The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is the largest art museum in the western United States, and is located near the La Brea Tar Pits in Southern California. This review offers photos from LACMA, tips for visiting, and pros and cons of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as compared to nearby alternatives.
The LACMA is a huge art museum. With over 120,000 permanent works on display plus special and temporary exhibits on loan to the museum, all spread out over a slew of buildings in Los Angeles’ Museum Row, it is an attraction at which you could spend a day or more and still not see everything.
While the LACMA has numerous art schools and periods represented, including pre-Columbian, Asian, Spanish Colonial, Latin American, there seems to be an emphasis on modern and contemporary art, including conceptual art. For the sake of context, I’ll start by offering some of my personal views on art…
I do not think ideas alone are art, at least not a visual art that I desire to see on display in an art museum. For me, a definition of visual arts that includes ideas-only would be unduly expansive, opening the door to a lot of things that are better categorized as satire, social, or political commentary. I also don’t think intent alone suffices to categorize a work as visual art. (“Alone” is used twice above, a point worth underscoring.)
If such were the case, I could print out this excerpt of my LACMA review, pin it to a tack board, and call that conceptual art that probes the very nature of art itself. While I do not think that a ‘pretty’ aesthetic is necessarily the driving force behind art, some works of modern, contemporary, and conceptual art trouble me as being art solely by virtue of the meaning ascribed to them.
My view on this is not the only one. To the contrary, the definition of art is something that has been debated ad nauseam and there are even a few exhibits in LACMA speak to this controversy. Those who disagree with me are certainly entitled to their view. I can understand their perspective, just as I can understand the perspective of those who argue landscape photos like the ones I take are not art.
This is all highly subjective; even assuming my view on the nature of art is somehow “wrong,” that does not change the fact that I can only handle so much contemporary and conceptual art before I lose interest. As a museum that skews in favor of these movements, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an “in small doses” experience for me.
This isn’t an entirely bad thing. Even pieces at the LACMA that don’t conform with my personal aesthetic preferences are often thought-provoking.
I appreciate that a lot of the art on display challenges me, and there’s definitely something to be said for stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. To that extent, I appreciate what the LACMA offers as compared to other art museums.
However, when it comes to an experience that is entertaining, enjoyable, and fascinating, I’ll take the Getty Center, which is one of my top things to do in Los Angeles, over the LACMA.
In addition to having plenty of beautiful pieces and being a fun experience, I find that the Getty Center also has plenty of pieces and exhibits that challenge the viewer and are provocative.
For me, the Getty Center strikes a better balance of aesthetics, history, and commentary. I also find the presentation of the Getty Center better. It’s also cleaner and has a marginally nicer atmosphere. (Both are pretty strong in this regard, though.)
While both have quasi-park vibes to them, the Getty Center is more inviting as a public space. Admittedly, the art on display at the Getty Center skews much more towards my personal tastes, too.
If you’re visiting with kids, don’t be discouraged from visiting the LACMA. Although I think a lot of the subtext and commentary will be lost on a younger audience, the presentation of many pieces of visually arresting, and a lot of what’s on display works at a completely superficial level, too.
This is all just a guess–I didn’t conduct any sort of case studies on it, but there were several of occasions where I had a surface-level, “oh that’s cool-looking” reaction, followed by thought on what the piece is intended to convey.
In terms of what’s on display at the LACMA, the most recognizable piece is unquestionably Chris Burden’s Urban Light sculpture, which is composed of over 220 restored cast-iron antique street lamps.
Urban Light likely rivals Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle as the most-Instagrammed thing in Southern California, and even though it’s more popular with selfie-enthusiasts than art-enthusiasts, it’s quite a stunning icon for the LACMA.
Beyond Urban Light, there are myriad works by legendary artists. There are works by Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, Rene Magritte, Paul Klee. There are also several works by Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera, including the featured exhibit, Picasso and Rivera: Conversations Across Time.
I appreciated several individual pieces in every gallery, but my two favorite exhibits were Apostles of Nature: Jugendstil and Art Nouveau and Celebrating 10 Years of the Japanese Art Acquisitions Group.
With the Art Nouveau exhibit, it was fascinating to see the divergent goals of the movements artists, and how the art was presented in myriad ways. (Of particular interest to me were the bicycle ads–although I don’t know why since I don’t care about cycling.)
The 10-year anniversary exhibit in the Pavilion for Japanese Art was captivating both for its history and beauty. I also really like the design of this pavilion, which is peaceful and meditative. (Its design also reminded me of old school EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World.)
In terms of LACMA tips for visiting, the main one I’d offer is to determine what you’re most interested in seeing, where it’s located, and focus on that. This is entirely a matter of personal preference, so I can’t really help you with regard to what you should see.
Once you accomplish your ‘must-dos’, I’d encourage you to challenge yourself by visiting some of the exhibits that are outside of your tastes, as there’s no doubt value in seeing and contemplating these pieces.
I would caution against just wandering LACMA aimlessly, unless you’re open to seeing whatever and have no real priorities. The collection is huge and spread across 20 acres in a series of buildings, so this approach amounts to taking what you get–which may mean seeing a lot of art that does not interest you.
Our visit to the LACMA was on a weekend during Spring Break, and I did not find the museum busy to an unpleasant degree. It’s so large and spread out that crowds are unlikely to be much of an issue no matter when you go. As such, I don’t think it’s necessary to adopt a “go first thing” strategy.
The entrance plaza around Urban Light was incredibly crowded, but that’s pretty much always going to be the case unless you’re there first thing in the morning or in the middle of the night.
This is a popular spot for engagement and wedding photographers (I’m actually a bit surprised LACMA allows commercial shoots), and as an unticketed area of the museum, it attracts a lot of people.
Even though we don’t have specific recommendations on when to visit in light of crowds, this is Los Angeles, so traffic is always something to keep in mind. LACMA is located just west of downtown L.A., with the closest interstates being the 10 and 405.
We’d probably advise leaving before the afternoon rush, or visiting on a day that the museum closes at 7 or 8 p.m., taking evening photos of Urban Light, then doing dinner in Koreatown or Sawtelle (the latter will be easier if you’re driving down to Orange County), and heading home after rush hour.
Unlike the Getty Center, LACMA normally charges for admission (and parking). However, there are ways to visit LACMA for free. All guests receive free general admission on the second Tuesday of every month. Additionally, admission is free on Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day, and Memorial Day. Los Angeles County residents receive free general admission after 3 pm every weekday LACMA is open.
Members of other select art museums receive free admission via the reciprocal admission offer.
Overall, I liked the LACMA. I know that may sound at odds with the notes I’ve struck above, but I appreciate many works for their beauty and others for their provocation. If we lived closer to the LACMA, I’d probably get a membership, and visit regularly in 2 hour segments. With that said, I think it’s going to be a hit or miss experience for many visitors. If you’re visiting Los Angeles on vacation and are debating between the LACMA and the Getty Center, I’d recommend the Getty Center (unless you prefer modern art). That’s the better overall experience in my view, and one of the few must-do museums for visitors to Southern California. Fortunately, locals do not have to choose, and the LACMA is something I’d recommend trying to any Californian.
If you’re planning a California vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to do. For Los Angeles-centric trips, we’ve found the most useful guidebook to be The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas, which is written by locals (and we use it even as locals!). If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
Have you visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art? If so, what did you think of experience? How do you feel it compares to other art museums? Any must-see exhibits or particular works you’d recommend checking out? Any additional tips to add that we didn’t cover? Would you do the LACMA again, or do you think it was a ‘one and done’ for you? Hearing from readers is half the fun, so please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!