If you’ve maxed out the wall space in your home, what can you do? A) Downsize the art collection; b) add another room; c) rent a storage locker; d) build a museum. Brian and Eva Sweeney chose to do the latter.
The couple’s seafront Manhattan Beach house can display 40 or 50 pieces, but about four years ago their collection of art was beginning to climb into the hundreds.
“So what we did,” says Brian Sweeney, “was come to the next town over, El Segundo, looking for a warehouse to buy.”
His gaze settled on the vacant property next to the post office in the 200 block of Main Street. He figured that a small, narrow storage facility would be perfect for housing the family’s art, and he was ready to finance the construction. But then, as Brian recalls, the city’s then-mayor, Eric Busch, put on the brakes and said that a storage facility on a vibrant commercial street just wouldn’t do. Instead, he proposed that the Sweeneys make their art accessible to the public.
Converted into a gallery, it still would not have been a very large space, but when the post office chose to downsize suddenly there was an opportunity to expand the width of the building beyond what had been a walkthrough from Main to the alley behind.
Eva, the architect of the family, designed the building inside and out, and her Berlin-based brother, Bernhard Zuenkeler, was recruited to organize the opening exhibitions – of which the plan is to hold four per year, beginning Sunday.
During the design process, Brian says, “we just kept on adding new and better ideas,” and these included an artist-in-residence studio, a roof deck, and a dramatically high ceiling. Or, very simply, “We put our heart and soul into this (over) the last two or three years.”
Eva explains how she was able to maximize what was already an extreme space, 25 feet wide and 140 feet long, and partly this was because Chevron agreed to donate the necessary nine parking spaces that the building would otherwise have been required to provide.
The design is unpretentious throughout, and in fact one might define it as austere, streamlined, and functional, with electrical outlets buried in the floor and light sources confined to the ceiling. If the interior seems even too spare, that’s largely because the resident artist’s studio and the access to the rooftop are confined to the rear of the building.
Although the museum proper consists of one large gallery, it can be partitioned with temporary walls to create multiply rooms, much as we have seen with the Resnick Pavilion at the L.A. County Museum of Art. Additionally, the overhead skylights with their solar tubes can be adjusted or closed, and the space completely darkened for film screenings or video installations.
This is the El Segundo Museum of Art, prior to its premiere exhibition.
“I’m a collector by birth,” says Brian Sweeney, “because I love to acquire and possess fabulous things.” He pauses. “The best collection I got is my wife,” which gets the smiles and laughter he was fishing for, “but I’ve got an extensive coin collection, for example.” However, when he married Eva in 2002, Bernhard and the rest of Eva’s family came over from Germany and Bernhard, looking around, wasn’t impressed with the art that he saw hanging on the walls of Brian’s home. He compared them to college posters.
To that point, Brian, a real estate investor by trade, had never purchased major artwork at an auction. But once he began to realize that this was how he could acquire impressive and even notable art, he “immediately stopped collecting coins and started focusing on trying to obtain the best possible artworks that we could get.
“The Corot [“Civita Castellana” (1826)] that will be hanging in the exhibition we bought at a Sotheby’s auction in New York, and Bernhard said, ‘You have to buy this Corot, it’s fantastic.’ It’s very iconographic and it’s unusual for Corot, but it shows how modern an artist he is.
“As soon as I hung up the phone,” Brian continues, “I got a call immediately from Scott Schaefer (Senior Curator of Paintings at the Getty) saying ‘We’d like to become more familiar with that painting.’ And I thought, wow, we’re onto something – this is great!”
The Sweeneys have subsequently become involved with the Getty and now serve on three different councils there as well.
“I look at what we’re doing as just sort of a little station thing for people who come here,” Brian adds. “Hopefully we’ll channel more people to the other museums. They’ll see our place and they’ll say, ‘Wow, what else is out here in L.A.?’”
While acknowledging the Torrance Art Museum (and the Palos Verdes Art Center could be mentioned in the same breath), Eva Sweeney is correct in pointing out that there isn’t a truly distinguished art space in the South Bay. This writer first met the Sweeneys almost four years ago when, through their artlab21 foundation, they were sponsoring art trips to the United States by mostly European artists.
That experience, Eva says, in which they were introduced to a wide range of creative people, “really got us hooked because artists are different people: They think differently, they see things differently, and we really enjoy meeting them, talking to them, and we love to sponsor their work.” This is also what led the Sweeneys to become collectors of contemporary work in addition to Old Masters. The earliest painting in their collection dates to 1510.
A burning desire
“I’m based in Berlin,” says Bernhard Zuenkeler. “I’m probably the busiest tourist.”
Bernhard oversees the Sweeneys’ non-profit institute in Germany, but when asked about his role in the art scene there he replies that he considers himself more of an art producer, meaning that he helps facilitate art projects and bring them to fruition. He also describes himself, his sister and brother-in-law, as amateurs, but “amateurs in the original sense of the word, the people who do it for love and not for the money.
“We will have four shows per year,” Bernhard adds, “but we don’t call them exhibitions because for us it’s more (about) experiences. Everybody who enters the space should feel like they’re coming to an art laboratory where something’s going on within” – and not just hanging placidly on the walls. “Art,” Bernhard says, “should have a more interventional role.”
The first exhibition at the El Segundo Museum of Art is called “Desire,” and while it incorporates a variety of styles, beginning with the French realists of the early 19th century and including a number of young and very-much-alive artists, the subject itself is also as broad as it is high: Landscape.
Bernhard explains: “It shows the big paradox about our perception of nature, because we tend to feel that nature should be pristine and not disturbed by humans. On the other hand we have the desire – and that’s where the name comes from – to take from nature what we can. We exploit nature in many, many ways.”
Within this paradox, he says, may lie solutions to the larger question of sustainability. “How do we cope with these two opposite desires? We want to have nature totally pure, and the French realists were the first group to actually step out into nature, to [depict] nature without any ideology. The young artists of today have a different perception of nature” – and perhaps an ideology (global warming, climate change) — is now inherent in the very notion of a contemporary landscape painting. This is the experience – that of being faced with perspectives both old and new and provocative – that the exhibition wants to engender in the viewer.
“People who come into the show will see all sorts of traditional media,” Bernhard continues. “We have drawings, we have prints, we have sculptures and photographs,” as well as that unique Corot we’ve been talking about and three Courbets.
Among the other artists on view: Christo, Peter Doig, Lyonel Feininger, Anselm Kiefer, Camille Pisarro, Alfred Sisley, and Norbert Tadeusz.
Bernhard emphasizes that this is a neighborhood museum and that no one should feel intimidated. It’s local, but it has an international quality. “The idea,” Brian adds, “is to make this not a very large space but a real jewel.”
The bare facts
Another kind of landscape – the human figure, unclothed – will be the focus of the Sweeneys’ second exhibition at the El Segundo Museum of Art.
All of the exhibitions center around two principal themes or challenges, Bernhard says, and these are sustainability and communication (two words you’ll hear often in conversation about the museum’s larger ambitions). And although talk of “sustainability” and “communication” has a topical ring, Bernhard points out that the concerns go way back, and he points to stories of the great flood and of the tower of Babel.
“The first show is about the perception of nature,” Bernhard says, “and the second show will be about the perception of people, of looking at people in their purest way, which is nakedness; and that’s why we call the second show ‘Naked Truth.’ L.A. is the perfect place to display this, because here in L.A. you have the capital of plastic surgery and you have the wish of being young forever. You have to have a great body and you have to have a lot of [potency].”
An exhibition devoted to the nude, Eva says, “might be a little shocking for some people here in El Segundo,” but this was discussed with the city council and the arts commission “and they said do it, it’ll be great.”
Brian adds that – with the exception of the more contemporary work – these are the same sorts of pictures any museum-goer would encounter at the Getty or at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And for that matter, when we consider the current and upcoming Robert Mapplethorpe shows at these august institutions, perhaps even less confrontational.
In truth, hovering somewhere between an innovative art gallery and a small museum, the new exhibition space on Main has, and gives itself, plenty of leeway to indulge in whatever whims it may so desire. Brian points out that museums like the Getty have separate rooms or wings for 16th, 17th, or 18th century art, whereas he likes the idea of juxtaposition and contrast of different eras, different styles. “It’s an interesting way to display the art and to draw the comparisons – and it’s a little controversial because some people say you can’t put contemporary art with the older works, but we think it’s the way to go.”
Actually, museums have tried this from time to time, and the effect – let’s say of a Jackson Pollock or a Paul Klee cheek-to-jowl with a Renoir or Rubens – can set up a most interesting spatial dialogue.
“Because we are an art laboratory,” says Eva, “we can experiment and nobody will be offended in the museum scene. Because we are not really institutionalized, we have that freedom.”
The first large-scale example of what Eva is describing is set to take place on Feb. 8 on the north end of the beach in El Segundo at Grand and Vista del Mar, by the new lifeguard station. Created by Michael Sistig and based on three paintings completed during the past five years (and related to one of the same name in the show), “Anti-Ark” is an installation
piece that consists of four shipping containers, two of them 40 feet by 8 feet, and two that are 20 feet by 8 feet, the latter pair with sculptures mounted on top. One of the sculptures is of a stranded polar bear, and the other depicts a contemporary Siren, the kind that lured ships and sailors onto coastal rocks. Both sculptures are larger than life.
Sistig is posing several questions at once: How do people and animals and other living things adapt to the effects of climate change and how can we retard or reverse this change? What kind of innovations will be developed in order to make this happen? To keep the planet viable, do we truly need all of the technological and material comforts that we think we need? In this context, of course, the Ark is not just a great wooden ship, but a “vessel” capable nonetheless of preserving the planet as we know it.
“The idea is really that the museum is only a catalyst,” Bernhard says. “With every experience we create another experience which is outside the museum walls. And ‘Anti-Ark’ poses the question, what would people nowadays take on an ark?”
With its probing and unconventional approach to displaying art, the newest arrival on Main intends to engage us with more important questions in the years to come.
The El Segundo Museum of Art opens on Sunday, with “Community Opening Day” taking place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Introductions (with Eric Busch and Samuel Hoi) and curatorial remarks about Desire (with Bernhard Zuenkeler) begin at 11 a.m., and there will be hands-on, family-related activities throughout the day. The museum is located at 208 Main Street in El Segundo. Hours, Friday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Monday through Thursday schooldays and special events, or by appointment. Free. (424) 277-1020 or go to ESMoA.org.
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