Myths abound about Martín Ramírez, the prolific Mexican immigrant and artist who spent all of his known creative years incarcerated in California asylums. A railroad worker left unemployed and homeless during the Great Depression, he was picked up by police, deposited in a state hospital, and diagnosed a schizophrenic paranoid mute. He could certainly speak—just not in English, which means he was never able to officially tell his own story.
“I’d heard he had collaged together papers and used mashed potatoes and chewed up bread as his adhesive,” Elsa Longhauser, the director of the newly opened Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, said. She was standing in front of an 18-foot-long scroll by Ramírez, never before exhibited and newly restored by conservator Harriet K. Stratis, who found no traces of starch, dispelling one of the myths. Rather than dinner leftovers, the artist had used conventional pastes to make his epic work, across which tunnels weave and a smokestack with a human face screams. Ramírez’s drawings, loosely figurative and filled with evocative, obsessive, and delicate line-work, fill the ICA’s main gallery.
Giving Ramírez the full museum treatment has been Longhauser’s plan for years—in 1987, as gallery director at Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art and Design, she showed a selection of his art, but more work has been uncovered since. So when the Getty Foundation announced that it would be funding a second Pacific Standard Time initiative, this time granting money to local institutions to do exhibitions focused on Latin American and Latinx artists, Longhauser knew she would exhibit Ramírez. There was one problem, however: as of early 2015, she had no exhibition space.
For 15 years, Longhauser helmed the Santa Monica Museum of Art, located at the center of Bergamot Station, a cloistered strip mall full of commercial galleries. But thanks to disputes with her landlord and plans for an incoming Metro stop, staying at Bergamot became financially untenable.
Getty administrators worried about granting money to a homeless museum, Longhauser recounted, but she assured them she would have a space in time. And she did.
The ICA LA occupies an industrial building, designed by Kulapat Yantrasast of the wHY film, on the outskirts of the downtown Arts District, close to Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, the Box, and the galleries along Santa Fe and Anderson Street. “Clearly the epicenter of art and culture has shifted downtown,” Longhauser said, “and we love being in this community.” Getting there took two years, a relatively rapid move, given how long major institutional changes can take.
SMMoA’s story began in 1985 when a developer named Abby Sher turned a former ice warehouse into a Frank Gehry–designed shopping mall on Santa Monica’s Main Street. Sher, the daughter of a developer, had never helmed a project of her own. But this didn’t curb her ambition, and she decided to open a museum in her mall, modeled after non-collecting European kunsthalles. Five years of lawsuits ensued, as neighbors charged her with building and fire code violations, and art worlders questioned her competence. “I told her when she started she was asking for trouble, getting involved in the art world,” Frank Gehry told the Los Angeles Times in 1989.
After Sher fired her first director, curator and former Corcoran Gallery director Hal Glicksman, she hired Thomas Rhoades, who staged a massive show of site-specific installations in 1988. Rhoades remained until the museum moved from the Main Street mall to Bergamot Station. Then Longhauser, who’d just arrived from Philadelphia, took over, making her debut in 2000 with a Valie Export retrospective. From then on, she ruled as a sort of museum auteur, serving as both executive director and chief curator. SMMoA soon became synonymous with Longhauser and her artist-first vision, which led to the staging of Beatrice Wood and Mickalene Thomas shows and an eccentric collaboration by Benjamin Weissman and Yukata Sone. “Elsa is really a force, and has her own brilliance,” ICA’s board chair, Laura Donnelly, said recently. (Donnelly, who joined the board around the time Longhauser arrived in L.A., resumed her role as chair to shepherd the museum through its transition.)
The museum’s hold on its Santa Monica space became tenuous because of plans to redevelop Bergamot Station in advance of the incoming Metro line. A proposal in which the city would give the museum a new $7-million building fell through, and Wayne Blank, the art dealer and real-estate developer who owned SMMoA’s building, stopped subsidizing their monthly rent, which increased by 58 percent. By spring 2015, SMMoA was based out of a board member’s offices in Century City.
Longhauser announced the ICA LA in May 2016, and in August hired Jamillah James, previously of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. “It is certainly built on the work we did at the Santa Monica Museum of Art,” Longhauser said of the new museum. “But because Jamillah is here now, there’s a new sensibility, a new point of view.” She added, of the ICA’s relationship to the other nearby institutions, “We’re unique. We are not one person’s collecting museum. We are much smaller so you can get a very distilled experience.”
The ICA LA joins a number of new downtown arts spaces. The Broad Museum, founded by collector Eli Broad, opened in 2015, and the Main Museum, spearheaded by downtown developer Tom Gilmore, followed in 2016. Other speculators have latched onto the art angle too. Plans for a recently announced, futuristic development by Danish architecture wunderkind Bjarke Ingels feature outdoor sculptures and gallery spaces alongside boutiques and upscale “artist lofts.” The Artist Loft Museum of Los Angeles, a pop-up just opened in a longtime artist’s studio, exists to acknowledge the artists who gave the Arts District its name but can no longer afford to live and work in the area.
Yuval Bar-Zemer, a longtime downtown developer who consistently speaks out against the rash of mixed-use developments arriving in the area, helped Longhauser find a building for the ICA. He also joined the museum’s board (a number of board members defected when the museum left Santa Monica). “If I had to invent an arts-related organization, it would be this,” Bar-Zemer said. The ICA is non-collecting and thus, in his view, outside “the narrative of wealth that contemporary art carries.”
The inaugural shows make an effort to address the diversity of downtown, and the economic disparities there. Abigail DeVille, a New York–based artist, arrived in L.A. in mid-August to begin work on an installation in the museum’s project room. James helped DeVille scavenge in the city, buy objects on Craigslist, and visit nearby Skid Row. “All this economic strife is happening that isn’t getting addressed and we have all this commerce and gentrification happening around that,” James said. “So what does that say about us as people and as a city?”
Painstakingly perforated cardboard lines the walls, a canopy of black plastic falls from the ceiling, hubcaps dangle, and a cyclone of stuff (clothes, toys, etc.) dominates the room’s center. “Abigail’s work is about displacement, migration, feelings of invisibility,” James said. “Abigail is very much an active sourcer. And Ramírez, too, is using materials that were brought to him.”
James considers DeVille’s installation as a complement to Ramírez’s drawings, both artists using found material to create their own worlds. In the essay she wrote for the Ramírez catalogue, James focuses on connections between Ramírez’s work and the work of Agnes Martin, Forrest Bess, and J.B. Murray. All, James wrote, used their marks “to enunciate presence even when histories and narratives are subject to erasure, and to ultimately define one’s terms of existence.”
“I always wanted to remove Ramírez from that self-taught category,” Longhauser said. “Jamillah, in her essay, definitely is doing that. The artist gives you a view into the world through his eyes, completely differently. But you also have all of the other issues that the work brings up about social justice and immigration.” Misdiagnosed, Ramírez lived much of his life in limbo in a mental health system used as a repository for displaced immigrants.
“I mean, a show like this feels very germane because of what we’re enduring now,” James said, noting that President Trump recently announced plans to end the DACA program. “Los Angeles is a very Latinx community that’s going to be very affected by these things. So what can we do as cultural workers to think about these things critically?”