Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Plans an Upgrade

In a statement of its commitment to artists and to downtown, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles is planning to buy the East Seventh Street building it occupies and improve it with a cafe, outdoor space and studios for a new artists-in-residence program.

“I want to make sure that this institution is here for generations to come,” Anne Ellegood, the museum’s director, said in a recent interview, “making sure it’s sustainable.”

Since the institution moved from the west side — where it was called the Santa Monica Museum of Art — and rebranded itself with a new name in the downtown Arts District in 2017, Ellegood said, its location has become integral to its identity. “It’s literally a neighborhood named for artists, which is increasingly a neighborhood where artists are not present and can’t afford to be here,” she said.

“How can we find ways to bring them back in?” she added. “In Los Angeles, studio spaces are becoming less affordable.

The building’s $5 million purchase price has been largely covered by a $4.4 million naming gift from the Mohn Family Trust, to be announced on Saturday at the museum’s spring benefit. (The building will be called the Mohn Family Building.)

“I don’t think they’re duplicative of what anybody else is doing in town,” Jarl Mohn, a venture capitalist and chief executive of National Public Radio until 2019, said of the museum and the family’s decision to make the gift. “It’s a really important piece of the puzzle.”

Founded in 1988, the institute has established a loyal following as a place to see emerging and unrecognized artists. The museum was in the vanguard of presenting artists of color; William Pope L. had his first solo West Coast museum exhibition there and Mickalene Thomas’s first solo exhibition in a U.S. museum opened at the institute and subsequently traveled to the Brooklyn Museum.

In 2017, the museum moved to a former manufacturing building in downtown Los Angeles and in 2019 Ellegood took over for the longtime director, Elsa Longhauser.

Given the scope of some museum building projects, this one is modest — $5 million, with an overall fund-raising campaign of about $12 million (more than $7 million has been raised so far). The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles has an annual operating budget of $3.5 million, no endowment and a full-time staff of 12.

But the effort is significant for an institution of its size. “We aren’t doing a $100 million expansion of our building,” Ellegood said, referring to the nearby Broad museum’s recent announcement. “But we’re doing a campaign with certain kinds of growth for our institution that are just as meaningful.”

Artists have come to appreciate this museum’s role in the city’s cultural ecosystem. The Institute is “often first on the ground in terms of trends or interests,” said the artist Charles Gaines, who serves on the board. “The big institutions can’t be as nimble.”

The institute is one of several notable smaller arts organizations centering artists in Los Angeles; others include Art+Practice, started by the artist Mark Bradford, and LAXART, which is changing its name to the Brick and will open a new space in Melrose Hill on June 16.

“Buying the building is the most important thing you can do in terms of permanence,” said the artist Rebecca Morris, who had a survey show there in 2022. “You’re building your house where artists live.”

The new residency program will initially focus on Los Angeles-based artists, and Ellegood said she hopes to eventually add more studios and include national and international artists.

At the back of the building, the developer AvalonBay Communities created the artist studios; a landscaped pedestrian-only paseo (walkway) that can be used for outdoor programming, performances, and events; and a plaza for the museum that will contain its new north entrance through a 450-square-foot pavilion.

“How do we make this more inviting and create a sense of access,” said the artist Andrea Fraser, a trustee, “ so you’re not just coming to see shows or go to a specific program, but it’s a community space.”

Parking has always been a challenge for the museum, given that it has only eight spaces. Under the renovation plan, the museum is transforming its small parking lot into a gathering area with seating for the new cafe and will encourage visitors to park at a nearby public garage on Industrial Street, which has about 160 spaces.

The cafe, which is planned for the Seventh Street side of the building, will feature a residency program for emerging chefs that will allow them to try out menus and collaborate with artists.

Ellegood said the building project represents the museum’s progress and its future goals. “It’s a real signal that we are committed to this neighborhood,” she said, “and that we’re not going anywhere.”

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Kim browne

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