If you were looking for European art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently, you may have been a bit disappointed. There is the current Renoir exhibition, of course, and a show of paintings by 18th century Spanish master Luis Meléndez closed in January. But most of the museum's permanent collection of European painting and sculpture has been in storage for about nine months.
Spanning the 12th to the early 20th centuries, the collection was removed to make way for a major redesign of the galleries. Part of LACMA's "Transformation" project that began with the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in 2008, the initiative involves remodeling the entire third floor of the museum's central building, the Ahmanson.
At the moment it's still very much a work in progress. "I'm unable to reopen all at once," says J. Patrice Marandel, chief curator of European painting and sculpture. "It's too big a task and would take much longer."
The first set of revamped galleries, devoted to 17th century Dutch art, opened in mid-January. A second group featuring Italian Baroque paintings and works from Spain and Naples was quietly unveiled last month, along with a room featuring Renaissance decorative arts. Galleries of 18th and 19th century art from Italy, France and England are scheduled to debut later this month.
Much more than a face-lift, the project is an opportunity to reevaluate all aspects of the collection's display. The layout of the galleries has been streamlined to make the art historical timeline easier to understand, although Marandel has also added a few detours, mixing objects from different time periods and places. The lighting and walls have been restyled to better complement the works. And there is also the matter of how much (or little) supporting information to provide. LACMA's renovation mirrors, to some extent, efforts by other museums to make their collections more engaging and accessible.
Chief among the improvements to the Dutch galleries are reconstructed skylights that bathe the luminous landscapes, still lifes and interiors in natural light, where they look best, Marandel says. The redesign of these galleries was prioritized to showcase the Carter collection, a gift of 36 17th century Dutch paintings from the late Edward W. and Hannah Locke Carter, longtime museum trustees. (Edward Carter also served as LACMA's founding president.)
European art used to share the third floor with ancient works from Greece, Rome and the Near East, but now it will have the whole space to itself. Marandel estimates that the new installation will allow about 95% of the collection to remain on view, up from around 70%.
That may not be the case for long, as the collection continues to grow. The museum is also strong in Italian Baroque painting and the art of 18th century France. Recent acquisitions include a rare 17th century oil by French artist Isaac Moillon and a terra-cotta model for an Italian altarpiece, also 17th century, by Maltese sculptor Melchiorre Cafà. The latter was a gift from the Ahmanson Foundation, which also provided the funds for the reinstallation in the form of a $1.5-million grant. Marandel is now looking to acquire more works from 17th century Spain.
The project's extended time frame and room-by-room unveiling reflect the size of the endeavor, but they are also the result of scarce resources. Exhibition designers, carpenters, painters and other staff are shared across LACMA's many projects, most notably the new Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, where three temporary shows are scheduled to open in October. "That takes a lot of talent away from this project," Marandel says, "so we're all rushing a bit, trying to get our things done, but we'll find a way."
Last month, in galleries still bustling with painters and art installers, Marandel was understandably harried, yet genial. The French-born curator has seen the installation change many times during his 17 years at LACMA, but the latest effort is the most extensive.
Because it affects the entire collection, the project is a chance to rethink the arrangement of the works and the stories they tell. "Our collection lends itself to a sort of traditional presentation by school and chronology," he says, "so I respect that, but within this kind of general structure, I'm trying to introduce new themes."
That's not always an easy task. The traditional art historical installation is "very hard to get away from," says art historian Carol Duncan, author of "Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums." She says the organization of artworks into national schools dates back to the origin of museums as "princely collections." But "there's always been an international art world, from medieval times on," she says, noting that artists routinely traveled and worked across borders.
With the new installation, Marandel has taken subtle steps toward acknowledging this complex history. In new galleries devoted to Spanish art from the medieval period to the 17th century, he has included examples from the Italian city of Naples, which was part of the Spanish Empire. In a similar vein, the gallery of Italian Baroque painting includes some Classical sculpture. "These Greco-Roman works really informed the painters of the Renaissance and of the Baroque," Marandel says.
"It's a good teaching thing to do," Duncan says of the juxtaposition, "But the things that really matter the most are the kind of labeling and the kind of help the viewer gets."
Marandel thinks LACMA visitors won't need much assistance. Individual labels indicate the artist, time period and country of origin for each piece, but there are no other texts or signage calling attention to the mix of ancient and Baroque. Labels in other rooms, such as the Dutch galleries, provide a little more information, but the curator is keen to avoid "too much visual crowding" of the Baroque paintings, which are generally larger. "We want people to look at paintings and objects first," he says. "The reading is really in the library."
Curators debate how much text to provide in the galleries, and their decisions reflect different ideas about the role of the museum.
"If you are focusing simply on sculpture or simply on painting, it inevitably becomes aestheticized," says Joaneath Spicer, curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. "You can have wonderful museum experiences based on that," she says, "but I happen to think that that is not as accessible for most museum visitors."
Spicer finds it helpful to introduce a narrative. In 2005, she reinstalled part of the Walters' collection in a re-creation of a "Chamber of Wonders" in the home of a fictitious 17th century Flemish nobleman. The room displays paintings, sculptures and decorative arts alongside other "wonders," such as butterflies, seashells and a 12-foot-long stuffed alligator. Explanatory texts are available in small books placed around the room. This method of installation not only gives people a sense of how art was displayed in the past, she says, but also enables them to "enter into the mindset and explore on their own."
Marandel visited Walters in preparation for the current reinstallation and decided that LACMA's new galleries would evoke rather than re-create the ways in which artworks were displayed in previous centuries. Formerly divided among three small rooms, the Italian Baroque paintings are now shown in one long hall that recalls the grand galleries of aristocratic estates.
The sand-colored walls in the Spanish and Neapolitan rooms are pockmarked and textured to evoke the aged surfaces of the palaces and churches where the works might have appeared. And the Dutch galleries use what Marandel calls "a new kind of old paint," re-created from 18th century samples by British paint company Farrow & Ball. Modern latex paint, Marandel says, "reflects the light rather than absorbing it, so the paintings sort of sink into the walls."
This interest in re-creating a sense of historical context hasn't always been fashionable.
"When the International Style became so popular in architecture in general, that taste, that appetite for that kind of clean, streamlined look found its way into museum design," says Jeffrey Abt, professor of art and art history at Wayne State University in Detroit. With the advent of postmodern architecture, curators began to reevaluate their displays. "It just seemed dissonant that you might hang a Renaissance painting on this harsh white wall," he says.
Some museums are charting a middle path between stark modernism and historical fidelity. At the Getty Center, four renovated galleries of medieval and Renaissance sculpture and stained glass are scheduled to open this month. Senior curator of sculpture and decorative arts Antonia Bostrom says the displays will be "more dense, colorful and contextualized." The basic architecture of the Richard Meier-designed space will not change, but the rooms will feature warmer color schemes, redesigned display cases and illustrated wall texts with timelines and maps.
Although the old galleries were organized by medium — bronzes, ceramics and glass in separate rooms — the new installation will be chronological with an emphasis on themes such as the history of collecting, nature and art and sacred imagery. One room will be organized around a 17th century German Kabinettschrank, a four-sided cabinet used to store and display curiosities and works of art. Although the cabinet itself will be empty, the room will be filled with small sculptures, ceramics and glass pieces that might have been housed within it. There will also be touch-screen displays where visitors can learn about and virtually explore the cabinet's intricate design.
LACMA's reinstallation is more conservative, but it is a modest step away from the cool, modern tone of the Ahmanson's mid-1960s architecture. Restyling the building's lighting and interior walls has proved easier than dealing with its basic layout, which is centered around a bank of elevators.
In the old design, the floor was broken up into small galleries. One of Marandel's priorities was to create long, open corridors that run the length of the building on both sides so that visitors coming out of the elevator area can immediately sense how much there is to see.
"When the public comes, they'll be aware that they are in this kind of square crown around a center," he says. "And they will never get lost. They will always see where they are."