Issue: Winter 2011-2012

Barnsdall Park: Signs of the Times

On December 15th, Civic Virtue: The Impact of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and the Watts Towers Arts Center, an ambitious exhibition that draws interesting parallels between the park's Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House and another significant art piece, opens at Barnsdall Park.

From 1919, when oil heiress Aline Barnsdall dreamed of creating a utopian art colony and hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design her residence, until today, Barnsdall Park has provided a cultural focal point for Los Angeles and the world.  

In 1923, Barnsdall offered to donate Hollyhock House and a portion of her estate on what was known as Olive Hill to the City of Los Angeles, but it was not accepted until three years later.  The terms of the donation still had not been resolved at the time of her death in 1946.

Curator of the Pacific Standard Time exhibition currently at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Pilar Tompkins Rivas, writes, "Famously, Barnsdall challenged the City in what became known as 'The Battle of Barnsdall Park' which came to a head on March 7, 1945 when the heiress refused to remove barricades she had erected on the property to stop cars from using Olive Hill as a shortcut.  Eventually, the Parks Department removed the barriers and issued a citation, but not before permanent damage had been done to the relationship between Barnsdall and the City."

Perhaps in retribution, after Barnsdall's death, her will stipulated that land on the east, west and south boundaries be sold for commercial uses obscuring the beautiful site no doubt resulting in the continuing question "Where is Barnsdall Park?

From 1927 to 1941, Hollyhock House was leased to the prestigious California Art Club which catered to traditional landscape and figurative painters.  Later a cadre of loyal artists helped to create an art center in Residence A, taking classes that nurtured new as well as established artists.

In 1956, the All City Art Show moved from the Greek Theatre to Barnsdall Park.   Over 750 artists displayed artworks and over the weekend drew more than 18,000 visitors.  The festival included demonstrations of crafts, music and art programs for both children and adults.       

Again, curator Tompkins Rivas writes, "For a period, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (MAG) occupied an important place in the Southern California cultural landscape." The first major Southern California exhibition of Vincent van Gogh included a version of L'Arlesienne (1890), as well as the Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890), which set an auction record as the world's most expensive painting when it sold in 1990.  The focus on private collections continued with exhibits of works by Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Picasso and Modigliani and abstractionists Jackson Pollock and Henry Moore.

The Municipal Art Gallery brought large traveling exhibitions from New York's MoMA and elsewhere.  Exhibiting Los Angeles artists was largely reserved for the All City Outdoor Arts Festivals, but that changed with a 1962 Hans Burkhardt retrospective, followed by major group shows that included the work of iconic Los Angeles artists such as John Altoon, John Mason, Ed Kienholz, Llyn Foulkes  John McLaughlin, Ed Moses, and Billy Al Bengston.  The gallery's preented the first solo exhibition for a woman artist, Sister Corita Kent, in 1969.

The Los Angeles Municipal Gallery structure we know it today opened in 1971 and the Municipal Arts Department evolved into the Department of Cultural Affairs in 1980.  With such a long and illustrious history, the gallery's uncertain future has been valiantly sustained and majorly underfunded.  The current Civic Virtue exhibition and its accompanying catalog provides an extensive background on the saga of Aileen Barnsdall, the impact of the Municipal Art Gallery and its important cultural legacy for Los Angeles and its arts for the 21 st Century.  


Editors Note:  With thanks to Pilar Tompkins Rivas whose comprehensive catalog essay was solely used to write this article.