From Sunset Boulevard to La La Land, and even the recently released Netflix art-world satire Velvet Buzzsaw, films lean toward portraying Los Angeles as a mecca for those seeking mainstream creative success. But the constructed nature of this narrative can be difficult for visitors to realise – almost as much as figuring out Hollywood geography.
It’s incredible how diverse how all the little areas are
The Museum of Death is located on Hollywood Boulevard, directly down the street from both the Walk of Fame and media behemoth Viacom. Although the museum is approaching its one millionth visitor, those coming to view artefacts – including clothes from the Heaven's Gate cult, Charles Manson’s quilt and a zoo’s worth of taxidermy animal remains – often don’t recognise the surrounding area as the same iconic location they’ve been introduced to through film and television.
“Travellers ask, ‘where is Hollywood?’,” said Erek Michael, the museum’s manager. “We have to let them know, Los Angeles is the home of the freeway for a reason. Everything is so far apart. When the TV camera spins around, they could have shown you Santa Monica, the pier, West Hollywood, North Hollywood, Hollywood. They could have shown you Burbank. It’s incredible how diverse how all the little areas are. The bubble is really all these tiny little things.”
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Hollywood – and Los Angeles as a whole – can mean a lot of ‘tiny little things’. Although Los Angeles refers to the city itself, most use the name to refer to the greater Los Angeles area, 4,850 sq miles and 88 individual cities that include iconic, world-famous ones like Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Burbank and Pasadena. According to a recent survey by Wallet Hub, the region ranks as one of the United States’ most ethnically and culturally diverse areas. Given the sheer number of people, it quickly becomes plausible that arts and culture here might be broader than Los Angeles’ established collections – even with the appeal of the Instagram-friendly Infinity Room at The Broad, Levitated Mass at LACMA and Van Gogh-led collection at the J Paul Getty Museum; art museums that collectively pull in more than three million visitors a year.
Located in Los Angeles’ west-side neighbourhood of Palms, The Museum of Jurassic Technology has become a golden standard for the city’s niche museums, proof that after more than 30 years, a modern cabinet of curiosities can continue to attract visitors and remain profitable without an advertising budget. Their website is purposely vague about their mission. However, their unique ability to seamlessly blend fact and fiction with exhibits about supersonic bats and astronaut dogs has won founder David Wilson a MacArthur Foundation Grant, which awards special funding to “creative people, effective institutions and influential networks building a more just, verdant and peaceful world.”
Wilson, who describes The Museum of Jurassic Technology as a ‘museum about museums’, wants you to question the authenticity of his exhibits and why we take the museum aspect at face value so much that he’s installed a free tea room upstairs simply to facilitate additional conversation.
I don’t think there’s any place in the world that the museum could have existed except Los Angeles
“We’ve said many times; I don’t think there’s any place in the world that the museum could have existed except Los Angeles,” he said. “Part of the reason for that, I came from Colorado in the mid-1970s. I grew up in wonderful locations. When I came to Los Angeles, I thought it was hideous. It was the ugliest place I’ve ever been. I felt that way for about seven years. Until one point, I came to the realisation that I love this place. I think that my understanding of the place changed from a physical place to a psychological place. I think that for me, and for the museum, that’s the nature of Los Angeles. It’s one of the freest and most unrestricted places I’ve ever experienced.”
In downtown Los Angeles, the Velveteria is a repository of black velvet art, a creative process where images are painted directly onto velvet instead of canvas. Established in Portland, Oregon, in 2005 by Carl Baldwin and Caren Anderson, the Velveteria was anointed by the late Anthony Bourdain, who declared on his show No Reservations that the collection was “genius” and that “Every day of my life would be a sucking vortex of misery without this” in regards to a piece featuring 1980s The A-Team star Mr T. (In retrospect, Baldwin says he should have gifted the famous foodie the painting.)
Baldwin and Anderson relocated their collection from Portland to Los Angeles in 2010, to a storefront location chosen specifically because of its proximity to Los Angeles’ museum row, within walking distance of both The Broad and MOCA. It was a geographic form of artistic rebellion, being located so close to these more traditional museums, yet conveniently located close to Tijuana, Mexico, where Baldwin often commissions paintings from experts who continue to pioneer the practice.
Despite being told by a critic that the collection is so outside the world of traditional art that writing about it would be career ending, Baldwin sees the collection of some 3,000 paintings, which include pop culture touchstones such as David Bowie, Hillary Clinton and even CNN news journalist Anderson Cooper in a thong, as equally valid as anything on an established museum’s wall.
“I was just stupid enough to do this,” he laughed. “I don’t know why any other museum hasn’t had the balls to approach this [art form] in an intelligent manner and give it the respect it does. That’s why I have the Three Stooges here,” he says, gesturing to a painting featuring Moe, Larry and Curly.
“These art guys need a pie in the face! I think with these paintings I can explain history, what happened, in a way that people will accept. I’m not pounding away at some political polemics or anything like that.”
He gestures to a whole area featuring local icons.
“This is lost history from Los Angeles that no other museum will touch. But it’s not from the handed out down from ivory tower, so it’s from the people. Forget about it. It’s the art of the people. But so was rock ‘n’ roll, so was jazz.”
But after a person visits for their singular experience or Instagram opp (The Velveteria allows photography; The Museum of Death and The Museum of Jurassic Technology do not), how do you convert curiosity into return visits? It is a question that many of the museums in the Los Angeles area are still grappling with. However, for The Museum of Neon Art it means leaning into the history of the city, illuminating their institution with both neon art and vintage signs from around LA. But board member Eric Lynxwiler explains that founders Lili Lakich and Richard Jenkins’ primary motivation for establishing the museum in 1981 was to link up with Los Angeles’ other neon artists. That’s a mission they continue, with sign-making classes taught in the adjoining classroom of their Glendale location. Because neon signs weren’t accepted by larger museums as a valid art form, Lakich and Jenkins had to create their own showcase.
“Neon and Los Angeles go hand in hand,” said Lynxwiler, who also runs the museum’s Neon Cruise city tours, a bus tour where visitors are given the background to iconic neon signs across the city. “The neon art world is small and everyone knows each other. For example, if one person was out of a particular gas or needed a tube, they might call up the neon artist in the next county and see if they had anything. Or these neon artists would share their knowledge… It was just all these people with all their different styles of luminous artwork coming together through the Museum of Neon Art.”
Community building is a common theme for these niche museums, both through official activities, like the Velveteria’s occasional painting classes, or simply providing the opportunity to find others interested in similar subjects. While The Museum of Death founders J D Healy and Catherine Shultz playfully bicker about having to live in a closet for years until their project was fully established, they made sacrifices because they had a clear-cut vision they wanted to share with like-minded people. Their museum is a place that many might find dark – there’s a room full of mortuary equipment (and for the truly brave, a video detailing the embalming process), a display of shrunken human heads, and a hallway full of crime photos. But for them, it’s a reminder that life is short and worth living, even with the inevitable end. In a city that has cut a reputation of rewarding big dreamers, the stories aren’t much different than the stereotypical actress who moves to the city in search of her ‘big break’.
“I wanted a place to feel normal,” Shultz said. “Because everyone told me I wasn’t normal. I wanted to be surrounded by normal. Other people can come and have been told ‘something is wrong with you’. Come here, and you’ll feel normal.”
“There’s so many normals out there,” Healy added. “They’ll bore you to death.”
There’s so many normals out there – they’ll bore you to death
It’s an idea echoed by Baldwin, who says his motivation for starting the Velveteria was to bring unorthodox joy into people’s lives – a baseline he feels is lacking in younger generations. By that metric, he sees the museum as successful. It is, after all, a magical world where Elvis, David Bowie, a stable of unicorns and famous-for-being-famous Los Angeles icon Angelyne all congregate on the same walls.
“I think we need more curious people,” he said. “People need to get out… I started this to give people a happy thing to do. I just wanted to show them a good time, and show them something they’ll never see… We’re just running around having fun. I think that’s the point.”
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