 5900 Wilshire skyscraper; my photo captures the museum reflected in the skyscraper’s windows. Marking the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, 10 original segments of the Wall were installed at the 5900 in 2009. Ironic that LACMA and the Berlin Wall are both gone. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Reflections." Across the street from LACMA is the 5900 Wilshire skyscraper; my photo captures the museum reflected in the skyscraper’s windows. Marking the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, 10 original segments of the Wall were installed at the 5900 in 2009. It's ironic that LACMA and the Berlin Wall are now both gone. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

And speaking of war. As a result of his 2003 invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush built a sprawling U.S. Embassy in that war-torn country that cost $750 million dollars—people bitterly complained that it was a complete waste of money, I know because I was one of them.

What else can $750 million purchase? In August 2020, the Trump administration signed a $750 million deal with Abbott Laboratories to buy 150 million rapid-result Covid 19 testing kits. That seemed a necessary thing in a time of pandemic, but does tearing down a first-class art museum and constructing a new one in its place for over $750 million appear to be a crucial imperative in pestilential times?

Michael Govan’s LACMA boondoggle, with its declared $750 million price tag, will likely cost more than $1 billion. Nevertheless, aside from the bold and fearless minority of art advocates who fulminate against the demolition of LACMA… who’s complaining?

"Everything’s Fine." A couple leisurely strolls by the massive piles of rubble that were once the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

"Everything’s Fine." A couple leisurely strolls by the massive piles of rubble that were once the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 13 2020.

“Playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today” is an old Situationist aphorism that very much describes the postmodern state of Los Angeles. In characterizing my home city to visitors I have always remarked that it reinvents itself every twenty years, tearing down the “old” for the “new.” How apropos that LA’s once celebrated art museum now lies in utter ruin. It’s an open wound on the metropolis, one that I fear will never heal.

"The Scar." LACMA’s director Michael Govan created this scar on the landscape of Los Angeles—may he always be remembered for it. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 14, 2020.

"The Scar." LACMA’s director Michael Govan created this scar on the landscape of Los Angeles—may he always be remembered for it. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Sept 14, 2020.

"Razed in L.A." Here today, gone tomorrow. The LACMA campus obliterated. This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14, 2021.

"Razed in L.A." Here today, gone tomorrow. The LACMA campus obliterated. This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14, 2021.

"LACMA Idyll." A formidable grey security wall some 15 ft tall, encircles what is left of museum grounds. The barrier completely forbids the public a view of ongoing construction. An incongruous "welcome" sign cloaks a drab tableau of destruction. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14 2021.

"LACMA Idyll." A formidable grey security wall some 15 ft tall, encircles what is left of museum grounds. The barrier completely forbids the public a view of ongoing construction. An incongruous "welcome" sign cloaks a drab tableau of destruction. Photo Mark Vallen ©. Feb 14 2021.

LACMA, BP & the Oil Workers Strike

On February 1, 2015, 4,000 workers belonging to the United Steelworkers Union (USW), walked off their jobs at nine oil refinery and chemical plants across the U.S. By Feb. 10 another 1,400 workers went on strike at two refineries in Indiana and Ohio. The strike now effects 11 oil refinery and chemical plants used by BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, and Lyondell Basell, including those in California, Kentucky, Texas, and Washington. The USW represents 30,000 workers that run more than 200 refineries, terminals, and pipelines. The number of workers on strike and on the picket line is over 5,000… so far.

Workers on the picket line at BP refinery in Indiana. Photo courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana.

Which side are you on? Workers on the picket line at the BP refinery in Indiana. Photo/The Times of Northwest Indiana.

The workers are striking because of unsafe and dangerous working conditions. Their grievances include a stop to “daily occurrences of fires, leaks, emissions, and explosions, brutal and dangerous scheduling practices,” as well as layoffs, speed-ups, and the hiring of inexperienced non-union labor.

The strike kicked-off when talks collapsed with Shell Oil, which is leading the industry-wide negotiations. BP and the other oil companies are now hiring scab labor to keep their operations going.

The work stoppage is the largest nationwide strike in the U.S. since 1980. Addressing the public and fellow workers both unionized and non-unionized, the strikers made it clear that “138 workers were killed on the job while extracting, producing, or supporting oil and gas in 2012,” a number “more than double” the fatalities suffered in 2009. The workers charge BP and the other oil giants with cutting back on safety protocols and intensifying layoffs and speed-ups to keep profits high. Here it should be remembered that 11 workers were killed when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010.

But what does any of this have to do with the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (LACMA)?

I have been writing in opposition to oil giant BP funding LACMA since the oily relationship was publicly announced in June of 2007. I wrote the following in a June 2010 blog post. It is a fair summation of my stance regarding LACMA director and CEO Michael Govan enthusiastically accepting money from BP; which he said was committed “to sustainable energy.”

“In 2007 Mr. Govan accepted $25 million from the oil company and in return the museum built the so-called ‘BP Grand Entrance’ on the LACMA campus. Every time an artist or arts group presents works beneath the BP Grand Entrance, it lends authority, respectability, and quiet approval to the machinations of one of the world’s biggest polluters; even if that presentation is of a ‘challenging’ nature – it nonetheless enables BP to present itself as a generous and ‘socially responsible’ supporter of the arts. As one must pass through the BP Grand Entrance in order to enter the LACMA museum complex, BP has succeeded in placing its imprimatur upon every LACMA exhibit, not to mention its entire collection.”

I always viewed LACMA’s relationship with BP as an ethical dilemma for the arts community, from BP shaping an arts institution to LACMA being a partner in the oil giant’s “greenwashing” propaganda. However, the nationwide workers’ strike against BP adds a new wrinkle to the entanglement – revealing once more the difficult interface between art and capitalism.

Workers picket BP refinery in Indiana, Feb. 2, 2015. Photo courtesy of the USW.

Workers picket BP refinery in Indiana, Feb. 2, 2015. Photo/USW.

If thousands of workers are on strike against BP because of deplorable working conditions that are literally taking workers’ lives, and BP is a major contributor to LACMA… what then does that make the museum? Is it really an impartial institution? Does it actually need to be said which side LACMA is on – with the workers, their families and friends – or with BP? Can Michael Govan and LACMA really tell the public that the museum has nothing to do with politics or the strike, when LACMA takes BP’s money and museum visitors have to walk through the “BP Grand Entrance” to enter the museum?

And what happens if the workers’ national strike against BP and the other giant oil companies grows larger, drawing in the 30,000 workers of the United Steelworkers Union and affecting the 200 U.S. sites they work at? The union represents the workers that run nearly two-thirds of the oil refining plants in the U.S.

The largest nationwide strike in the U.S. since 1980. Photo courtesy of the USW.

The largest nationwide strike in the U.S. since 1980. Photo/USW.

In the glorious labor history of the United States, a movement that gave us the eight-hour day, higher wages, better working conditions, paid vacations, and other benefits… when workers called a strike, other workers and the general population supported it.

That is how the working class in America advanced, not through the largess and goodwill of a super-rich minority, but by workers making demands on them and uniting in the cause to create a better life for the majority.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art makes use of union labor, as well as non-union labor, together with what is euphemistically referred to as “volunteer” labor. Some 350 people are employed at LACMA, but there are also security, janitorial, maintenance technicians, and other contracted laborers that work at LACMA. In June of 2012, LACMA workers were fired as the museum looked for ways to “best deploy resources,” all the while spending $10 million dollars on the “Levitated Mass” project and paying director Govan an annual salary of $915,000 – twice the amount of a sitting U.S. president! What if workers at LACMA decided to walk off their jobs in solidarity with the striking workers who wage a life and death struggle with BP?

It has all happened before, you know.

LACMA & BP: Grossly Negligent

Dead fish floating in oil during the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster of 2010. Photo by Charlie Riedel for the AP.

Dead fish floating in oil during the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster of 2010. Photo by Charlie Riedel for the AP.

A monumentally important federal court ruling was quietly made on Sept. 4, 2014; it was a decision barely reported on by the national media.

On that date a federal judge in Louisiana found BP responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster of 2010, the worst oil spill in the history of the U.S.

The court also found the oil giant guilty of being “grossly negligent” in failing to conduct proper safety tests in the run-up to conducting deep sea oil drilling from its Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf, negligence that lead to the platform blowing up and killing 11 workers. The explosion resulted in some 4.9 million barrels of crude oil being dumped into the Gulf.

The ruling in the high-stakes trial presided over by Judge Barbier now opens the likelihood that BP will be forced to pay some $18 billion in fines for its violation of the Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972 as the principal federal law in the U.S. when it comes to water pollution. BP was quick to condemn the ruling, and announced plans to appeal the decision.

A sea turtle covered with oil during the BP Gulf of Mexico catastrophe of 2010. Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A sea turtle covered with oil during the BP Gulf of Mexico catastrophe of 2010. Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

BP might want to refer to Michael Govan, the Director and CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as a character witness.

Mr. Govan of course accepted $25 million from the oil giant in 2007, telling the L.A. Times at the time that he took funding from BP because: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy.” In its May 1, 2013 newsletter, LACMA informed the public that it was “pleased to announce” the renewal of BP’s corporate sponsorship. LACMA continues to tout BP as a corporate sponsor.

I first wrote about the relationship between LACMA and BP on March 14, 2007, and since then the oh-so-liberal L.A. arts community has remained stone silent when it comes to the issue of the world’s largest polluter funding the city’s leading art museum. Not so surprisingly, Michael Govan has refrained from issuing a single word of disapproval towards the oil-soaked, criminal benefactor of the museum he directs. Everything I have written on the subject of LACMA and its monstrous sponsor has been vindicated by the ruling of Judge Barbier, and I will not cease writing such articles until the relationship between LACMA and BP is finally terminated.