LACMA's $10-million rock
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's very big rock has started its very slow roll from a Riverside County quarry to the museum grounds in Los Angeles, where the 340-ton, two-story-high hunk of speckled granite will be set in place above a deep ramp dug into the Earth. Michael Heizer’s "Levitated Mass" has been more than 40 years in the making -- millions more if you count geology as the true creator. And, for almost as long as the work has been planned, a chorus of naysayers has denounced it.
The denunciations have picked up steam since the financial collapse of 2008. With the economy moving at an even slower pace than Heizer's rock (which will take 11 days to cover 105 miles), a lot of people consider "Levitated Mass" an outrage. How can LACMA justify spending some $10 million on it, they ask, when people are hungry, homeless and despairing?
This sort of lament runs in the background of arts funding even in the best of times, but it's gotten louder in recent years. After The Times' 2010 article on the expensive and extensive logistics of moving the rock, readers were up in arms. ("A new definition of insanity," harrumphed one.) LACMA's executive director Michael Govan told the New York Times: “I get these letters and telephone calls: ‘I can’t believe you. The economy is so bad, and you’re moving a rock?’ ”
Are the naysayers right?
Common sense tells us that with unemployment up and the safety net unraveling, the poorest should be at the front of the line. Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, wrote a January opinion piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on this very subject. He was livid about the "misplaced giving priorities of the nation's billionaires." In particular he called out David Rubenstein, a private equity titan who had donated $7.5 million to restore the Washington Monument and $4.5 million to help the National Zoo's pandas. As Eisenberg pointed out, on the heels of the news that the marble-faced obelisk would be saved, came word that Hull House in Chicago, which has served the poor of that city for 120 years, would be closing its doors.
But just as surely as common sense champions the poor in hard times, it also champions the principle that donors should be left alone to give as they see fit. Most of the online commenters on Eisenberg's essay made that point: "What part of 'It's THEIR money' does he not understand?" "How dare Mr. Eisenberg tell anyone how much they should give, or where they should give it?"
Tucked into those arguments is yet another one: Whoever has enough moolah to move a rock for LACMA or save a panda is likely to be adding something to the bottom line of other charities, maybe even the kind Rubenstein would approve. The data, like so much else in this debate, work both ways.
According to an analysis in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, 2011's biggest donor was Margaret A. Cargill, whose $6-billion bequest set up two foundations and earmarked causes including disaster relief and arts education. So yes, Cargill is a prime example of how the 1% can give millions to move a rock and millions more to, say, Homeboy Industries, and never blink an eye. But the analysis also shows that America's biggest donors mostly give to its biggest institutions, like universities, and not directly to their local food banks. (BTW: Just 7% of their largesse goes to museums.)
LACMA, meanwhile, likes to point out that the millions donated toward realizing Heizer's vision have had effects far beyond the art world. Quarry workers, a logistics company, construction workers and city permit departments have all gotten a share. As Govan puts it, the sculpture is "putting more people to work here in L.A. than Obama. I mean, all the money is going to have an economic impact in California.”
In the end, of course, L.A.'s cost/benefit analysis for "Levitated Mass" may well come down to what we think of Heizer's art. It will be a month, at least, before the rock is in place and ready to be viewed. But here's a good bet: The only thing more likely to cause a ruckus than the cost of "Levitated Mass" is deciding whether or not it's art.
-- Susan Brenneman
Photo: Miriam and Jose Ramos stop by to look at the 340-ton boulder Feb. 29 on its first stop in Glen Avon on its way to LACMA. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times