Allison Agsten clicks on her flashlight as she steps into the dark subterranean bomb shelter. Just a few stories overhead, downtown L.A. bustles with traffic and pedestrians. But here, in a series of hulking bank vaults deep in the basement of the 1905 Farmers and Merchants Building, the air is totally still and silent. “I find this to be the most peaceful place in the city,” Agsten says, scanning the massive unfinished room with her flashlight. “This is another space I don’t know quite what to do with yet, but it’s really cool.”
Agsten is the director of the Main Museum of Los Angeles Art, which is under construction and eventually will span 100,000 square feet across two historic buildings. The bomb shelter and antique bank vaults are part of the buildings’ vast meandering basement, which is being transformed to house artists’ creations.
The full museum is scheduled to open in 2020. In the meantime, the adaptive re-use space is already open for business under the name Beta Main. A sort of extended soft opening, Beta Main serves as a testing ground for some innovative programming.
“I’ve learned so much [during Beta Main],” Agsten says. “For instance, the storefront was originally going to be a lobby, but lobbies are bullshit. Lobbies are for chumps. We’ll have a simple desk, but I’ve discovered that this space was meant for gathering.”
The historic buildings that house the Main Museum are the property of Gilmore Associates partners Tom Gilmore and Jerri Perrone. After making a name for themselves as real estate developers in downtown L.A., they founded the Main Museum and provided the seed money for its construction.
“It didn’t seem to me that our city’s greatest need was another museum to buy and preserve art,” Agsten says. “I felt that we could use our resources better toward programming and serving artists and the community in other ways.”
The museum director is dedicated to supporting work by women and people of color. Since it opened its doors in October 2016, the museum’s offerings have included a performance piece by local feminist artists Andrea Bowers and Suzanne Lacy; an installation titled “Library of Black Lies” by African-American L.A. native Edgar Arceneaux; and a photography show by Star Montana, a young Latina artist whose portraits feature people from East L.A. An exhibition of L.A.-based Portuguese artist Rigo 23’s sculpture of Native American activist Leonard Peltier will be on view beginning Jan. 14, the first time the sculpture has been exhibited since its controversial removal from Washington, D.C.’s American University campus in early 2017.
So what to do with the bank vaults and bomb shelter that eventually will make up the larger portion of gallery space in the basement of the Main Museum?
“I’m still figuring it all out, but I think you have to leave it how it is for the most part,” Agsten says. “The beauty of this building is its imperfections. I’m keeping the vaults. I think that’s the best use of the space. To let artists take them over and be as crazy as they want to be.”