How LACMA’s Urban Light started shining on Los Angeles

The lights outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA, for short) have become a must-see stop on the tour of cool LA things.

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The public art, aptly named “Urban Light,” was created by sculptor and controversial performance artist Chris Burden using 202 vintage street lamps.

It has been called LA’s great landmark for the 21st century. The work has appeared in a Guinness commercial, a Vanity Fair article featuring Glee characters and the Instagram feed of every person who has ever driven down Wilshire Boulevard.

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Okay maybe that’s an exaggerationโ€”but still. People love it.

Burden first began collecting the street lamps in 2000 without a specific idea in mind. Most of them once lit the streets of Southern California, including Hollywood, Glendale, and Anaheim areas.

Considering how iconic the lights are now, it’s funny to think about how the piece almost went to New York’s Gagosian Gallery. Just a couple years after 9/11, Burden imagined they would bring “life and light back to the city,” according to the LA Times. However, it fell through.

He sent a handful of lamps to an exhibit in London, but really wanted to keep his then 150-piece collection together.

And what do you do when things just aren’t working out the way you want them to? Take matters into your own hands.

He installed dozens of the lamps in dense rows outside of his studio at the end of 2005. He and his wife, an accomplished and prolific sculptor Nancy Rubins, invited people to check them out.

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One of the visitors was Stephanie Barron, a senior curator at LACMA, who advised new director Michael Govan to go up and see the lights too.

Govan took the suggestion and told the LA Times:

“It was twilight, and the lights were lit, and I didn’t even have to get up the drive. It was so obvious. โ€ฆ On many levels it was clear that it was perfect for LACMA. It had architectonic scale, it would draw people into the campus, it would give us a sense of place.”

Several changes were happening to the LACMA campus during this time, which included a new building, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and two new open spaces.

Govan showed the piece to Andrew Gordon, a partner at Goldman Sachs and now a LACMA board co-chair, who approved the purchase of the street lamps through his Gordon Family Foundation.

More lamps were added during the installation, and on Feb. 7, 2008, “Urban Light” was officially switched on for the first time.

“I’ve been driving by these buildings for 40 years, and it’s always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city,” Burden said of LACMA in 2008.

On the eve of the installation, Burden told an LA Times reporter he believed the lamps would reinvent the museum’s image and “restore life to a piece of L.A. history.”

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If you ask me, he was pretty spot on.

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