The story of why the Neon Museum - after 28 years - is leaving Downtown - for a second time (its current display at City Walk being its first defection) is long and complicated and it starts long before I was involved in the politics of Downtown.
I do recall, though, when its first small space in the Arts District in 1981 - around the corner from Joel Bloom's store, another lost landmark, much later opened in 1994.
I also remember when it was supposed to be the major public arts component of what later became LA Live – which instead became the Grammy Museum - but I don't recall how that came to be.
And by the time I started talking with the Museum of Neon Art – MONA - in the late 1990's, the clock was ticking on their then CRA subsidized space in South Park. It was clear then that with no new space to show potential donors or potential new board members - it would be impossible for MONA to raise the money needed to rent or buy a new space - or for them get further public grants to sustain themselves.
It also seemed clear, at least to me, that arts non-profits would soon need to consider developing earned income projects or joint ventures to guarantee their long term financial sustainability.
And this was before anyone realized local and regional governments will soon have the single largest part of their tax revenues going into the pensions and health benefits for retired workers who no longer work for the government, leaving less and less money for anything else.
So my idea was to find a large space, preferably underground or on the upper floors of an old building to keep the rents cheap - where there could be multiple food and beverage tenants sub-letting from the Neon Museum.
Those tenants would then each have their spaces displaying parts of the collection as their decor - and they would pay a higher than normal rent in exchange for those displays. The museum would then be able to exhibit those pieces at no cost to MONA and they would be viewable at night when they would normally not be seen – and there would a steady cash flow from those tenants.
But – best of all – the tenant’s build-outs would hopefully include all the seismic requirements, health and safety requirements and the entire HVAC infrastructure for the entire space.
Restaurants, lounges, bars, or music venues were the possible uses and their nighttime urban atmosphere would work perfectly with the neon.
Then, the museum itself, would have - besides its workshops and smaller display areas - one large and one or two smaller display rooms where - after the museum was closed – those spaces could be rented out as event spaces. This would bring in even more revenue and - again - allow the neon to be seen at night when the museum would normally be closed.
And even when I very conservatively ran the numbers - it seemed feasible that with the prices for underground spaces I was quoted - and how much the new venues - even after build-outs would pay - the museum should be at the very worst – totally rent-free – and that its net income would increase over the years as they amortized the costs.
I then found what I felt was the perfect space for the museum, introduced them to the owners and an agreement to agree was reached and MONA started to develop a business plan on how to do this project.
But soon after, the person who pushed the deal through at the company was hired away by another company, but the deal remained intact. Then the building was sold – and I was told the deal was, again, still on.
I then went on to other projects and assumed no news was good news. And it was only when I checked in about a year later to get a progress report did I discover - the deal had died, though I could never find out… why.
So I - and other people - tried again to find another Downtown home for MONA – as increasingly numbers of offers came from all over the country offering MONA free spaces. But there seemed to be a disconnect between what the Neon Museum was able to find - and afford - and what the City felt was the appropriate place for them to be. And with no new home in hand – MONA was unable to raise any funds themselves, so no deal could be made.
And the final place I proposed, I still feel can work for a museum of some kind in the longer term, but the amount of work it takes to make one of these deals happen.... makes doing them a full time job and I already have twenty other full time – and all 100% pro-bono - jobs.
So when the City displayed no interest in even looking at the space, I moved on.
And so now the Neon Museum appears to be all but gone from Downtown.
But that does not mean this has to be the end of the love story between MONA and Downtown. Unlike the lovers in the 500 Days of Summer, a happy ever after ending for us is still possible.
After all, the Neon Museum has once before abandoned us for City Walk - but still returned home – even while they faithfully retaining their presence at City Walk.
The good news/bad news for neon lovers is that as long as old buildings are torn down - there will be an endless supply of neon needing to be saved. So even if Glendale has the main museum - that does not stop MONA from having a branch in Downtown, once we finally get our act together.
And an auxiliary display only space Downtown would help the Glendale Neon Museum space as it would feed people from our much larger tourist base to the Glendale Museum.
But in order for us to do this – and other major cultural projects - we need to rethink how the City works with arts organizations - and how we are going to house our dozens of homeless museums of all kinds. Museums are important economic development engines and they are essential to our long term ability to attract tourists to Los Angeles.
The first step is for the CRA and other government agencies – and major foundations who are interested in helping non-profits become financially self-sustainable – to create a privately run non-profit corporation to do long term leases of potential future arts spaces.
Or - in today’s' depressed property market – give the corporation the ability buy large warehouses, or condo off the upper floors of buildings on Broadway - or condo off the basements of buildings – for use by arts organizations.
The non-profit corporation would then either do straight sub-leases to the arts groups or do some partial build outs first and then do the sub-leases. This will give the arts groups, museums and other cultural groups the benefit of the far lower rates of the master lease – plus lower combined infrastructure construction costs - as opposed to what it would cost an arts group to lease a smaller already subdivided and built out space.
And if for-profit entities are also given leases within the complex, their rents would help further lower the arts spaces rents – without any need for outside subsidies.
Additionally, each arts organization should be given an opportunity to develop their own earned income revenue streams – when possible – within their spaces. Lastly, all commercial tenants would also be chosen on the basis of their bringing synergistic audiences to the overall space.
However, if the corporation buys the buildings, then it can - over time -sell individual spaces to the arts groups. And if there are profit making businesses in the overall complex – the non-profits can collectively own those spaces and the rents from those spaces could help cover the costs of maintaining the entire building.
To give just one example of how this might work – say the Museum of California Design is given the opportunity to occupy such a complex – think of all the design-oriented retailers who would want to rent or own spaces next to that museum?
And then what better place would there be for a permanent home for the Architecture & Design Museum? Or LATDA - the Los Angeles Toy, Doll and Amusements Museum? Or a Fashion Museum? Or any other museum that is about… design?
So to do all this, the Corporation could buy a huge warehouse complex and give the spaces rent free to help these museums get started while at the same time leasing out other spaces synergistic uses who would want the proximity to both the museums and the other destination-type retailers. This would then cover the museum's rent.
And even before then, the Corporation can rent out the empty spaces for warehousing, if need be – and in their second phase, they can attract events and filming – which would become increasingly easier as the museums themselves start to install.
And this business plan has worked in the past.
During all this, business plans will be then developed and redeveloped on how each museum can either do a long term lease – or purchase of all or parts of the complex. And if one or more museums leave for another space – another new museum will have an already built out space ready to start the whole process all over again.
Additionally, parts of the project could even include future residential development to further help subsidize the overall project.
This way, these museums can get an initial space for very little money – while having a long term plan to increase their size and eventually buy the building – all of which will make it far easier for them to raise funds.
And by buying properties a bit off the beaten track to get affordable spaces, the design oriented retailers will also initially get very affordable rents themselves – while also still having the benefits of built-in audiences from the multiple synergistic retailers – and the growing complex of design museums.
But more on all this later.
Now it's time to get back to the story of the Neon Museum, and below is the latest news from the LA Times:
L.A.'s Museum of Neon Art is glowing, glowing, gone
The museum, which has been in downtown since 1981, is moving to larger quarters across from Americana at Brand in Glendale. The announcement has disappointed many downtown boosters.
By Cara Mia DiMassa
September 25, 2009
The Museum of Neon Art opened its doors in downtown Los Angeles in 1981 -- long before the city center was fashionable. For much of this time, the museum has moved around the area, looking for a spot large enough to show off its uniquely Southern California collection.
At its current location on 4th Street in the Old Bank district, visitors to the museum have a tendency to look befuddled after viewing the 20 pieces of neon and wonder where some of the more iconic pieces are located. The Grauman's Chinese Theatre dragon? The old Union 76 ball?
"People ask, 'Where's the Brown Derby?' " said Kim Koga, the museum's director, referring to the neon sign that once stood atop one of the city's most famous dining establishments and is now in the museum's permanent collection. "We couldn't get it in the door here."
Now, the museum has found the space it wants -- in Glendale. And many who live and work around the lofts and galleries that grew around the museum are sad to see it go.
The new space, on Brand Boulevard across from Americana at Brand, offers raw square footage as well as a chance to display some pieces on the building's exterior -- all in an area that has been experiencing its own sort of renaissance. No date has been set for the move.
The museum leaves a part of downtown that in the last decade has been transformed from an area of empty office buildings and sagging storefronts to one of L.A.'s most vibrant gallery districts, where thousands converge for the monthly art walk.
"We have this amazing relationship that won't end if they go to Glendale," said Bert Green, founder of the Downtown Art Walk and owner of a gallery at 5th and Main streets, "but I would prefer that they stay in downtown."
The announcement comes at a time when the downtown art scene is struggling, in some ways, with its own success. The Downtown Art Walk, which celebrated its fifth anniversary earlier this month, has grown to a point that some gallery owners and residents say has taken it away from its original purpose.
As many as 10,000 people now crowd downtown's streets one Thursday a month, according to some estimates. Many come to peruse the galleries, but others come to visit the area's bars, restaurants and many of the sidewalk vendors who also migrate to the area for the monthly event.
Green, who handed over the reins of the walk earlier this year, has moved his gallery's opening parties to the day before the event, and closes the gallery at 6 p.m. on art walk nights. He was getting 2,500 visitors to the small gallery at 5th and Main between 7 and 9 p.m.
"It was costing me hundreds of dollars to stay open," he said, mostly because of extra staff needed to manage the crowds, "and no one was buying anything."
Downtown boosters say the recession has hit downtown less than other artistic neighborhoods such as Culver City or Venice. While one gallery, the nonprofit Pharmaka, recently lost its space at 5th and Main, others are opening on upper floors, which lack walk-in foot traffic but sometimes offer more space and cheaper rent.
Brady Westwater, a longtime downtown activist, said that he was sad to see the neon museum leave, especially because it had hung on for so long when downtown's fortunes were on the decline. "We've now got Disney Hall, Gallery Row, Art Walk, SCI-Arc -- all of these things that have come in and are now institutions," Westwater said. "It's a tragedy that just as the theaters of Broadway are about to have their lights turned on again, the lights of the neon museum will be turned off downtown."