LACMA’s Lies Revealed: The Truth Is in the (Real) Drawings

Museum Director Michael Govan Admits to Secrecy
Museum Architect Peter Zumthor says, ‘I don’t give a f*ck if we’re on budget.’


A chart showing the demolished gallery space versus the replacement gallery space. Image courtesy of The Citizens’ Brigade to Save LACMA.

For the past 11 years, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has withheld from public view the details of its plans for a new building spanning Wilshire Boulevard that will replace the four buildings now demolished.  Exposing his commitment to secrecy, LACMA director Michael Govan recently admitted that he always intended to conduct the design process “out of public view” (The New Yorker, October 5, 2020).  “Govan did what he wanted in nearly total secrecy without releasing substantive and accurate information,” says author and curator Greg Goldin, co-chair of The Citizens’ Brigade to Save LACMA.  “There was no accountability, no transparency.”

Finally last month, after more than a decade of planning in secret—and just as the last of LACMA’s four main buildings was being reduced to rubble—Govan released what he proclaimed were the plans for architect Peter Zumthor’s “Building for the Permanent Collection.”  What Govan actually handed out to select media were generalized layouts—watered down simulations that intentionally obscured vital information, such as square footage and gallery wall space, with no comparison to the old galleries to justify claims of a larger museum.

The Citizens’ Brigade to Save LACMA has obtained the actual plans that were approved by Los Angeles County, and is now releasing the genuine drawings for public scrutiny.  The Citizens’ Brigade obtained them by going onto the County of Los Angeles Electronic Permitting & Inspections (EPIC) website and searching for the Museum’s building permits.  The Brigade’s Goldin did this week after week, month after month, examining every permit LACMA pulled for its current project.  “There they were, in the attachments to ‘Site Plan Review…Plan Number RPPL2020002025…Applied Date 04/14/2020’—the approved architectural drawings LACMA has refused to release, even today,” says Goldin.  “Just go into the public record.  It was that easy.”

The Brigade hired an architect to conduct a forensic analysis, and had the analysis vetted by another architecture firm.  This analysis contradicts many of Govan’s assertions, and it confirms that the publicly owned museum will be much smaller than ever before disclosed [see Fig. 1].  Although LACMA claims “the new building totals 347,500 square feet,” the plans show its true size as 261,000 square feet.  The total square footage of the new building is 32% less than the buildings it replaces—a loss of 123,000 square feet.  “This analysis demonstrates that Los Angeles County taxpayers, who are footing a hefty portion of the bill for the $750-million project, are being robbed of their museum and collections,” says architecture critic Joseph Giovannini, co-chair of The Citizens’ Brigade to Save LACMA.

The analysis also shows discrepancies in the museum’s ultimate costs.  Zumthor has shown no regard for the cost to taxpayers, proclaiming “I don’t give a f*ck if we’re on budget” (The New Yorker, October 5, 2020).  “Rushing into demolition before having money in the bank is a sleazy, obviously manipulative maneuver meant to put LACMA and the County in an untenable situation,” says Giovannini.  “Govan is deliberately leveraging his out-of-control project into a must-build emergency by creating an empty lot and holding the collections hostage in storage.  This is a grave betrayal of the public trust.”


LACMA’s Claim: The Museum says “by the time the new building opens, we will have expanded our total gallery space from approximately 130,000 in 2007 to 220,000 square feet.”
The Truth: When calculating gallery space, LACMA disingenuously adds 100,000 square feet from BCAM (Renzo Piano Workshop, 2008) and the Resnick Pavilion (Piano, 2010).  Comparing the four demolished buildings with their replacement (and looking at true gallery space that can exhibit light-sensitive art, such as paintings, drawings, textiles, and photographs), there will be an 80% reduction—shrinking from 138,000 square feet of gallery space in the four demolished structures to just 27,000 within in the new structure’s “House” galleries [see Fig. 2].  Linear feet of wall space to hang art suffers a 75% reduction, from 13,100 linear feet to 3,200 linear feet.  LACMA claims the gallery space in the replacement building will be 110,000 square feet, including the so-called “Meander Gallery,” which is really the left-over area between boxes that largely serves other functions (entry lobbies, elevator lobbies, bathroom foyers).  The remainder is sliced through with hallways or is simply a hallway itself.  But even counting this compromised space, the loss would still be 28,000 square feet of gallery space, or 20%, and a reduction of 45% linear feet of wall space for hanging art.
Conclusion: Bottom line: the Zumthor plan offers 80% less true gallery space than did the demolished buildings. Any higher figure, especially including BCAM, the Resnick Pavilion, and most of the Meander Gallery, is creative accounting.

“The project is completely indefensible even from the simplest practical point of view.  LACMA cannot be serious about putting random works of art in these little box-like rooms, artificially lit, letting the visitor walk out into the glare of day in spaces that really only serve as promenades, as in an airport.  Both architect and client have lost all sense of proportion in this bloated and overblown project that is out of scale and even lacks a real, convincing architectural idea.”—William Curtis, architectural historian, critic, artist, author of Modern Architecture Since 1900


LACMA’s Claim: The museum states it is creating an “expanded, transformed LACMA.”
The Truth: The four demolished buildings added up to 384,000 square feet and the actual plans reveal the replacement building totals only 261,000 square feet, which is a loss of 123,000 square feet or 32% [see Fig. 3].  LACMA claims the new building will be bigger, but this is not substantiated by the plans.  The covered outdoor space should not be considered when calculating the size of a building, which is what LACMA did in the Environmental Impact Report.  “You can’t hang a Rembrandt outside,” notes Giovannini.
Conclusion: LACMA is dramatically shrinking.  The campus at its expected opening in 2024 will be 45% smaller than the 2008 campus.  As he does with the gallery space and with the square footage numbers for the building, Govan avoids a direct comparison between the demolished four buildings to the building that is supposed to replace them.  Furthermore, Govan’s calculation of an “expanded” museum omits the loss of 266,000 square feet in the May Company building, which he gave away to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for 10 cents per square foot.  During Govan’s watch, LACMA will have lost 344,000 total square feet—counting May Company’s 266,000 square feet—by the time the Zumthor building is completed [see Fig. 4].

“The unimaginable is happening in Los Angeles.  Govan is sabotaging a great museum’s future.  By replacing LACMA’s expansive galleries with an overgrown glass bauble engineered to call attention only to itself, Govan threatens to sideline an encyclopedic permanent collection and an adventuresome exhibition program that for generations has put LACMA at the center of American cultural life.  Govan and Zumthor are demolishing a complex and multi-faceted institution and erecting in its place what amounts to a trendy boutique.  Govan doesn’t want a museum—he wants eye candy.”—Jed Perl, a regular contributor to The New York Review of the Books and author of eight books, including a two-volume biography of the American sculptor Alexander Calder


LACMA’s Claim: “The construction cost is approximately $1,400 per square foot, which is toward the low end of the range for new museum construction.”  This is based only on construction costs of $490 million.
The Truth: Audit shows $1,900 per square foot in construction costs based on the correct size of the building and assuming LACMA’s claim of $490 million construction cost remains correct.  Using the stated total project budget of $750 million, the cost rises to $2,900 per square foot [see Fig. 5].
Conclusion: LACMA’s cost is at least 50% more per square foot than The Broad museum (Diller Scofidio + Renfro, 2015), a structurally complex building whose hard construction cost was $1,250 per square foot in today’s dollars.

“The truth is no one knows just how much this bridge across Wilshire Boulevard is costing taxpayers.  Neither the County nor LACMA has ever released the financial agreements they may have signed, nor the construction cost estimates.  We have emails showing that County officials were worried that the building was soaring in final cost, approaching $900 million, and that LACMA did not have the means to either raise that much money or to pay off the bonds.”—Greg Goldin


LACMA’s Claim: The new building is the “LACMA Building for the Permanent Collection.”  (All plans and studies submitted to L.A. County for approvals have this title.)
The Truth: Audit shows that there is so little usable space in the new building that LACMA is forced to send its encyclopedic collections it once showed into storage.
Conclusion: LACMA will no longer be an encyclopedic museum for simple lack of space.  Further, the building claiming to contain the Permanent Collection will no longer house the supporting functions needed to care for a Permanent Collection: all curatorial offices and the Balch Art Research Library are moved off site into prime rented space.  The demolished Hammer building contained an 8,250-square-foot conservation center, but the replacement building only allows 1,000 square feet for conservation, which has forced LACMA to steal substantial square footage from the Pavilion for Japanese Art (Bruce Goff, 1988) [see Fig. 6].


Three former heads of major American museums, all speaking on the condition of anonymity, oppose the plan.  Here are their words:
“It is all poorly configured and way too small and will mean that far fewer objects from LACMA’s excellent collections are shown and many more will remain in storage.  I’m afraid no program of clever juxtapositions, novel interpretations, thought experiments, etc., will make up for the richness of experience that this radically smaller and poorly conceived layout will make inevitable.”Director #1

 “The whole project is unfathomable—shocking in the magnitude of its misconception and weirdly deluded in its disregard for purpose-driven design.  Real innovation is an attribute, but pursued here—seemingly for its own sake—becomes both tragedy and travesty.  I find nothing remotely inspired or even seductive about it.”Director #2

“The plan is a joke, with a constant, disruptive flow of people in the corridors between the ridiculous size of the boxed galleries, which are dead wrong: windowless, without natural lateral light, and just too plain small to show any one artist in depth.  The floor plan is a road map for dumbing down the museum: Labels matter, curators matter, expertise matters.”—Director #3


The Citizens’ Brigade to Save LACMA is a group of unpaid design professionals, art experts, and citizens at large, concerned about the catastrophic impact of the proposed design on LACMA and Los Angeles culture.  We were not categorically against the construction of a new building for LACMA, or even against the demolition of the three William L. Pereira & Associates and the Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates buildings (though some attempt to adapt and expand them should have been studied).  The Atelier Peter Zumthor plan will shrink LACMA and reduce its scope, instead of nourishing and growing the museum through its collections.  The Citizens’ Brigade to Save LACMA is not affiliated with LACMA or Museum Associates, which runs LACMA, or with any other organization.  For more information:


Fig. 1 — LACMA forensic analysis of plans
Fig. 2 — LACMA demolished versus new gallery space
Fig. 3 — LACMA overview numbers comparison_loss in percentage
Fig. 4 —  LACMA gain and loss by decade
Fig. 5 — LACMA construction cost per SF
Fig. 6 — LACMA permit for conservation lab UNC-BLDC190915001266
LACMA approved plans from LA County website

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