Too many treasures

Too many treasures

Storage is an ongoing concern for museums pressed for display space.

By Diane Haithman, LA Times Staff Writer

One of the best-known artworks at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is Edward Kienholz’s “Back Seat Dodge ’38,” an assemblage that includes two faceless figures made of chicken wire and engaged in a sexual encounter in the back of an actual vintage car.

Although it’s almost 40 years since the work first went on display, it still carries a certain titillation factor. In 1966, it sparked a controversy at the newly established museum and was declared pornographic by the county Board of Supervisors.

But right now, the only place you can see “Back Seat Dodge” is via LACMA’s website,, where it’s the subject of a virtual exhibition, complete with audio and video. It’s not a matter of censorship; it’s all about space.

The artwork was placed in storage recently to make room for two special exhibitions on the second floor of the museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art building. As LACMA embarks on a multiyear, multiphase renovation and expansion of its Wilshire Boulevard facility, one thing will remain a constant: the need for more art storage space.

A surprising statistic: At any given time, most United States museums have only about 5% of their permanent collections on display.

LACMA is no exception, showing about 5,000 of the approximately 100,000 items in the permanent holdings. (The number is approximate, says LACMA deputy director Nancy Thomas, because of debate over whether items with multiple parts — such as a tea set — represent one piece, or whether each saucer and cup should count separately.) “Storage isn’t high profile, but it is needed for the care and protection of artworks,” says Ted Greenberg, LACMA’s head registrar. “It always seems to be forgotten when people are making monetary donations, but it’s just as important as the public space.”

The $130-million first phase of the LACMA expansion, designed by architect Renzo Piano, is already underway. The plan includes creation of a museum-within-a-museum, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, funded by a $50-million donation from the most powerful member of its board of trustees, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. Broad has also donated $10 million to purchase art.

Expansion, one would think, would mean more storage space. The Broad Museum by itself will provide about 65,000 square feet of new galleries. And earlier this year, LACMA made the controversial decision to sell off 42 works from its permanent collection. That also, it would seem, should have freed up some space.

But museum curators abhor a vacuum. “Everything is in transition,” says Mark Gilberg, director of LACMA’s Conservation Center. “It’s a constant collection and evaluation process. The more you build, the more you are going to collect.”

Proceeds from LACMA’s art sale are earmarked for acquisition of new art. And Broad will start filling his new gallery himself: He has agreed to loan — though he has not committed to donate — works from his 750-piece contemporary art collection.

Thomas echoes Gilberg in saying that need for storage will grow along with the museum. At LACMA, as well as at other major museums, the business of exhibiting and storing art is a continual shell game.

“Our collection has doubled in the past 20 years,” says Maureen Donovan, registrar for Harvard University Museums, which have 250,000 objects. The museums do not collect much in the way of large, contemporary pieces or installations but, Donovan says, “We collect in so many different areas that it does create an incredible crunch.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles faces the size challenge daily, says Robert Hollister, director of collections and registration. Currently hanging in one of its galleries — that is, hanging from the ceiling — is Damián Ortega’s “Cosmic Thing” (2002), an “exploded” Volkswagen Beetle, 265 inches tall by 276 inches long and 296 inches wide. When not on display, “Cosmic Thing,” must be disassembled and packed in six crates. Red Grooms’ “The Discount Store” (1970), one of the artist’s walk-in environments, is listed by MOCA as having variable dimensions, but is always as big as it sounds.

Of course, the museum doesn’t have to worry about storage for the largest piece it owns: Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” (1969), a work described as a “240,000-ton displacement of rhyolite and sandstone.” The piece — which is 1,500 feet tall, 50 feet wide and 30 feet long — is site-specific, to Mormon Mesa, Nev.

Some museums, including LACMA, the J. Paul Getty Museum and MOCA, store most of their artworks on site — although all three use some rental space in L.A.-area warehouses equipped to store fine art. They maintain the same temperature and humidity requirements as on-site storage, monitored by a hypothermograph (the instruments you see strategically placed on walls in the galleries).

Museums are understandably secretive about the location of off-site storage. Sally Hibbard, the Getty Museum’s chief registrar, says the Getty stores very few works off site and “they are usually lower-value, large marble pieces.” Hollister says MOCA usually uses off-site warehouses for large-scale installations.

As with “Back Seat Dodge,” some works go into storage as the museum rotates or redesigns exhibitions. Other works, including drawings, photographs, works on paper and textiles, are stored to protect them from light.

“We know that objects will fade, they may have ‘fugitive’ pigments on them or permanent pigments that are susceptible to fading,” says Gilberg of LACMA.

For that reason, the Getty Museum keeps its color photographs in cold storage to prevent fading.

Even within the galleries, you’ll see works on paper displayed in drawers, so they are exposed to light only when someone wants to look at them.

Storage needs for a museum rarely allow for any but the most insignificant items to be packed away where they cannot easily be accessed. Curators, researchers and students need to have works readily available; because of this, museum storage spaces often are more like libraries than attics.

In a LACMA gallery used for temporary storage, paintings hang on floor-to-ceiling screens like rugs at a carpet store. Because L.A. is earthquake country, sculptures and other oddly shaped pieces that can’t be placed on flat screens or in drawers are tied to the walls. In another room, textiles and clothing are stored in long boxes to protect them from dust and light, with sleeves stuffed with acid-free tissue paper to prevent creasing.

But underfunded facilities are often less fortunate. Such was the case with the Autry National Center’s Southwest Museum, housed in a 1914 building in Mount Washington, where for years museum officials struggled to protect a valuable collection of Native American artifacts — including textiles, ceramics and baskets — from insect infestation.

As the result of an ambitious conservation program launched last year, the Southwest has been able to convert its former Southwest Halls and basket lab area into a state-of-the-art preservation wing. The new space, which opened in February, includes air filters, storage shelves and a freezer that can be used to debug materials without the use of damaging chemicals.

In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004, also faced the challenge of storing fragile, pest-friendly materials such as wood, textiles, baskets and feathers. However, instead of creating traditional closed storage space, the museum keeps objects not on display at the museum in its Cultural Resources Center in nearby Suitland, Md. Weekly tours of the facility are held for the public.

Bruce Bernstein, the museum’s director of cultural resources, dislikes the word “storage.” “Putting something in storage means it is no longer in use,” he says. “We care for the objects as living beings. I know that sounds sappy and all that, but the native people, in their worldview, really consider these objects to be relatives. Everything is upright — objects are not lying on their sides, helter-skelter, upside down because it is better for storage. There are quarterly blessings for the well-being of the collections, as well as the well-being of the people who work there.”

Among items that must remain upright are canoes, which hang on walls, and totem poles, which may stand 30 to 40 feet high. Some objects, Bernstein says, can be borrowed for use by various tribes. “It’s the museum idea of preservation versus the native idea that often the best method of preservation is to put these objects back into use,” he says. “It’s a very different look at the world.”

Several Washington institutions — the Phillips Collection, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery — avoided having to put prized artworks into storage during recent renovation by organizing traveling shows. Fifty-five works, including Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” are visiting museums internationally as part of the Phillips’ “Masterworks on Tour” program; John Singer Sargents portrait of Henry Cabot Lodge left Washington’s National Portrait Gallery and took up temporary residence at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The loaned works will begin returning in 2006.

Last year, the Natural History Museum of L.A. County put some of its stored items to use: For an exhibition called “Conversations,” the museum paired artists with museum scientists and allowed the artists to go through stored collections and select items to be used in works they created for the show.

With modern museums devoting as much effort to storage as exhibition, Gilberg says the enticing vision of forgotten treasure locked away in vaults is probably a fairy tale. “I imagine that some of these much older museums supporting large archeological expeditions all over the world — they may have boxes they have never opened,” he says. “But we are not that old. The objects will see the light of day. They will end up in exhibitions — or, more than likely, scholars are looking at them.”

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