DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Fifteen years ago, Tom Gilmore shook up Downtown Los Angeles when he and his business partner Jerri Perrone acquired three derelict buildings at Fourth and Main streets, not far from Skid Row. They launched a housing effort labeled the Old Bank District, a tidal wave of residential investment followed, and the Central City hasn’t been the same since. 

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Now, the pair has another idea to shake up Downtown: They want to open a contemporary art museum, complete with a rooftop sculpture garden, in the heart of the Historic Core. 

Gilmore calls the project “the non-museum museum,” in part because it will have space across multiple buildings and floors, with the art and the architecture playing off each other. 

The items on display will also be unconventional: While other museums may include contemporary work from Central City denizens, the Old Bank District Museum (a working title) will concentrate on Downtown artists. Gilmore and Perrone have tapped architect Tom Wiscombe to design the development.

 Gilmore stressed that the project is in the early stage. He also noted that the museum is one aspect of a broader vision that he and Perrone have for the next stage of development in the area, which, off the cuff, he termed “Old Bank District 2.0.”

The current plan calls for building out some 50,000 square feet of vacant space in the basement of the Hellman and Farmers and Merchants Bank buildings at Fourth and Main streets, which Gilmore owns. He imagines tying that to galleries on the mezzanine of the Farmers and Merchants building, and having elevator access to a sculpture garden atop the roof of the Old Bank Garage.  

Gilmore put the early price tag at $25 million-$35 million. He said the Old Bank District team would provide start-up money and then fundraise. Ultimately a nonprofit would be created to operate it and raise additional funds.

“This is going to be one wacky museum,” Gilmore said during a recent interview. “It will be a repository for prominent Downtown artists of the last 40 years. We want to connect the galleries visually, architecturally and philosophically, and with the pre-existing galleries, this could be everything that a contemporary art museum should be.”

Although the Historic Core is full of galleries, Gilmore said the project would function as a true museum, and that no works would be sold. While participating artists would be determined at a later date, he already has a couple plans in mind: He said he anticipates showing the work of artists Robert Reynolds, whose Robert Reynolds Gallery is on the ground floor of the Continental Building, and Tod Lychkoff, whose eponymous gallery is in the middle of the block on Fourth between Spring and Main streets. Passersby can currently see Reynolds working though the large windows at Fourth and Main, so stitching the spaces together makes sense, Gilmore said. 

Although Gilmore is known for creating housing, he has a creative track record. He trained as an architect and lived in New York before coming to Downtown Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. When the Downtown Art Walk encountered financial troubles and was at the risk of closing, Gilmore was one of the individuals who stepped up and contributed money to keep the monthly gathering afloat. Additionally, the Southern California Institute of Architecture established the Gilmore City Chair in 2013 after he made a $1 million gift to the Arts District institution.

The idea was sparked, Gilmore said, after he and Perrone (who is married to Pete’s Café namesake Peter McLaughlin) traveled recently to Russia. They visited the Erarta Museum and Galleries of Contemporary Art in St. Petersburg, and loved seeing a rehabilitated building housing so many works of art. Gilmore said that convinced them that a new museum could open in an old structure. 

Gilmore said he believes that the Central City is ready to shift into the next phase of its development. He said that over the years, he and Perrone have learned the value of the arts and that the process of making art is an essential component of a creative, forward-thinking neighborhood.

Surging Scene

Gilmore and Perrone’s move comes as the Downtown arts scene is surging. MOCA has a new artistic director in Philippe Vergne and appears to have recovered its financial footing. Next year, Eli Broad will open his Grand Avenue contemporary art museum The Broad, which will showcase the 2,000 pieces that he and his wife Edythe own through their two foundations (admission will be free). The Downtown Art Walk continues to draw large crowds and former MOCA Chief Curator Paul Schimmel recently announced that he will partner in Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel, a 100,000-square-foot space at 901 E. Third St. that will offer contemporary and modern art exhibitions and a variety of programs.

Gilmore intends for his project to stand out by focusing on artists who live and work in the Central City. 

“I think Downtown artists constitute a unique subset of individuals in an emerging urban environment, unique to L.A, and their work reflects it. I hope that we can adequately represent and nurture that culture in the coming years,” he said. 

Gilmore said demolition is slated to begin in early 2015 with construction commencing later that year. Already, some work has begun: In February a two-and-a-half ton steel sculpture, “Earthwave,” was moved from the Arts District to the roof of the Old Bank Garage at 425 S. Main St. The 18-foot by 18-foot work by Lebbeus Woods will be part of the sculpture garden, Gilmore said, with some sculptures hanging over the side of the building. Gilmore also envisions a rooftop cafe. 

Word of Gilmore’s plan excited Art Walk Executive Director Qathryn Brehm. She also pointed to Schimmel’s project, and said this is the perfect time for Gilmore’s addition to the art scene. 

“Artists used to be everywhere,” she said. “Any of these old buildings, all through Downtown, had artists creating and exhibiting their work. This is very exciting.”

Brehm also likes the site, saying, “Fourth and Main is the perfect central location to serve the whole of the Downtown arts area. It will not belong to one district but will represent Downtown as a whole.” 

Gilmore expects another set of renderings to take six months. He hopes the museum will open within the next five years. 

donna@downtownnews.com

Twitter: @donnadowntown

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014