LOS ANGELES — The 105-foot-long escalator tube isn’t finished yet and the new museum’s intricate outer shell is still being assembled, but when Joanne Heyler walks out onto the top floor of The Broad, a contemporary art museum set to open downtown next year, she can’t resist smiling.
The third floor is naturally lit and a sprawling 35,000 square feet.
“It never fails to take my breath away,” said Heyler, The Broad’s founding director.
The Broad, sharing the Grand Avenue block with the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Frank Gehry’s shimmering Walt Disney Concert Hall, is not just a $140 million building. It’s at the core of a cultural boom in a place once famous for training artists — and then sending them off to New York to build careers. Long the center of the movie industry, the region is now becoming a magnet for artists, dancers, musicians and a murderer’s row of museum leaders.
“We used to always be the wild stepchild out in the desert,” said acclaimed abstract artist Mark Bradford, a Los Angeles native who has never left. “Now, we’re being adopted. We’re seeing people coming here to build much larger, bigger galleries and private museums. Things you used to only see in the East.”
About eight miles west of The Broad (pronounced BRODE), the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is raising $300 million as part of a plan to open a movie museum in 2017 on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s campus. Big donors for that project include music mogul David Geffen and director Steven Spielberg. Earlier this year, the museum lured Kerry Brougher, the chief curator of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, to be its director. LACMA has a grand plan of its own, a $650 million redesign of its campus that would stretch over Wilshire Boulevard.
And Hauser & Wirth, the contemporary art powerhouse in London, Zurich and New York, is renovating a 100,000-square-foot complex to hang up a shingle in Los Angeles.
“People used to complain that people went to New York to buy what they could buy in L.A.,” said Kathy Halbreich, the associate director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “I don’t think that happens anymore. I think there’s a recognition that the city matters, that the people aren’t just there for the weather. You see a level of ambition that’s been ratcheted up.”
Other bright spots: the Museum of Contemporary Art — two years after a near collapse — with a balanced budget; galleries popping up around town; and charismatic Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel raising the profile of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Los Angeles still lags behind big-city counterparts financially, most dramatically in terms of endowments, with LACMA ($125.5 million) and MOCA ($100 million) well below the Museum of Modern Art in New York ($960 million), the Indianapolis Museum of Art ($370 million) and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis ($200 million). But those institutions are decades older than LACMA, which opened in 1965, and MOCA, founded in 1979.
“So we are the new kids on the block,” said Katharine DeShaw, president of an L.A.-based philanthropy consulting firm and formerly the development director at the Walker and the vice president of development at LACMA. “We’re almost 100 years behind our counterparts in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis.”
The Broad offers a chance to quickly play catch-up. The museum, financed completely by the foundations of philanthropist Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, is planning to open with a $200 million endowment. There will also be no admission fee for the building, which is being designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the New York firm that also created the High Line in Manhattan and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
“It takes time for these things to evolve,” said Eli Broad. “And now we’re there. The major thing that’s happened is downtown Los Angeles. Thirteen years ago, you did not have the sports and entertainment district, or Grand Avenue, which is really a cultural district. You didn’t have the grand architecture we have, with Frank Gehry’s concert hall and Moneo’s cathedral.”
Cultural leaders said the 2002 opening of the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, and the 2003 opening of Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall jump-started the transformation of the once-sleepy downtown.
Institutional growth is just one marker of the boom. Artists across disciplines say there is another reason Los Angeles is buzzing. Even as development builds, artists haven’t been forced to move out of town. Los Angeles, they say, remains relatively inexpensive compared with New York and other densely packed cities. That means artists can stay if, as is the case for Bradford, a growing career demands more studio space.
Annie Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been thrilled to see a steady flow of name artists moving to town, including Mexican-born mixed-media artist Gabriel Kuri, Argentine Amalia Ulman and Nathaniel Mellors, a British artist known for his absurdist video work.
“A lot of this has to do with real estate,” said Philbin.
That’s true in dance, as well.
Star choreographer Benjamin Millepied, known by many for his performance in 2010’s “Black Swan” with his now wife, actress Natalie Portman, founded the L.A. Dance Project two years ago and hired another former New York City Ballet principal dancer, James Fayette, to be its managing director. In January, Fayette and his wife, Jenifer Ringer, moved west.
The L.A. Dance Project, which has nine dancers and a $1.5 million annual budget, has been collaborating with Bradford and conceptual artist Barbara Kruger as well as holding performances in a 1,600-seat theater in the renovated 87-year-old Ace Hotel.
“Everybody in New York is generally ‘I’ve got mine, you’ve got yours,’ ” said Fayette. “There’s no room for experiment, no room for failure. If the New York City Ballet puts on a performance, it has to be successful. You have to play to the market. Here, there’s a younger audience, an audience looking for something new, so you can try things. You can experiment.”
That freewheeling approach is part of what makes L.A. such a creative place, said actor Tim Robbins, who grew up in New York City but moved to Los Angeles in the early ’80s. He helped found The Actors’ Gang, an experimental group for which he today serves as artistic director. The cultural boom has been exciting, he says, making Los Angeles a vibrant city.
But he’s pleased one thing hasn’t changed.
“In so many other cities, you can’t make it unless you happen to be living off a trust fund,” said Robbins. “In Los Angeles, you can still afford to have the dream of being an artist.”