Outside the Box
or many, the idea of visiting a museum conjures up memories of being tugged by a well-intentioned parent or teacher along row after row of dour paintings. We may find ourselves avoiding such excursions now even though, over the past several years, museums have reinvented themselves, perhaps in response to that very experience.
Today’s artistic directors recognize that shorter, sweeter visits to tightly themed exhibits draw adults and children out of the woodwork and inspire even those who once shied away from the traditional museum experience. In and around Orange and Los Angeles counties, cultural enrichment now comes in all shapes, sizes and locations.
2 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
In the center of Orange County’s business and entertainment district, and very nearly obscured by office buildings, lies the Noguchi California Scenario, an oasis of water, granite, desert plants and native trees. A stream trickles across carved rocks and between pyramid fountains that direct the eye to the bordering redwoods and pines known as Forest Walk. Unobtrusive benches invite relaxation and quiet contemplation. A sculpture consisting of 12-foot-high precision-cut granite boulders conjures up the lima beans that once grew on the land. Even the nearby hum of freeway traffic seems orchestrated to produce a Zen effect.
Los Angeles-born sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed the 1.6-acre California Scenario as an abstract rendering of the state’s diverse natural environment. It opened to great acclaim in 1982 and is considered one of Noguchi’s significant contributions to landscape architecture.
For an entirely different perspective, ride the glass elevator in the adjacent parking garage to the rooftop. At ground level or from a bird’s-eye view, find your serenity at Noguchi Garden.
International Surfing Museum
411 Olive Ave., Huntington Beach
In a small art deco building off Main Street in Huntington Beach, a.k.a. Surf City U.S.A., the International Surfing Museum showcases uniquely decorated surfboards and a variety of posters depicting contests, movies and popular music born of Southern California’s surf culture. This homespun venue was founded in 1987 by Canadian transplant Natalie Kotsch who, surprisingly, never surfed; but, like so many of us, loved the vibe.
In recent years the museum has focused on one element of its mission: Keeping their favorite playgrounds—the oceans—clean for the next generation of young surfers, or “groms.” It partnered with ocean preservation groups and started a surf program for kids as young as kindergarten age. In June, 2015, as part of the beach town’s ‘100 years of surfing’ celebration, it earned a Guinness World Record for ‘Most People Riding a Surfboard’ when 66 people rode one giant board.
Since the intimate space cannot hold the full collection, exhibits rotate frequently. Wander the eclectic display and imagine riding the waves with the masters. The museum hosts lectures and surf-related events and the funky gift shop has kitschy surf stuff for all ages. surfingmuseum.org
2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana
Pass through the Bowers’ elegant gateway—a historic arch crowned with a bell tower—and enter a graceful Spanish courtyard that feels as if one is stepping back into California’s earliest days. Founded with a bequest in 1936 by Charles and Ada Bowers, the museum is committed to celebrating world culture through the arts. From Pacific Islanders to Mexican Mayans to Peruvian civilization, permanent and rotating exhibits showcase diverse peoples and often include short lectures and films.
The lobby’s soaring vaulted ceiling and the galleries’ carved wood moldings and drop ceilings give the spaces an old-world feel. The Bowers was revitalized in the 1990s with the addition of a Kidseum, and a 2007 expansion added a bright, modern wing tall enough to display giant totem poles and tribal canoes. The eclectic gift shop is well worth a look-see, and lunch at Tangata Restaurant, which rotates its menu to reflect the exhibits, makes for a lovely bookend to the visit. Photography is currently front and center, featuring the iconic work of Imogen Cunningham, to be followed by a rare collection of images of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. bowers.org
Petersen Automotive Museum
6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
Freeways and traffic, as much as water, define the cultural history of Los Angeles. Within that framework, the automobile has long represented the city’s ultimate lifestyle statement. So, where else but in Southern California (OK, maybe Italy) would the car be elevated to fine art? The Petersen Museum, a one-of-a-kind exhibit space established in 1994 by publishing magnate Robert Petersen and his wife, Margie, anchors one end of the L.A. Museum Mile. Originally housed inside a windowless department store, the museum was renovated in 2015 and now boasts an exterior of blinding stainless steel ribbons that bring to mind a custom fender wrapped end to end.
Inside one discovers the automobile as Rodin-worthy sculpture. Far more than a fancy showroom or a classic car show, exhibits are thoughtfully curated to reflect a point in time. From the first, Petersen insisted that vehicles be displayed alongside complementary fine arts, artifacts and furnishings. Not all exhibits are exclusively car-centric; past shows include a look at alternative power sources and a survey of two-wheeled transportation. The current exhibition focuses on the Bugatti, a high-performance sports car favored by jetsetters, as well as the Bugatti family dynasty, a story that extends far beyond its namesake automobile. Serious car aficionados can gild the lily with a tour of the museum vault, while a children’s discovery center teaches the art and science of the automobile. petersen.org
221 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
The downtown end of L.A.’s Museum Mile features this long-awaited treasure (p. 49) that opened its doors in 2015. Founded by Eli and Edythe Broad, the unusual structure was designed to house the couple’s more than 2,000 postwar and contemporary art pieces. Many of the period’s most important artists—Basquiat, Calder, Diebenkorn, Johns, Picasso, Warhol—are celebrated for their virtuosity. The hallmark of the building is what has been dubbed the vault and the veil. The vault is open from the staircase, offering a peek at the inner world of the museum. Visitors can look on as pieces from the massive collection are pulled for export to special exhibits. The veil is a honeycomb of concrete, fiberglass and steel that spans the block-long building to filter natural light into the galleries. A lobby-level video describing how the Broads built their collection and how they collaborated with the architect provides a charming introduction to the visit. thebroad.org
1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
Those who can’t bear to come in out of the sun should save time for San Marino’s Huntington Gardens, where a botanical bonanza spans 120 acres of land acquired in 1903 by railroad magnate Henry Huntington. It’s easy to stay all day, visiting a little of everything or zeroing in on one or two of the 12 lush gardens. From herbs to palms, desert to jungle, camellia to rosebush, each space highlights a unique indigenous plant or landscape. The recently restored Japanese garden, situated adjacent to the fragrant flowering Chinese garden, features bonsai trees and koi ponds, an intricate carved bridge and a ceremonial teahouse. Fine art lovers can enhance their tour with a drop-in at the Scott Gallery, which this winter is showing works by photographer Edward Weston and poet Walt Whitman, and the main library, home to a large collection of European art including Gainsborough’s famous “Blue Boy.” huntington.org
More to explore:
Discovery Cube Orange County
2500 N. Main St., Santa Ana, discoverycube.org/oc
Marconi Automotive Museum
1302 Industrial Drive, Tustin, marconimuseum.org
1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, getty.edu