Millard Sheets, the Marciano Art Foundation, and the Masons


I had a chance to visit the new Marciano Art Foundation (MAT) recently and found myself fascinated by the unusual history of the building itself – specifically the work of artist and architect Millard Sheets, but also the odd legacy of the Scottish Rite Free Masons. Here are some tips for taking a tour of the building, what to know about the art in the collection, and tips for exploring the elegant neighborhood in which it is situated – Hancock Park.

The Building Itself: Scottish Rite Masons and Millard Sheets

The Scottish Rite Masons hired an artist called Millard Sheets to build their temple in 1961. GUESS? founders Maurice and Paul Marciano have renovated the old temple, transforming the once private institution into a sleek new public space to house their copious collection of contemporary art. The Foundation (you can’t call it a museum, they don’t) is free to the public, but does require timed entry ticking for crowd control purposes.

The newly opened Marciano Art Foundation has retained much of the opulence of the building’s original design. Upon entrance to the blindingly white marble fortress — and indeed, the Masons were all white men — visitors pass through an area with a pleasant cafe and bookstore and emerge into an opulent lobby dominated by a massive Cindy Sherman mural. The walls themselves are travertine marble, retained from the old Temple, and have wonderful striped panels with little gold icons designed by Millard Sheets. They might be my favorite work in the whole museum.

Above the lobby, surrounding the second floor balcony, is a 360 degree mural by Alex Israel called “Valet Parking”. Be sure to get up close to it – you’ll recognize the images of the street scenes we witness every day in LA, and perhaps take for granted.

The travertine exterior is austere and foreboding, with massive statues of famous Masons (from King Solomon to George Washington), that sit on the second story of the exterior of the building along Wilshire Boulevard. You’ve probably wondered about them if you ever drove past.

Be sure to venture into “The Relic Room,” a space on the second floor dedicated to the history of this secretive group. The Masons date back centuries; according to the MAT website, many early Hollywood players were Masons (including Cecil B DeMille and Walt Disney).

This branch of the Masons liked to stage costumed performances, so many costumes and elaborate costumes survive to this day. You can read more about them here.

A Masonic Temple turned Public Art Venue:

The inaugural show, on view until September 17, 2017, is called Unpacked: The Marciano Collection and displays what is presumably the best of the collection. According to Christopher Knight (art critic for the LA Times), most of the Marciano’s art was accumulated in the last ten years. Housing a private collection in a public space allows collectors a significant tax write-off, and the brothers have spent considerable dollars restoring a historic building and opening it for Angelenos to explore. Because many of the works are by living artists, the concept is that that ‘conversations’ will go on between artists, on the walls of the galleries.

A second show on view until January 13, 2018 is Jim Shaw’s The Wig Museum. Shaw, who was a contemporary of Mike Kelly, offers large-scale works, inspired by the Temple itself, that fills several cavernous spaces on the first floor.

Wax is having a blast. He rescues the many wigs found in the Masons’ collection in “the Wig Museum” and uses old painted theatrical scrims (and also new ones) to cartoon contemporary images upon – offering a commentary on the performance compulsions of the Masons, as well as some historical reference for the madness of current pop culture.

Part Hollywood kitsch, part clandestine weirdness, The Wig Museum asks the viewer to care about obscure references, but if that’s too complicated, just enjoy the artist’s riff on history and the venue.

A new show, open from October 19, 2017 – January 20, 2018, is a selection of Latin American artists from the Marciano collection, which should be interesting.  Click here for details on all three exhibits.

Millard Sheets:
For my money, the star of the whole show is actually Millard Sheets, a true Southern California treasure, who was born in Pomona, educated in Claremont, and achieved national recognition for his influence on the architecture and style of Southern California. Visiting the MAT made me hungry for more information about his life and unique style – there is only so much energy devoted to his legacy, and the bookstore lacks any further resources on the topic.

Sheets was a believer in integrating all forms of art, and his firm designed over 40 Home Savings buildings for one of his main benefactors, the Ahmanson family. Here is a good analysis of his work from LA Conservancy.  If you want to travel to Pomona and Claremont, where Sheets was from, here are five wonderful spots to visit, as well.

Millard Sheets : Photo by Tony Sheets

Sheets had national reach, too.  Here is an article listing the Top 10 Millard Sheets murals around the country.

The mosaics are lovely, and can be found inside the building and out. Oddly, the finest mosaic in the main gallery is covered by an exhibition wall, but if you sneak behind it you can see the gorgeous panel (see below).

Hancock Park and Windsor Square

From the second floor of the MAT, head out to the long balcony that offers an excellent view into the hills, and beyond to Pasadena. If you look down on the east side, a few of Hancock Park’s elegant homes are on display. Looking out on such a perfect day, time stood still for me — maybe it was the influence of the crazy Masons, but I had the urge to leave the museum and wander back through time, which is exactly what a stroll through the leafy boulevards of Hancock feels like, even today.

I walked several blocks north, and then explored several blocks to the east and to the west to see more of these fine buildings. Hancock Park and Windsor Square have been designated a historic area; the mansions found here harken back to the 1910s and 1920s.The only way to really understand the distinct architecture and mood is explore on foot (or bicycle!). The design of the neighborhood required homes to be set back from the street, and although homes are generally designed in varying styles, there is an ornate formality and style that defines the shady boulevards.

When you’re done exploring, head up to Larchmont Village. It’s a trick to find parking sometime, but be patient. The tiny neighborhood is worth the effort, for strolling and shopping and eating.

Shopping: Chevalier Books is tops for browsing

Eating: Go Get Em Tiger for breakfast and brunch and COFFEE (also in Los Feliz now)

Treat: Salt & Straw for amazing ice cream flavors (growing brand, from Portland, in Venice  and West Hollywood, and DTLA, and San Francisco, too)

Here is a link to the Windsor Square Hancock Park website, with a bit more information about the history of the area. Here is a concise history from LA Conservancy.

Marciano Art Foundation // 4357 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles

Admission is free – but timed entry tickets needed

Hours: Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.