Mar 09

L.A.’s big free agent: LACMA’s Levitated Mass

While the import to Los Angeles of free agents such as Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano generated split opinions over their value, they were not alone, or even the most noteworthy in the county.

Landing strip for Levitated Mass, at rear of LACMA, as seen from Variety building.

Within 24 hours, the primary part of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, a 21-foot, 340-ton boulder (yes, bigger than Jonathan Broxton and Todd Coffey combined) that has been slowly working its way across Southern California, will arrive at its new home, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will hover above a 456-foot-long, 15-feet deep slot. (Information concerning its arrival can be found here; you can also follow on Twitter.) Levitated has interested me for several reasons: my ties to LACMA from having worked there from 2002-2006, my view of the museum and its landing-strip outdoor home for Leviated from the window of my current Variety office, and above all, the polarized reaction Levitated has generated.

In its initial stages, any appreciation for what Levitated might mean was drowned out by amazed if not angry cries: “LACMA is spending $10 million for a rock?” Indeed, the cost for bringing Levitated to LACMA did require eight digits worth of private fundraising, to account for the unique challenge of the oversize delivery that required removing and reinstalling traffic lights, wires and other obstacles. Surely that money could be better spent on something else.

There are two threads to that argument. The first is whether any arts spending is superfluous when your city faces hard times. From my experience at LACMA, all I can tell you is that study after study exists to show that arts spending has payoffs for the community that more than justify itself. (Not to be ignored is the question of whether funds diverted from the arts would go to an area that had even less value to society.) In addition, LACMA notes that Levitated offers Los Angeles both a near- and long-term economic benefit.

The second thread is, even if you support arts spending, whether Levitated qualifies as the right kind of arts spending. This is inherently subjective. Again, much initial reaction across the public seemed highly skeptical. However, the rapid groundswell of interest — as celebratory as an Olympic torch run — in Levitated indicates, at a minimum, that there’s a high curiosity factor. And something tells me that once it is in place at LACMA, it is going to be the kind of experience that more than fulfills its goals: to amaze and inspire.

The path through which visitors will be able to walk beneath Levitated Mass.

Rare is the piece of art, no matter how much its financial worth, that is meaningful to everyone. Everyone has seen a so-called masterpiece that leaves them cold. So it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to appreciate Levitated Mass, but despite the initial concern, this might be a free-agent gamble that pays off.

If so, this would be akin to a scouting department triumph for LACMA, though you can decide how Moneyball-like it is. Levitated might not have had the look of a top prospect or marquee free agent, but here we are, poised for its potential earthquake of a debut.