I already knew about the Broad museum, which opened to much fanfare in downtown Los Angeles in 2015. But it was only as I researched my recent trip to the city that I realized it had become one of America’s most important centers of contemporary art. I discovered three other notable museums in the city dedicated to cutting-edge works: a major new institution with a collection comparable in scope and quality to that of the Broad, and two smaller museums displaying up-to-the-minute pieces by lesser-known artists deserving of more attention.
These museums, combined with the numerous top-notch galleries in the city, allow one to spend a visit doing nothing other than viewing world-class contemporary art. I don’t have such single-minded focus, but the fact that it’s now possible to build an entire itinerary around contemporary art in Los Angeles is an astonishing and welcome development.
The striking honeycomb exterior of this museum helps it compete with the flamboyant Frank Gehry-designed concert hall across the street. More important, it allows indirect natural light into many of the galleries within, which contain masterpieces of art from the early 1960s through to the present. Philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad (pronounced “brohd”) assembled the 2,000-some works in the collection, though of course only a fraction of the pieces are on display.
I was especially taken with the monochromatic paintings of Mark Tansey, with their realistic depictions of subtly surreal subject matter; Kara Walker’s shocking “African’t” piece made from paper cutouts; and the mesmerizing maplike paintings of Mark Bradford. I felt rather less enthusiastic about the many patrons more intent on taking selfies than enjoying the art, however.
In order to have a successful visit to the Broad, some strategy is required. Book the free timed-entry tickets well in advance, and book them for when the museum opens. That way you won’t miss the chance to stand inside Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Room — The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” in which only four people are allowed at a time. An entire day’s entry slots for this immersive work usually fill up by noon or so. It’s worth the trouble to see it. After having the piece entirely to myself for 45 seconds, I left the room unable to remove the smile from my face. Closed Monday.
221 South Grand Avenue. Tel. (213) 232-6200
Opened in 2017 in downtown’s Arts District, this bright warehouse-like space focuses on contemporary artists who aren’t big enough names to make it into the Broad or the Marciano Art Foundation (see below). (The mission statement also notes the requisite commitment to “upending hierarchies of race, class, gender, and culture.”) A major gallery in the museum was closed when we visited, while the staff worked on transitioning to the next exhibition, but the two galleries we did see contained memorable works by artists unfamiliar to me.
One charming exhibition by Maryam Jafri focused on unsuccessful commercial products dating to the 1960s, with photographs and actual examples of packaging, accompanied by often-amusing descriptions of why the products failed. And a compelling exhibition by Lucas Blalock displayed photographs he took and manipulated to surreal effect. The quiet museum accepts donations but does not charge an entrance fee, and the staff is happy to answer questions. We had a fun and inexpensive lunch after our visit at nearby Guerrilla Tacos. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
1717 East Seventh Street. Tel. (213) 928-0833
Also opened in 2017, the Marciano Art Foundation occupies a large former Masonic temple on Wilshire Boulevard. It concentrates on art dating from the 1990s to the present, by both big-name and up-and-coming artists. Founders Maurice and Paul Marciano, the brothers who created the GUESS jeans brand, clearly have an excellent eye for art and the budget to acquire just about whatever they want. Although this museum was much quieter than the Broad, its collection was just as rich.
I especially enjoyed seeing an Ai Weiwei sculpture resembling an agglomeration of steel bicycles, a series of arresting text-based paintings by Glenn Ligon and a rather otherworldly alabaster sculpture by Anish Kapoor. This museum also has a major Yayoi Kusama installation, comprising a white room with red polka dots, housing three similarly colored — and slightly threatening — oversize potted tulips. As with the Broad, it’s necessary to reserve free tickets for a timed entry in advance. On-site parking is included with the ticket. Closed Monday to Wednesday.
Marciano Art Foundation
4357 Wilshire Boulevard. Tel. (424) 204-7555
This museum is not new, but it does have a new focus and a new name. Set in a historic French Provincial Revival building across from the La Brea Tar Pits, the institution started as a commercial gallery in 1965 before transitioning to a museum between 1973 and 1975. The current administration of the museum recently changed its name from the Craft & Folk Art Museum to Craft Contemporary to better reflect its new mission, showcasing “the intersection of contemporary art, craft and design,” as opposed to mounting shows of what is traditionally considered folk art.
Craft Contemporary has no permanent collection, making it wise to check the exhibition schedule before you visit. We saw an installation by Los Angeles-based artists Beatriz Cortez and Rafa Esparza called “Nomad 13,” a “space capsule” composed of steel, adobe and plants. Outside, the artists were building an ice-block igloo with the help of several assistants. (I found the idea of constructing an igloo in Los Angeles absolutely delightful.) Upstairs was a transfixing exhibition of contemporary Iranian photography and video. Closed Monday.
5814 Wilshire Boulevard. Tel. (323) 937-4230