Visitors to the L.A. County Fair who enter the Millard Sheets Art Center always get a surprise or two — usually pleasant, but not always — when they see the exhibition. This year, the surprises start on the outside.
For the first time, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the West’s largest art museum, is running the fair’s annual art exhibition. A banner strung across the building’s exterior boasts LACMA’s signature white-on-red logo.
When I’d heard LACMA would be in charge, I almost fell out of my chair.
That’s going big. It’s akin to the Hollywood Bowl, or Goldenvoice, taking over the fair’s concert booking.
“You Are Here: California Photography Now” brings together 35 works, all from this century, from the museum’s collection. It’s a pared-down version of a 2021 LACMA exhibition, “Golden Hour,” which originally had 80 works. More on that in a bit.
The news is that two venerable L.A. County institutions — only one of them selling turkey legs — are teaming up.
LACMA started the relationship by lending one piece, a short film, for the 2019 fair.
“Everybody had talked about doing something together. I’d been out here a couple of times,” Michael Govan, LACMA’s director, told me at the fair’s opening reception May 5. The fair runs through May 29.
The fair’s invitation to LACMA to program the entire exhibit came only in mid-March, six weeks before the fair’s gates opened, and was accepted.
A contingent from LACMA attended the fair’s opening. As we chatted on the Sheets Center patio, I told Govan that even as a dues-paying LACMA member, I’d had no expectation of ever meeting him. Certainly I never expected to meet him in Pomona. Life is an endless string of surprises.
(With most of the LACMA complex on Wilshire Boulevard having been demolished in 2020 for a replacement building that won’t be complete until late 2024, by the way, I can’t say as a member that I’m getting my money’s worth. But that’s a separate issue.)
“Four years ago,” Govan explained, “we decided our future wasn’t building more on Wilshire Boulevard. It was partnering and building satellite museums around the county.”
LACMA bought the former Charles White Elementary School near MacArthur Park, is partnering with East L.A. City College’s Vincent Price Art Museum and plans to erect a building in South L.A., Govan said.
Could Pomona’s Millard Sheets Art Center become a permanent LACMA outpost in the county’s far eastern reaches? It’s possible, both Govan and Fair CEO Walter Marquez say.
“We’ve told Walter that if we’re welcome and wanted, we’re ready to continue,” said Govan, as Marquez smiled. “The dream would be year-round. We have so many collections that would be appropriate.”
Fine with me. (Unless LACMA sees the 1937 Sheets Center as another teardown.)
The pairing definitely has compare-and-contrast joke potential. The fair has rock concerts; the museum has a 340-ton boulder. The fair has thrill rides; the museum has an Alexander Calder mobile.
To be serious now, the arrangement is promising. Fair officials have seemed unable to figure out what to do with the Sheets Art Center, as last year’s poorly received and last-minute exhibition, and this year’s Hail-Mary pass to LACMA, bear out.
The years of drift are a shame. The center’s namesake was a giant. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Millard Sheets — an Otis Art Institute teacher, muralist, painter and Pomona native — curated influential, ambitious exhibitions at the fair that brought fine art to the masses.
Comfortable in business and government settings, Sheets designed the distinctive, art-filled Home Savings branches and the Los Angeles County seal.
In 1940, in what was then the fair’s Fine Art Building, a Sheets-curated exhibit included works by Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton and George Grosz and its 16-day run was seen by 700,000 people, according to Gordon McClelland’s biography of Sheets.
“To put this in perspective,” McClelland wrote, “at that time, all the California museums combined did not have that kind of yearly attendance.”
Two early 1950s exhibits “brought together art from around the world, placing African, Asian and indigenous American works in conversation with European painting, ceramics and sculpture,” Adam Arenson wrote in his Sheets biography, “Banking on Beauty.”
The building was named for Sheets in 1994.
Tony Sheets told me by phone Tuesday that his father borrowed works from institutions including LACMA’s predecessor — the Museum of History, Science and Art — and from private collectors. “He really put on great shows,” Sheets said.
The younger Sheets ran the Art Center from 2007 to 2015. LACMA’s involvement, he said, is “really exciting.” He’s been dismayed by the apparent lack of interest in the center by fair officials.
“I’d been thinking about telling them to either do something with art or take my dad’s name off it,” Sheets said. “So this could be good.”
After a walk-through of “You Are Here,” I’d say the exhibit is a modest first step forward.
It’s got a wide and playful range of formats: landscapes, portraits, aerials, videos and more, including tintypes and pinhole photography, two 19th-century technologies, and a Google street view image. One artist did rubbings of a tree trunk with photo paper.
The settings are various points around the state, including a San Bernardino swap meet.
“It’s only 35 works, but it captures a lot of California,” Eve Schillo, the curator, told me.
Anthony Lepore of Lincoln Heights, who has an abstract in the exhibit, was there for the reception.
He was tickled to be part of a show at the fairgrounds — he’d attended the Pomona fair as recently as five years ago — and he was amazed at the sight of his piece, as at a museum, displayed behind an elastic cord stanchion at shin-height to keep fairgoers from getting too close.
“I love that the piece is behind a Q-cord,” Lepore said, chuckling. “It feels important.”
The fair is for the masses, but at a fair, the masses have sticky hands.
David Allen emerges from behind a stanchion Friday, Sunday and Wednesday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.