I’m no stranger to Los Angeles. Not only is it where I attended undergraduate school, it’s where my husband’s family lives, and where I had my first museum internship. Last month, as part of MoMA’s 12-Month Internship program, I was offered the invaluable opportunity to revisit my old city from a new perspective: that of researcher. I began my trip with an ambitious laundry list of museums, galleries, and exhibitions, but what sparked my interest the most was the chance to see the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium, being held concurrently at two L.A. art-scene juggernauts: The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
In 2011, these institutions committed to a momentous joint acquisition of art and archival materials from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Drawn primarily from this acquisition, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium includes over 300 works between the two museums. On paper, the Getty and LACMA have quite a bit in common—both are encyclopedic by nature, with collections of well over 100,000 objects—but after visiting them one after the other, I couldn’t help but observe a decided difference in their personalities, so to speak.
LACMA takes full advantage of its Southern California locale, specifically its temperate climate and dead-center L.A. address. The complete rebuild of the museum’s west campus in the late 2000s, designed by architect Renzo Piano, centered on the creation of the entirely unbounded BP Grand Entrance, where the delineation between Wilshire Boulevard and the museum campus is purposefully blurred. Here, you’ll find the ultra-trendy Stark Bar, Michael Heizer’s impressive Levitated Mass, and the now ubiquitous installation piece Urban Light, by Chris Burden (which has become the selfie background of choice for Angelinos and tourists alike). With chic outdoor furniture, stretches of plush grass, and an outdoor summer music series, the BP Grand Entrance marks the museum not only as a space to enjoy art, but also a place to simply hang out and enjoy the scenery.
The Getty offers quite a different experience. Visually, it can be seen as an almost literal ivory tower. Situated on a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains, the museum rests high above the hubbub of the city, with every inch of its façade and walkways swathed in buff-colored travertine. Visitors to the museum make their way to the hilltop by computer-operated tram, leaving their cars and the din of the city behind. Reaching the summit, everything has an almost futuristic, utopian quality; the vistas of Los Angeles are plentiful, beautiful, and distant (and its “space age-ness” is supported, not least of all, by its roll as Star Fleet Headquarters in 2009’s Star Trek: Into Darkness).
So how could these two apparently disparate institutional environments handle an exhibition on the same artist simultaneously? Further, how could these two concurrent exhibitions work autonomously without being redundant? It would seem corollary that their approaches would be as unique as their atmospheres, yet each exhibition was complementary to, rather than independent or reliant upon, the other. Patrons visiting only one of the exhibitions would not find themselves lost or feeling like they missed the beginning. Conversely, there was no truly redundant material. Where there were degrees of overlap, the individual voice of each institution provided contrast. The solution to two museums, one exhibition would seem to be a division of art historical imperatives for each museum to conquer, such as Mapplethorpe’s production methods and influence(s), rather than, say, a purely chronological chopping up of the material.
What made each iteration of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium truly distinct was the respective venues. With The J. Paul Getty Museum’s iconic campus and LACMA’s ongoing remodel, it became clear that how museums choose to present themselves has increasing significance to how the exhibitions they present are received. What this specific comparison exemplifies is that exhibitions are not inherently autonomous from the buildings that house them. Rather, it is the ways in which they are contingent that often reveals the most interesting and surprising interpretations.