While sun, sand and surf are integral to the lifestyle in Santa Monica, Calif., so, too, are the visual arts, as evidenced by the presence and prestige of the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
Founded in 1984, the museum has developed a reputation in the local, national and international art communities for fostering diversity, innovation and discovery in contemporary art through its exhibitions, and educational and outreach programs. Contemporary art, in its strictest definition, is art being made today. SMMoA works to demystify the complexities of contemporary art and make it understandable and accessible.
Not only an arts hub in its own right, the Santa Monica Museum of Art also anchors the Bergamot Station Arts Center, the largest art gallery and cultural complex in Southern California. The campus-like assemblage of buildings was once the site of a factory that manufactured water heaters. The museum originally occupied a building designed by internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry on another property, and it relocated to Bergamot Station in 1998.
The museum’s rustic, industrial heritage is still evident in its corrugated steel ceiling, exposed ductwork and concrete floor. Large skylights bring in the bright light of Santa Monica to illuminate the interior and art installations, and can be closed as needed when showing films and videos.
SMMoA organizes exhibitions involving both important mature artists who have already contributed to art’s historical canon as well as young artists whom the museum believes will prove influential in the future. Many artists who had their first U.S. museum exhibitions at the Santa Monica Museum of Art have earned important exhibitions at other major institutions.
The Santa Monica Museum of Art is one of just a few museums in the U.S. known as a kunsthalle, or non-collecting museum, and is the only such museum in Southern California. Elsa Longhauser, SMMoA’s executive director since 2000, considers operating without a permanent collection to be freeing because it allows the museum to respond more readily to culturally relevant topics.
“We’re like a seismograph, so whatever is happening at the moment is what we focus on,” Longhauser said.
A recent exhibition entitled Citizen Culture: Artists and Architects Shape Policy is a case in point. It explored the intersection of art and politics, presenting case studies for how artists can work directly with municipal governments, non-governmental organizations, legislators and advocates to effect change for such pressing societal concerns as prison reform, immigration and socially responsible urban development. In a creative initiative to break down barriers, the museum trained troubled, disadvantaged children to serve as docents for Santa Monica police officers to view the exhibition.
“If you want to stay abreast of many of the ideas and issues percolating in the culture that have to do with social behavior, visual art and artists, the Santa Monica Museum of Art is a wonderful place to come because you’ll always learn something new,” Longhauser said.
When you go
The Santa Monica Museum of Art is located at Bergamot Station G1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, Calif., 90404. Phone is 310.586.6488. Email is email@example.com. Check the website for more information.
Click here for other articles by Mary Gilbert. You also can read her travel stories on her blog, The Roads Traveled, at theroadstraveled.com.