Back when I was a cog in the entertainment industry, shamefully complicit in churning out infotainment, I pined to partner myself with valid culture as redemption for my role in the degradation of American minds. On a sunny afternoon in Santa Monica my prayers were answered when I discovered the Santa Monica Museum of Art tucked away in the Edgemar Complex on Main Street. From that first encounter I realized SMMoA was something special. Unlike L.A.'s more high-profile art museums, it had a refreshing accessibility, dynamism, and intriguing quirkiness. It was love-at-first-sight. Then and there I volunteered my time and pledged my eternal allegiance.
When Abby Sher founded SMMoA in 1984, Los Angeles, and particularly its Westside, lacked a museum-quality venue that offered exposure for Southern Californian and local artists not yet embraced by the mainstream. LACMA and MOCA were the main games in town and obtaining a show under their auspices proved challenging for deserving local artists. SMMoA came into being to fill in the gaps, offering unaffiliated artists exhibition opportunity, as well as to present work that because of its subject, unconventional materials, scale and/or ambition would not fit comfortably within a commercial setting.
More Kunsthalle than traditional art institution, SMMoA was formed as a non-collecting museum and generator and purveyor of culture. Part artist studio and art laboratory, the museum provided visitors unprecedented insight into artists' working processes through distinctive exhibitions driven by experimentation and artistic investigation.
In 1988 SMMoA launched its programming from the Edgemar space, a relatively unaffected 1908 ice warehouse. The space was intentionally left raw and flexible and walls came and went with nearly every exhibition. The unconventional, anti-white cube-ism provided an ideal forum for cutting-edge, site-specific, and artist-driven group, solo projects, and unique curated exhibitions. The museum's radical transformations from show-to-show were an important component of its experimental nature, and in turn, appeal.
In the beginning, SMMoA did not employ curators separate from its Founding Director, Tom Rhoads. Working in close collaboration with a rotating group of artist advisors, including John Baldessari and Michael Asher, Rhoads drew upon the local artistic community to help shape SMMoA's lively opening series, "Art in the Raw". An intrepid proposition, "Art in the Raw" permitted artists, both known and lesser known, to invigorate the museum by turning it into a production site for interdisciplinary artistic expression.
The "Art in the Raw" series earned resounding praise from critics, artists, and the public, and its success initiated the museum's acclaim. Later renamed the Artist Project Series, the museum's hallmark program spanned its first ten years (1988-1998) and hosted seminal exhibitions by current art luminaries such as Andrea Bowers, Daniel J. Martinez, Meg Cranston, Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, Lynn Aldrich, and William Leavitt.
Despite the museum's grass-root and modest beginnings, including at one time not having offices, electricity, or a staff, its impact on the community was enormous. It quickly developed into a cultural mainstay. Their programs grew in scope and consequence, and the roster of artists who showed under its raw-beam roof remains impressive - Jeffrey Vallance, Jo Ann Callis, Roy Dowell, Lita Albuquerque, Charles Gaines, and Karen Carson to name a few. As their reputation and popularity grew within and beyond L.A., so did their need to find a new home.
SMMoA moved into the established complex of art galleries at Bergamot Station Art Center, Santa Monica in 1998. Their inaugural exhibition featured up-and-coming artist Liza Lou and her dazzlingly beaded, full-size kitchen and backyard installations, coupled with a showing of Fluxus icon Al Hansen and his grandson Beck, (yes, that Beck,) who also performed at the opening gala with Karen Finley.
Although the new space is more polished than the former warehouse location, none of the museum's original personality, integrity, and intimacy has been compromised. True to its founding mission, SMMoA's shows continue to encompass an impressive and diverse array of artists, aesthetics, perspectives, and practices. SMMoA remains free of touting the art world's usual suspects, and their offerings maintain a nonexclusive ideology.
Aimed at embracing both art insiders and curious alike, SMMoA's exhibitions range from sublime to provocative, straightforward to confrontational, conceptual to idiosyncratic. SMMoA is fashionable without pandering, and their programs are a graceful incorporation of erudite and egalitarian, personality and prestige. This unique convergence of styles is most readily exemplified on one end by the 2001 Stephen Keene exhibition in which Keene literally camped out in the museum and executed 10,000 paintings which were made available to the public for $10 - $50; and at the other end, in 2008, the museum presented a rare installation of conceptual art giant Michael Asher.
Along with original exhibitions organized by its current Executive Director Elsa Longhauser, who joined the museum as its second Director in 2000, and Deputy Director Lisa Melandri, SMMoA imports traveling exhibitions, like the recent Barkley Hendricks' survey, as well as guest-curated shows, including Michael Duncan's and Kristine McKenna's Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle, and Jori Finkel's Identity Theft: Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman, and Suzy Lake (2007), and the Walter Hopps-curated George Herms exhibition (2005). Their exhibitions also promote an adventurous, creative approach to the scholarly presentation of art, as with Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Girogio de Chirico (2008).
The past is not lost on SMMoA's current incarnation. Accompanying exhibitions in its main space, the museum's Project Rooms One and Two spotlight younger and/or underexposed artists. SMMoA also looks to its own history, as well as the legacy of the Los Angeles art scene to present, or rather re-present, the work of artists who may not be part of the up-to-the-minute art dialogue but whose careers and influence continue well-beyond their original zenith.
SMMoA's distinctive personality remains a strong and seductive component in its overall appeal. Along with its composed professionalism, SMMoA possesses a clever charm, wit, and hipness that infuses every function and facet of the museum. From the friendly staff that greets you as you enter the museum through its groovy (and eco-friendly) store, to the tenor and breadth of their self-published catalogues, SMMoA actively engages its viewer in the artistic exchange by making them feel as if the are among friends.
In order to promote a multifaceted and deeper connection to and appreciation of contemporary art, the museum is pledged to illuminating the artistic process beyond its walls. SMMoA's outreach and educational programs, for both children and adults, are exceptional. A diverse array of discussions led by artists, curators, guest lecturers and scholars, as well as performances and special events escort each exhibition. Education Director Asuka Hisa is also keen to integrate an admirable and sincere do-good mentality into its outreach to ensure the museum serves the greater community.
A friend recently shared with me loose translation of a French expression that claims the secret to an enduring relationship is that each person involved continually works to surprise the other. SMMoA certainly keeps surprising us, so the romance continues to blossom and flourish.