The Main Museum of Los Angeles Art and Beta Main

As the new Main Museum of Los Angeles takes shape, Holland Cotter’s words in Towards A Museum of the 21st Century come to mind: “The new museum won’t be defined by architectural glamour or by a market-vetted collection, though it may have these. Structurally porous and perpetually in progress, it will be defined by its own role as a shaper of values, and by the broad audience it attracts.” The Main Museum, scheduled for completion in 2020, and opening in phases until then, will eventually re-purpose three historic buildings—the Hellman Building, the Farmers & Merchants Bank and the Bankhouse Garage—in the Historic Bank District of DTLA.

The project, led by local architect and SCI-ARC professor Tom Wiscombe for Old Bank District developer Tom Gilmore and partner Jerri Perrone (both founding benefactors of the museum) is part adaptive re-use, part new construction, and intends to capitalize on the tension that often arises between historical and contemporary architecture. This ambitious addition to LA’s historic core, designed to resurrect the latent as well as lost three-dimensional space that weaves through these buildings, will take an unorthodox form: it will holistically eschew iconicity for nuance by featuring a residency program at its center rather than a collection. The Main, situating local artists prominently, and supporting their continued engagement within the evolving Los Angeles landscape(s), advances a unique proposition when compared with many newer art museums and high-end galleries jostling to define the downtown art scene. Its mission and fluid ability to respond materially to artists’ contemporary needs, primarily with space to live/create/work/exhibit, contain potential for subversion and change. Art in the Main will emphasize the questioning of preconceived notions of art’s role in culture and its relationship to a specific form or medium.


During the Main’s elaborate build-out, the ground floor of the 1907 Hellman Building on 114 West 4th Street houses Beta Main, a test site operating in tandem with the development of the rest of the museum. For its inaugural exhibition, Beta Main commissioned Performance Lessons: Suzanne Lacy Teaches Andrea Bowers Performance Art. Performance Lessons follows the two artists’ durational installation at The Drawing Center in New York in 2014, where Bowers taught Lacy how to draw. Using the practice Lacy was foundational in forming, roles were reversed.  This time, Lacy taught Bowers how to do performance art. For ten days (October 30- November 8, 2016), the pair lived at Beta Main while Bowers was assigned lessons, developed performances and undertook the formal critique process art students endure as part of their education. Incorporating how social practice and avant-garde performance art emphasize intimacy, immersion and the experiential, the artists’ project explored the history of performance art in California from 1968 to 1980. Lessons, as well as several instructive panels featuring guest artists, were all free and open to the public. The result, rigorous yet experiential, was a deliberation of collaboration, art-making as a woman, the politics of female friendship and performance as activism, all gracefully brought together into a series of multi-generational consciousness-raising sessions.

During these choreographed happenings in 2016, the museum’s director, Allison Agsten, showed a singular responsiveness to the artists in residence, their friends and colleagues, as well as guests. Agsten’s well-honed sensitivity to Los Angeles artists and their practices had evolved in her previous role as curator of public engagement at the Hammer Museum, where she led a pioneering program devoted to creating an exchange between visitors and the museum through works of art. Agsten also oversaw the museum’s artist board, initiated the Hammer’s visitor services department, and organized a major offsite partnership with Art + Practice, an art and social services non-profit organization in south L.A. Previously, Agsten was director of communications at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Now, Agsten’s grounded commitment to matters of accessibility around contemporary art expands daily through her role in conceptualizing and birthing what will one day be a sprawling museum complex.

Other artists’ residencies scheduled include the Boyle Heights-based photographer Star Montana and conceptual artist Sid M. Dueñas. In further efforts to build community at this nascent stage, from Tuesday, November 29 to Wednesday, December 7, Agsten held Office Hours at which local artists were invited to meet with her one-on-one and present their artwork. Some pieces were set up in the Beta Main space as Office Hours on View ran from December 8 to 18, 2016.

As Asgten explained, Office Hours offered an opportunity for exchange with the community, and to get to know one another on a very personal basis. “At the culmination, I’ve invited all of the artists to meet for a reception to expand their own networks and to see their art hung together,” she said. “The immediacy of these one-on-one meetings in the space has been energizing and will directly impact the work we do at The Main. I’m meeting artists with whom I might not have come in contact otherwise, and as always with artists, they are teaching me new things about the world and about this community.”

For more information, visit mainmuseum.org

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