Elsa Longhauser has been the Executive Director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art since June, 2000. To begin a new Mirror series on interesting and influential people who work in our city, Steve Stajich sat down with Longhauser to discuss the museum, art and the visual world and working in Santa Monica.Your bio describes the Santa Monica Museum of Art as one of the pre-eminent kunsthalles in North America. That relates to the fact that you exhibit pieces but don’t collect or archive…?We do have archives. The notion of the kunsthalle is very prominent in Europe. Every major city has several major museums with collections and at least one kunsthalle. The thing that I find very exciting about that is, yes, indeed, we do not have a permanent collection but that gives us the agility and the freedom to have a collection of interesting ideas, to be more spontaneous, to be agile in the way that we can respond to different currents in the art world. I think of myself, in a way, as a seismograph for art and culture. It’s a collection of ideas, a collection of original thinking, if you will, rather than a specific art collection.You began as an artist?I began as an artist with a very strong interest in working in the context of a museum where I could actually work to raise the consciousness of the general public about art. I felt that I did not want to be an academic I did not want to stay within the context of a university or college or just be in the library. I feel that people don’t actually know how to look at the visual world. I firmly believe that once you do connect to the way that artists are presenting the visual world you see everything in a way that you would never have seen it before and you understand the world in ways that you would never [otherwise] understand. Artists really do tell us about the society and the world that we live in a very poignant way and this is historically what artists have done. Young people—well, all of us—get so much visual stuff in our lives. Is it tougher now because of so much visual story telling? I think that the challenge for us in the museum world is how we process, how we synthesize the information that we give back to all people. To young people, who are just beginning to understand that there is a history of art in front of them…that there’s local, national and international art. That the same kind of global currents that you have in economics and politics also flow through the art world and it’s up to the museum to really synthesize bodies of visual material to make it understandable and accessible and also entertaining. You began as a director of three distinguished galleries, and you were guest curator for the American Folk Art Museum in New York. What made you want to move to Santa Monica?There is no question that Los Angeles has a vibrancy, it has a mystery, it has unending fascination that doesn’t present itself to you immediately. You have to search it out. And I feel as if I could spend the rest of my life uncovering the mysteries of Southern California and Los Angeles. The reason we came, I came, to the Museum of Art in Santa Monica is that I was offered the job and we came to visit and we loved the place. We thought the people were fantastic. There was this incredible diversity of cultures and ethnicities and people who were involved with amazingly interesting occupations. People who have come here because they’ve chosen to come here and they stay here and they are vibrant and attached to the world in variety of different ways. That makes it an ideal location to have a museum and a cultural organization that really reflects that kind of diversity in its programming. How you do balance presenting the richness of Southern California or our region, artistically, with wanting to bring in influences from all over the world. How do you prioritize?This museum has had an interesting and long history with the city. When it first started, in 1988, clearly there was a need for local artists to have a venue for their work. And they began by having very important project series where they invited artists to actually make projects and they focused on local artists. This was when the Museum was at the Frank Geary building on Main Street.And then they moved here [Bergamot Station] in 1998, and I came in 2000. In the year 2000 it was very clear that a number of things were changing in the world. First of all, Los Angeles was beginning to have a large number of private galleries that were showing local artists. The issue of local artists having a venue to be shown…that wasn’t needed as much anymore. And also, the world really shifted into being global. I feel that it’s important to bring in artists and ideas from around the world and make those accessible to the local people to the audiences, to the artistic community. So that you have a conversation going on that’s broadening. So you bring the outside in to educate to the internal population, and you take what you have here, out. And to that end our museum has been very interested in the history of art in Los Angeles.What would you say about the political nature of art in regard to the times that we live in? I think that artists are always reflecting what is going on in the culture and there’s no question that political art has been a focus of the art world…forever. I think that politics are essential in the world of art, but I also think that form is essential. You know, work is often highly political and highly—or I would say poignantly—connected to the issues that are disturbing us in the world. The form, in order for the work to be meaningful, has to be as powerful as the content. Off of that, to what degree as—well, you are a director and not a curator—Well, I’m a director/curator.To what degree do you let yourself think about what we might call “customer satisfaction?” It’s a very interesting question, actually. I think that as a curator, I’ve always been a director/curator, and in a kunsthalle that’s what you usually have. I would say that my first interest is always the quality of the work. I’m not ever going to compromise to just have customer satisfaction. That is not of interest. Make them see something about the world or understand something about the world that they had not before; that’s my notion of customer satisfaction. I think people do come here because they know they will always learn something. They will always go away with something to think about. They will like one show more than another show, that’s inevitable. But whether they’re going to think—I mean, what people think is pretty is so variable, that I always aim for something original, something important and something that will have long-lasting impact in the history of art and culture. I think that’s what’s actually of interest to me, whether it’s showing new work in the context of art history or art historical work in a contemporary context. What about having what you’re trying to do located in Bergamot with all these other places that are tuned to the idea, certainly, of art as a possession or collecting? Is that a good integration, or is something about that not as good…?I think it could go both ways. I think we feel that it’s a very good thing to be in the context of Bergamot Station because it was really developed and renovated as an art center. And I’d like to think that we are the flagship tenant here, because we are constantly in the midst of artistic exploration and documentation. The idea that you can come to this art center and have this museum and have the galleries and have a variety of art-interested people always around and always knocking on your door or entering your space, I think, is very exciting.You were just away on business. What do you do when you travel?I just came back from Paris, where the large exhibition of LA artists is being shown at the Pompidou and what was so fantastic is that three of the artists in the show have had major one-person shows here [at SMMoA] in the last four years. Several of the artists whom we have shown and documented in [our] catalogues, that work has been excerpted in their catalogue. It has been said in all of the publications and in Christopher Knight’s review that the history of art in Los Angeles is very, very important but often overlooked in the history of American art. Then other times I’ll go with a very specific agenda. I was recently in Portugal because the next show that we’re having is the very renowned Portugal architect Alvaro Siza. This is a Pritzker Prize winner…a very, very important architect who’s never had a major show, who’s never had an exhibition in the United States in a museum. So I went and met with Siza, met with his exhibition designer, was taken to a number of the places that he has built…museums and houses around Portugal. It was a very compact and intense week of just focusing on the exhibition.How do you see your role in terms of people who are not going to come in here with an art head-set?I feel very committed to attracting and serving that particular constituency. Because as I said earlier, I don’t think an art head is necessarily something that you’re born with. And I don’t think that it’s something that’s necessarily addressed within the educational system. I think that it’s something that one has to learn. I would say to your friends, come to the museum because you’ll always see something interesting and it will be explained to you, the staff and the people that greet you will be friendly. You won’t feel intimidated, you won’t feel inhibited. And if you don’t necessarily understand, there will be material there to help you and if you need to go further, we can just get one of the staff members who will explain it on the spot.What are some of your favorite things about Santa Monica?I love the fact that we have a very sophisticated cultural community but we also have people who have never been to a museum. That we have this mix, this social mix. One of the things that I loved when first moving here is that I met the mayor, who came to lunch in jeans and sandals. And had a pony tail. So the spirit of Santa Monica has always been very attractive. Currently, the Santa Monica Museum of Art is presenting “Dark Places,” organized by guest curator Joshua Decter and projected by means of a pioneering installation designed by the architectural collective “servo.” The museum is located in Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave. 310.586.6488.
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