LACMA demolition moves forward, but coronavirus pauses Academy and Lucas construction

Deborah Vankin
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art photographed in January, after interior demolition had begun.  (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is moving ahead with plans to demolish four structures and push forward on its $750-million building project, while the call for a coronavirus quarantine has prompted the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art to pause construction.

The demolition of the buildings at the heart of LACMA's campus is set to begin in April, with completion targeted for late summer.

Before the pandemic, LACMA had entered what it called the preconstruction phase of its new, controversial Peter Zumthor-designed main building. All that work — including asbestos removal, demolition of internal walls and the erecting of construction barriers around parts of the campus — is still on track, the museum said, adding that it’s working with L.A. County officials and following state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health guidelines.

Workers from Clark Construction are wearing standard protective gear, museum representative Jessica Youn said, as well as taking “all necessary protective measures in accordance with guidelines” related to the virus, such as keeping six feet apart when working and frequently washing hands at additionally provided portable sinks. Planning and information meetings, normally held indoors, now are taking place outdoors. Youn noted that construction work — which is considered an essential business in California — is often an open-air activity that lends itself to social distancing.

Opponents of LACMA's building project have zeroed in on county funding that includes $117.5 million released last April, arguing that the money should be reallocated to address a pandemic that has led to mass shortages of much-needed medical supplies, such as face masks for health workers, COVID-19 test kits and ventilators for sick patients.

“Should we be using county funds for this building project during a humanitarian crisis?” asked Rob Hollman, board chairman of the advocacy group Save LACMA. “It’s public money that should be allocated elsewhere or at least available to be used. And if they are moving forward, they should explain why — why does this make sense now, in light of what’s going on? It’s wrong, ethically and morally.”

Museum Director Michael Govan said by email that the project was an investment in the future.

"If anything, Los Angeles is counting on us, more than ever, to keep our construction going,” Govan said. “Thousands of workers will be part of the project over the coming few years. LACMA will be an engine of job creation and economic recovery."

Architect Christopher C. Martin, whose 114-year-old family firm, AC Martin, designed and built Los Angeles City Hall as well as the former May Co. building next door to LACMA, pointed out the ramifications of delaying any work.

“The most expensive component of construction is time,” Martin said. “A delay would cost more than concrete and steel and labor. It’d be foolhardy to reallocate funds because it would significantly damage the investment in place.”

The Hammer Museum in Westwood, which is in the midst of a $90-million building expansion, also is moving forward with construction during its coronavirus closure. Workers from Matt Construction are following a 17-point COVID-19 prevention policy, said Marvin Wheat, Matt Construction president and chief compliance officer. The museum has been targeting a late 2020 completion date for the project, which will expand gallery space by 60% and include a new entrance along Wilshire Boulevard.

"The impacts of COVID-19 are still developing, still unfolding, across the museum field in all areas," Hammer representative Scott Tennant said. "So we are monitoring how that might impact construction, but we don't have any comment on what that will do to our construction timeline."

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, rising next door to LACMA, did halt the final stages of its construction a day before Gov. Gavin Newsom's safer-at-home order. The museum will reassess construction timelines as the pandemic unfolds, museum representative Stephanie Sykes said, but the plan is still to open the $482-million complex designed by Renzo Piano to the public on Dec. 14.

The $1-billion Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, filmmaker George Lucas' addition to L.A.'s Exposition Park, has paused construction for the next two weeks. The Lucas Museum was aiming to complete construction in late 2021, and representative Alex Capriotti said she couldn't speculate on changes to the timeline.

Tony Olea III, vice president of the Laborers International Union of North America, Local 300, which represents more than 8,000 people in L.A. County, said construction workers across the city are not only trying to keep six feet apart but are wiping down equipment.

“I don’t believe it’s harmful for them to be working," Olea said, "as long as they’re following safety practices.”

LACMA is in the final phase of its troubled and sluggish fundraising campaign. It's now relying on the public to come through en masse to deliver the last $100 million needed for its future home. Despite the coronavirus crisis, soaring unemployment and the volatile stock market, Youn said LACMA has "no immediate concerns" about how philanthropy might be affected.

“The balance of the campaign will be raised over the next two to three years,” she said. "Since we have years to complete the public phase of the campaign, we have confidence that we can work through the economic crisis and recovery.”