When America’s flamboyant captains of industry were dispensing their art treasures to museums, Los Angeles wasn’t even on the map, culturally speaking. But better (much better!) late than never.

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A relatively young city, Los Angeles came rather late to the museum game. At the time when the great art collections of the East were being assembled, the Southland lacked two crucial ingredients: infrastructure and industrialists. In the first half of the 20th century, the city’s fine art shared space with steam engines and dino-saur bones in a joint Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park (the structure today houses the Natural History Museum). It wasn’t until 1965, the year LACMA opened its doors on Wilshire Boulevard, that L.A. got a separate art museum.
The nation’s great empire builders, however, had made and disposed of their fortunes a hundred years earlier. In the latter half of the 19th century, these fabulously wealthy Americans set out to imitate European aristocrats, who’d been collecting art in their ancestral homes for 300 years.
“If you were rich, you collected art,” says Mary Lenihan of LACMA’s education department. “The Vanderbilts, the Fords, the Mellons and the Rockefellers all went to Europe to buy art.”
By the 1890s, some of these private collections had grown to monumental proportions. With no more bare walls to cover in their mansions, the tycoons began to give away their art to cultural institutions and to create foundations that would support them in perpetuity. The East’s museums were in a position both geographically and culturally to reap the rewards of this philan-thropic windfall. Today, such gifts form the heart of the great art collections of older cities like New York, Boston and Philadel-phia. But in the West, there were few museums and fewer homegrown millionaire art collectors. (Fabled California tycoons J. Paul Getty, Randolph Hearst, Henry E. Huntington and Norton Simon belonged to later generations.)
“Los Angeles was much smaller and less sophisticated,” says Lenihan. “We didn’t have people who made their fortunes in the 1840s. Consequently, we don’t have a single museum like the Met or the Boston Museum of Art. Instead, we have a group of museums — four of which were very much the personal collections of single individuals.” (Hearst’s art purchases make up the core of LACMA’s permanent collection.)

In L.A.’s case, the sum of the parts may ultimately be greater than the whole. Diversity has fostered an energetic museum culture open to innovation and healthy competition, though most people don’t know it.
“L.A. has some of the most misunderstood and undervalued art,” says the Getty’s Maite Alvarez. “Because the Getty gets so much press, people assume the other museums are not good. That’s not so. The Norton Simon’s Impressionist collection” she notes, “is a blockbuster” (museum-speak for wildly successful traveling exhibitions — such as LACMA’s recent “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs”). “If [the Simon collection] ever went on tour, people would be in awe. But because it’s in Pasadena, we take it for granted.”
The relatively new UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections are also widely acknowledged as first-rate. MOCA has one of the best contemporary art collections in the country. The Huntington’s British portraits (which include Gainsbor-ough’s “Blue Boy”) rival any collection outside the United Kingdom. UCLA’s Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden is one of the premier outdoor art installations in America.

The Southland’s art museums large and small operate side by side in an environment of collegiality and mutual respect.
There can be no more eloquent proof of this spirit of camaraderie than the way L.A.’s museum community has welcomed the new Getty Center — this despite dire predictions in the press that the Getty would inflate art prices with its seemingly bottomless budgets.
“The Getty is wonderful,” gushes Lenihan. “It’s attracting more people to museums, and to L.A. as a cultural destination.”
The Getty opening “was a global event. It affected all of us,” adds Tim Wride, LACMA’s associate curator of photography. “When you have really interesting art being displayed, curators at the top of their game showing interesting relations, there’s a buzz created from which we all benefit. The nice thing about L.A. is that we really have those factors in place.”
Getty Conservation Institute director Tim Whalen shares this enthusiasm.
“L.A. is a much livelier place, with many venues. The kinds of institutions we have are certainly more culturally diverse than what they have in Manhattan.”
Comparisons between L.A. and New York City — the nation’s two most populous cities — persist, he says, but the rivalry is becoming less heated as the Southland continues to define its identity. “L.A. is starting to be seen for what it is: its contribution to mass media, contemporary art, the things we do differently than New York.”

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