Does LACMA have what it takes to be Los Angeles’ town square?

By Anne Maria Nicholson

The Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,  Michael Govan,  has a grand vision:

to create the long-desired town square of Los Angeles on the campus of the Museum.

Is Michael Govan crazy or can he achieve

what so many others have failed to do?


By Anne Maria Nicholson

Los Angeles has an obsession: to find its soul. My observation is that the city’s lack of identity chips away at people’s pride, embarrasses them over a lack of cohesion in their hometown.  For many, this soul, this signature of the metropolitan sprawl, would be manifested with its own unique town square.

All over the world there are community open spaces that define the place, reflect the culture, the art and the character.  They’re what draw people together, residents and visitors alike, whether they’re happy, sad or angry.   From piazzas in Italy and Spain, to squares in Britain, from parks and plazas in Latin America, Asia, Australia and Africa, to giant city squares in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the open space is a magnet, where everybody wants to gather.  Festivals, protests, celebrations, markets, concerts, memorials or simply a place to sit with family and friends or alone, the aim is universally the same. And of course, New York has Central Park and the Lincoln Centre.

Director and CEO since 2006, Michael Govan has a vision to make the open space on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the new Town Square for Los Angeles.  The space is big enough: 20 acres in the geographic heart of the city.

But is this one man’s crazy ambition?  Is there the scope, the attractions to draw crowds there on a daily basis?

He thinks so.  The location seems questionable.  But Govan believes being Midtown is an advantage: halfway from everywhere.  Or is it halfway from nowhere?  It’s easy to access by car and there’s plenty of parking.  Frequent bus services connect to Downtown, Santa Monica and many other points of greater Los Angeles.  A big spike  will come in 2020 when a new Metro station opens there.

LACMA was formed in 1913 and has grown to be the pre-eminent encyclopaedic art museum in the western United States with a permanent collection of more than 150,000 objects.  It has grown constantly over the decades.  In the 90s the purchase of an adjacent property led to a major breakthrough, the closing of a road between Wilshire Boulevard and 6th Street that divided the museum space.

Now there’s major expansion in planning, a 10-year plan called the Transformation involving famed architect Renzo Piano.  More than a million people visit annually but the target is many more.

Still, to be THE TOWN SQUARE is a big ask. Art museums are viewed by many as places to cage art, elitist, unwelcoming and too expensive for the masses.  Govan says he’s breaking down these boundaries one by one.   Already there’s free music and events and he’d love to offer free admission to everything.  But for now, the budget is not there.  And yes, he would also prefer the many guards that patrol the place, to back off telling people what they shouldn’t be doing, including photographing the art. (see the story: Looking for Mr Ruscha).

There’s competition for the crown.  Others favor the new Grand Park, downtown. It’s in the midst of major arts institutions, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Museum of Contemporary Art, the Colburn School for Music and Performing Arts, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theater.  But it can be difficult for some to access.

Then there’s Union Station with its heritage and historic aesthetic and instant crowds coming and going from Los Angeles’ main railway station.

The jury’s out and it will be some years before a judgement can be made.  The answer will be obvious though.  People will vote with their feet.

Getty Fellow Anne Maria Nicholson from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Sydney, visiting LACMA for the first time…and having a’ Steve Martin moment’.

My Steve Martin moment


USC graduate journalist student Leila Lougan shot the video at LACMA.

Working on LACMA shoot with Anne Maria Nicholson
Anne Maria at Berlin Wall across the road from LACMA
This artwork is on pieces of the real Berlin Wall, highly visible, across the road from LACMA



Anne Maria Nicholson visited LACMA on Veterans Day, a holiday afternoon, and produced a video in the courtyard precinct with USC graduate journalist students, Leila Dougan on camera, and Sean Malone and Will Seymour editing.   It was sunny, mellow but surprisingly uncrowded for a civic square.  She chatted to passersby about their feelings about the notion of this being The town square.

LACMA VIDEO | Los Angeles County Museum of Art – YouTube

Video highlights from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art including some of the  permanent collection of more than 150000 artworks spanning millenia.


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