Inside an Underground Network of Los Angeles Museums

CULVER CITY, Calif. — The Bhagavad-Gita Diorama Museum is not easy to find. It is hidden down a passageway in the Hare Krishna temple complex on a side street in Culver City. Though a sign outside advertised the museum as open, the front door was locked one fall morning; it took five minutes for a worker to arrive and reveal its warren of 11 dioramas depicting Hare Krishna history.

The Martial Arts History Museum, 22 miles away by car in Burbank, is more conducive to a visit — it’s on Magnolia Boulevard, one of the main thoroughfares in the San Fernando Valley — but at 2,000 square feet, it is so cramped that the museum has turned away buses of schoolchildren who wanted to view, among other artifacts, a headband worn by Ralph Macchio in “The Karate Kid Part II.”

“This is the first and only museum of its kind, can you believe it?” said its president, Michael Matsuda. “The only one in the world that covers all the martial arts.”

Over the past decade, Los Angeles has emerged as a global arts center, renowned for such prominent museums as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Broad and, most recently, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. But less visible is an extensive and important network of smaller museums, catering to niche audiences interested in topics ranging from olive growing to the Garifuna people of the Caribbean.

These museums, hundreds of them, reflect the idiosyncrasies and specialized interests of their founders while offering a window into the ethnic, cultural and historical diversity that has come to define Southern California.

“These alternate spaces have transformed L.A.,” said Jordan Karney Chaim, a contemporary arts historian in San Diego.

The variety and breadth of museums in Los Angeles reflect the overall expansion in the art scene here that began in the 1970s, when space was more plentiful and rents were lower.

Many are little known for a reason: They have odd hours, barely advertise their existence or are the passion projects of one or two people, with no paid staff. And many of them are not trying for mass-market appeal. There are museums devoted to skateboarding, tattoos, automobiles, bunnies, neon, sneakers, aviation, citrus trees and the Salvation Army.

Todd Lerew, the director of special projects at the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, has spent the past eight years trying to visit every museum in the region — 760, by his estimate. He has chronicled his first 650 visits on a spreadsheet and is preparing a book on his discoveries.

“I take an obsessive approach to all of my interests,” said Lerew, who often drives as far as 200 miles in a day. “When I want to know something, I want to know everything.”

His estimate reflects an expansive definition of Los Angeles — in this case, the entire metropolis, from the Pacific Ocean to the Mojave Desert — and an expansive definition of the word “museum,” which includes a one-wall exhibition chronicling the history of the original bakery at what is now the Helms Bakery District, a collection of design shops and restaurants. But if imprecise, his findings are testimony to the concentration of museums, scholarly and quirky, that arts leaders view as part of the cultural core of Southern California.

“L.A. is a very big, sprawling city, and it is not surprising that museum spaces would be found in pockets of neighborhoods all across the city,” said Patricia Hills, a retired professor of art and architecture at Boston University. “Many ethnic groups have their own pride of place, and public space galleries and museums are one way to express their culture and creative output.”

Some of the museums, unknown and located in remote parts of a large country, struggle to get people through the door. The Ararat-Eskijian Museum, which claims to be the only Armenian museum on the West Coast, and lies on a sprawling assisted living facility for older Armenians in Mission Hills, is lucky to draw 25 people a week. Its main floor exhibition space displays paintings, jewelry, ceramics, religious artifacts and rugs, including several made by Armenian orphans.

The museum has organized lectures on Armenian history to try to increase attendance, but truth be told, its audience is people who stumble across it while visiting relatives.

“People will say, ‘I’ll go to the Getty,’” said Marguerite Mangassarian Goschin, the museum director. “But ‘I’ll go to the Eskijian?’ This is a very isolated area.”

There are 1,100 museums nationwide that are accredited by the American Alliance of Museums; 76 of those are in California, with 10 in the city of Los Angeles. But that is just a small fraction of the 30,000 museums that the Alliance estimates exist nationwide. Most have not submitted to the accreditation process, which requires a formal structure — such as a rigorous mission statement — that can be daunting for these freewheeling organizations.

“We support museums that are not accredited,” Laura L. Lott, the president of the alliance, said. “Many of them have great social value.”

Some, without taking away from their worthiness, are vanity projects: A museum devoted to Horace Heidt, the band leader and television and radio personality who died in 1986, is run by his son Horace Heidt Jr. at the Horace Heidt Estates, a rental community on an old ranch in Sherman Oaks.

“There’s a lot of history here,” Heidt said, showing off a collection of photographs, radio show recordings, sheet music and records. The museum does not charge admission and relies on the property’s tenants for its funding. “If we didn’t have them living here, we couldn’t pay the rent,” Heidt said.

But some museums that operate under the radar of mainstream Los Angeles have cult followings. The Museum of Jurassic Technology, with its door opening onto Venice Boulevard in Culver City, defies both description and categorization. (It presents itself as “an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.”) It was recently filled with people navigating narrow hallways and working their way up to the roof — for tea and a visit to the bird sanctuary.

Still, most of these museums operate on the edges of the Los Angeles art world, and depend on the perseverance of their founders. Matsuda, the president of the martial arts museum, sold his house to buy the building for a museum devoted to a subject that had captivated him since he was a young boy. The result is an exhibition that includes swords (feel free to handle them; their edges blunted with time), karate uniforms and detailed timelines tracing the evolution of jujitsu.

“It’s more than the punch-and-kick,” Matsuda said. “The goal is to talk about the positive influence of the Asian American community and its impact on America.”

To better accomplish that, the martial arts museum has been on the hunt for a larger space; Matsuda said he wanted to raise $5 million for one that can host additional events and hold more than 30 children. “We need the bigger place so we can bring the kids in because we’re at a standstill,” Matsuda said.

Lerew said that he understood why the Martial Arts History Museum needed to expand and that he was hopeful it could do so without joining what he called the museum-industrial complex.

“There’s something about the culture of Southern California of drawing creative folk and people who have unique interests that don’t fit elsewhere,” he said. “The scale and scope and development in Southern California — the explosion in the early 20th century — has resulted in hundreds of smaller communities who want to portray and depict their own communities.”

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