Peace in a Polar Vortex

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I was determined to augment my usual schedule of visiting dozens of museums and eating a gigantic pile of Ethiopian food with an architectural adventure: a visit to a Moshe Safdie building that I had never seen in person before. As the managing curator of the exhibition Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie at the Skirball, I had been singing the praises of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Headquarters, one of my favorite Safdie designs, in tour after tour. Now I wanted to see it for myself. So on my last day in the District, I braved a polar vortex that plunged temperatures below zero degrees and set out for USIP, located next to the National Mall.

The Department of State on the left and USIP on the right—located next to one another on the National Mall.

The Department of State on the left and USIP on the right—located next to one another on the National Mall.

After a quick ride on the Metro from Logan Circle, I took a ridiculously cold walk on 23rd Street toward the Mall. Along the way I passed several office buildings, including the staid facade of the Department of State. As I approached USIP, I immediately noticed that the structure both blended in with and stood out from its bureaucratic neighbors. The windows facing 23rd were not altogether different from many office buildings, but the warm color of the stone was a nice contrast to the grey tones that dominated nearby facades. I reflected that this was a nice example of “progressive contextualism,” Moshe Safdie’s philosophy of using cues from a building’s physical and cultural surroundings in its design.

Arriving at the front of the headquarters, I caught sight of one of its best features: translucent glass sails held aloft by a steel frame. Skirball_safdie_Institute of Peace 2Safdie intended for the sails to bring to mind the wings of a dove, symbolizing the USIP’s mission of promoting peaceful resolutions to international conflict. To me, they exemplified one of my favorite things about Safdie’s work: while his buildings blend in with their surroundings, they are entirely unique entities. The USIP Headquarters was definitely unlike any other building or monument on the Mall.

I hurried to the entrance excitedly, ready to see those sails from the inside. My enthusiasm was quickly tempered by reality, however, when the guards informed me that I couldn’t go inside without an appointment. Continue reading

But Did We Cut It?

The Skirball is one of the few institutions I know of where the exhibition designer takes an active role in the production and installation of the exhibition itself. One of the tasks of my job that seems to invite a lot questions is the production and installation of the exhibition text on the walls.

Here at the Skirball, exhibition wall text is made out of cut vinyl. The vinyl comes in a wide variety of colors and levels of transparency. The adhesive used to place it on the wall ranges from extremely temporary to nearly permanent. It’s versatile and looks clean, which is why it’s a favored material for displaying text and other graphic elements on walls.

Although I favor cut vinyl over other methods of displaying text (printed panels, handbooks, etc.), installing it is a fairly intensive process that involves many steps. First, the curators send me the approved text. I then decide on the right font and size (color is usually determined beforehand). “Draft” files are then sent to the plotter, which uses a small knife blade to cut the outlines of the letters into a sheet of thin adhesive vinyl.

A wall quote ready to be cut.

A wall quote ready to be cut.

The plotter begins cutting.

The plotter begins cutting.


The parts of the vinyl that aren’t used are then loosened and pulled away in a process called “weeding.”

The negative spaces left after letters are removed.

The negative spaces left after letters are removed.


Since the width of the roll of vinyl is limited to the size of the cutter, really large sections of letters are done individually or have to be pieced together directly on the wall.

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl


After the weeding is completed, a low-tack adhesive “transfer” sheet is applied on top of the vinyl and its backing sheet (or “release paper”).

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl


I then apply the different versions to the wall to determine which style to choose. It doesn’t usually require putting every version up to get a sense of what works best.

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl
The letters or sections of letters are taped the wall and the backing is removed, leaving only the vinyl and transfer sheet. Continue reading

Intersections between Architecture, Math, and Science

When I look at anything, I see mathematics in it. There is not an object or natural phenomenon that does not seem mathematical in nature to me. According to cosmologist Max Tegmark—as quoted in the July 2008 Discover story Is the Universe Actually Made of Math?—”There is only mathematics; that is all that exists.” Though the way I see the world may be strange to some, I am not the only one who sees it this way!

Taper Courtyard pond at the Skirball. What principles of geometry apply here? Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Taper Courtyard pond at the Skirball. What principles of geometry apply here? Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Every exterior and interior of every structure at the Skirball Cultural Center has a mathematical aspect, as well as a cultural purpose—from the geometry of the slate tiles in the Taper Courtyard (where music fans gather for Sunset Concerts and other programming) to the “tent of welcome” in the Ziegler Amphitheater.

Recently, I’ve been working to create a Math Trail through the Skirball, a walking tour in which students and teachers use the sights and sounds of the campus to complete mathematical challenges. The project is inspired by the Skirball’s current exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie. One example of math in architecture that we’ll be using on the Skirball Math Trail can be found in the Ziegler Amphitheater.

Ziegler Amphitheater, on the south side of the Skirball campus. Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Ziegler Amphitheater, on the south side of the Skirball campus. Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Slope = rise/run = change in height divided by distance moved forward = 5.5 in/12.5 in = 0.44 = 44/100 = 11/25

Slope = rise/run = change in height divided by distance moved forward = 5.5 in/12.5 in =
0.44 = 44/100 = 11/25

Problem: Begin at the stage and measure the height and depth of a stair step. Estimate the slope of the stairs. Describe your process. Continue reading

Seduced By Shteyngart

I first heard Gary Shteyngart speak at the Skirball in 2010, on the book tour for his novel Super Sad True Love Story. That evening, at the end of his reading, I dutifully made my way to the signing table to get my copy autographed.

I first heard Gary Shteyngart speak at the Skirball in 2010, on the book tour for his novel Super Sad True Love Story. That evening, at the end of his reading, I dutifully made my way to the signing table to get my copy autographed.

I first heard Gary Shteyngart speak at the Skirball in 2010, on the book tour for his novel Super Sad True Love Story. That evening, at the end of his reading, I dutifully made my way to the signing table to get my copy autographed.

“Ah, to Jennifer,” Shteyngart said, smiling and raising one eyebrow as he signed my book—the raised brow he employs occasionally when photographed. (Years later, I would learn the significance of my name to Gary, the cause of that raised eyebrow, but I am getting ahead of myself …). That elevated brow boomeranged back at me a few years later, in the headshot sent to promote Shteyngart’s January 16 reading of his new memoir, Little Failure—again at the Skirball. There was that same damn eyebrow arching over the rim of Gary’s eyeglasses, a straight gaze into the camera, a smirky half-grin, chin cupped in hand.

Shteyngart headshot © Brigitte LacombeEver since I saw him at that first Skirball talk, Shteyngart has always just seemed THERE. Every few months I’d come across one of his really funny short stories in the New Yorker, Travel + Leisure, or the New York Times.

And the guy sure has a way with the literary blurb! It feels like for nearly every book I’ve even considered reading in the past year or so, Shteyngart has already been there, read it, and come up with a hilarious, tweet-worthy blurb. There’s even a Tumblr feed dedicated to his masterful blurbs.

This went on for YEARS. So in December, in preparation for his upcoming Skirball reading, I cracked open the preview proof of Little Failure with anticipation. After all, Andy Borowitz, an eminent judge of funniness, declared the book to be “hilarious and moving” in the New York Times. I expected some witty, excellent writing and a good social misfit story. I also expected a lot of weirdness. Continue reading

#SafdieSnapshots: Share Yours!

The first contribution to our #SafdieSnapshots photo album: “You never know who you might see at the SkyPark at Marina Bay Sands: if you’re an early riser, you might just be lucky enough to see a world-famous architect swimming laps in the infinity pool he created!” (Julia K)

The first contribution to our #SafdieSnapshots photo album: “You never know who you might see at the SkyPark at Marina Bay Sands: if you’re an early riser, you might just be lucky enough to see a world-famous architect swimming laps in the infinity pool he created!” (Julia K)

Here are two good New Year’s Resolutions for us all: (1) travel more; and (2) organize the thousands of photos we all store on too many devices, hard drives, and clouds. If you’ve managed to do a bit of (1) and need help achieving (2), then share your #SafdieSnapshots!

Since opening the retrospective Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, many gallery visitors have raved about their personal experiences of an actual Safdie building. What about you? Been moved at Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum? Gone to Habitat ‘67 or Crystal Bridges or the Peabody Essex? Or (lucky you!) have you swum in the infinity pool way up high atop Marina Bay Sands?

Well, here’s hoping you took a camera with you. We invite you to contribute your fave pix to our #SafdieSnapshots photo album. E-mail your contributions to—or share them via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using the hashtag #SafdieSnapshots. Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Jan/Feb 2014

Skirball Campus with Moshe_Safdie and Uri_Herscher

Standing with my friend and architect Moshe Safdie in front of a wall-sized reproduction of a photograph of our location on the Sepulveda Pass, before we started construction on the Skirball. Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

The year 2014 is like no other year in the history of the Skirball Cultural Center: for the first time since our birth, we are no longer under construction. Our campus, Moshe Safdie’s first architectural project in the United States, is now complete. Our buildings and courtyards are built; our gardens and arroyos are planted. Our current exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, celebrates our architect and his magnificent achievements. It is glorious to behold.

And yet, in the most important sense, our building is not finished. It can never be finished. For what we are seeking to build is a community where no one is a stranger, a society both just and compassionate, a world where all can live in freedom, dignity, and safety. That is the mission of the Skirball Cultural Center. It is a construction project that has only just begun, and has very far to go. And if it is ever to be achieved, in any measure, it will take each of us, and all of us, to build it. Continue reading

Winter To-Do List: Part 2

Building upon yesterday’s post, our curators have two more recommendations for your winter break excursions. Erin Curtis, who is managing our current retrospective, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, visited the Autry’s new permanent exhibition. And Erin Clancey, who is herself hard at work on a Skirball exhibition about a rock legend (to be announced soon!), ventured to the Grammy Museum to see an exhibition honoring rock music icon Ringo Starr. Read below for two more exhibitions to add to your list. And don’t forget—any well-planned winter break museum crawl should also include our Global Citizen, so we hope to see you at the Skirball this month. Happy museum-going!


Once upon a Time

Art of the WestI had been planning to visit Art of the West, the new permanent exhibition at the Autry National Center, since it opened on June 15. I’ve long enjoyed the Autry’s exhibitions about the American West, in part because I find “the West” to be a fascinatingly imprecise concept (each person has different ideas about exactly who and what comprises the West). I was looking forward to seeing a new display of art from the Autry’s collection that examines, in the words of the Autry’s website, “how shared values and interests have inspired artists from different cultures and times to create distinctive, powerful works that speak to their experience of the West as both a destination and a home.” Also, I too like cowboys.

War Music II by Mateo Romero, on display with a 1948 Indian Roadmaster motorcycle.

War Music II by Mateo Romero, on display with a 1948 Indian Roadmaster motorcycle.

The pieces in the exhibition are organized around three simple yet powerful themes: “Religion and Ritual,” “Land and Landscape,” and “Migration and Movement.” Grouping diverse objects together in broad categories allows for unusual, eye-catching, and often provocative juxtapositions of pieces from different places, cultures, and periods. In the “Migration and Movement” section, a 1948 Indian Roadmaster motorcycle sits beneath Mateo Romero’s War Music II.

Around the corner, in the “Religion and Ritual” section, a totem pole from the Pacific Northwest stands near a crucifix of roughly equal height. These often unexpected pairings are one of the show’s strengths.

David Levinthal’s The Wild West series.

David Levinthal’s The Wild West series.

I was also particularly drawn to the exhibition’s photographs, including David Levinthal’s six-part series The Wild West, for which the artist photographed toys in order to depict the West as he imagined it in his childhood. There is also a lovely display titled “Yosemite after Adams,” dedicated to the challenges that contemporary landscape photographers face in capturing Yosemite National Park years after it was so famously and definitively documented by Ansel Adams. Okay, there weren’t any sharks (as a visitor requested in my photo above), but a visit to the Art of the West is my winter break recommendation nonetheless.

Read the Los Angeles Times review of Art of the West.

Erin Curtis



“Don’t Pass Me By”

Ludwig black pearl drum set with Beatles logo

Ludwig black pearl drum set with Beatles logo

If you are a fan of The Beatles (who isn’t?), don’t pass on the exhibition Ringo: Peace & Love, currently at the Grammy Museum until March 30, 2014. Continue reading

Winter To-Do List: Go Behind the Lens

Winter is a great season to spend a cozy afternoon experiencing any one of the amazing museums L.A. has to offer, including the Skirball! We asked our curators to recommend some of their favorite exhibitions currently on display around town. Doris Berger and Linde Lehtinen, who are busy curating the upcoming Skirball exhibition Light and Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, took some time to check out a few fascinating film and photography exhibitions. Check back tomorrow for recommendations from Erin Clancey and Erin Curtis!


Zoom into a Film Shack

Varda-2The French filmmaker Agnès Varda (b. 1928) is a hero of mine. Many years ago, her films opened my eyes to the fact that it is possible to be personal, political, and playful all at once. Varda has been making films in that vein since the 1960s, reaching a diverse audience with narrative and documentary films alike.

The movie industry has changed a lot in the past decades, as have museums, and the worlds seem to be blending together. Varda’s more recent visibility pays tribute to that; her place is not only in cinema anymore. Agnès Varda in Californialand, a small exhibition currently at LACMA through June 22, 2014, showcases films that Varda made in California when she spent time here with her family in 1967–69 and 1980–81. One of the highlights of the exhibition, which features a sculptural installation and a selection of her photographs, is a film shack containing thousands of images from the shooting of Varda’s 1969 film LIONS LOVE (… AND LIES). Continue reading

Rockin’ Out with Kids

Seeing a child arrive at the Skirball for his or her first rock concert is a perk of my job; knowing they’re getting that jittery feeling you get when you’re about to be in the presence of those voices you’ve spent hours with, at home or in the car, memorizing every word and drumbeat.

In my experience, the people in these amazing bands are always just as excited as the kids to rock out together in person. In just a few weeks, our special Winter Family Concerts bring two creative, kid-friendly acts to the Skirball: two-time Parent’s Choice Award winner Jambo on Saturday, December 28, and 2013 Grammy nominee for Best Children’s Album The Pop Ups on Sunday, December 29. I thought it would be interesting to find out more about these groups as they prepare for their upcoming performances, and they were kind enough to oblige.

Jambo 1

The mission of musical group Jambo has always been to get people of all ages up and dancing. For years, husband-and-wife team Steve Pierson and Melinda Leigh have been using their imaginative performance style to transport audiences through the roots of American music. They’ve made several appearances at the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances series, and they’ve always been a big hit. I spoke with Steve Pierson about Jambo’s beginnings and what inspires him to keep performing.

How did you get started in performance?
I always played music and performed as a kid. I studied piano when I was young, but when my older brother taught me some chords on the guitar, I never looked back. I started out playing acoustic guitar in coffee houses and small venues; playing James Taylor, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers, as well as my original songs. I was always heavily into blues music and played in a few different local blues bands till I put together my own band, Steve Pierson & Blues Head, and started touring around the country playing large blues festivals and small roadhouse bars.

What is one memorable moment from your performing career that stands out?
There have been a few shows that have really stuck with me over my career as a performer, but as it relates to Jambo, one of my first shows was very memorable. I wrote these songs for my own daughter and had no intention of performing them outside of our own home. We played a show at a local elementary school and the experience blew me away. The kids had such unbridled enthusiasm for the music and everyone was having so much fun. The kids were so loud that we couldn’t hear ourselves on stage! jambo2I had a blast and it clicked for me that I could play the music I love for these families and it didn’t have to be “dumbed down.” It became my mission to present young kids with really great musical experiences.

What music inspires you?
Dan Zanes was the first person I heard playing “real” music for kids, and I also really loved the Jack Johnson Curious George record. These were songs for kids that adults really liked listening to as well, and that’s what I wanted to make. After that, my music borrows from my musical heroes: The Band, The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder, anything Stax or Muscle Shoals, and of course the blues greats including, but not limited to, the three Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie), Taj Mahal, Albert Collins … the list goes on.

How did you come up with your group’s name?
I was trying to come up with something that would sound fun, groovy, and inviting. “Jambo” is a combination of “jam,” as in a jam session or party, and “gumbo,” a delicious Louisiana dish that is a combination of rich flavors and ingredients. I felt like the name was kind of like a “roots music stew” where I could stir in influences from Chicago, New Orleans, Texas, and the Mississippi Delta. Of course, Jambo also means “hello” in Swahili, which I love because it is so welcoming and evocative of the cultural diversity that I try to bring to the music.

What influence has your family had on your art?
My family has been a huge influence on my art. I never would have written these songs for children if it hadn’t been for the inspiration my own daughter brings me. I have always tried to write from her perspective and about things that she likes or issues she has struggled with. I wanted these songs to be helpful to her as she is growing up, and it has been a blessing to be able to pass that along to all the kids and families that hear my music. It’s been so great to be able to share this project and perform with my wife as well, making it a true family affair! It’s our mission now to bring “real roots music” to kids and do a little part to fill the void left by diminished school budgets and dwindling music programs.


dsc_0098THE POP UPS

The Pop Ups are not your typical children’s band. The duo’s incorporation of puppets, props, and colorful sets into their show has garnered praise from the Wall Street Journal and a Grammy nomination for Best Children’s Album. We’re excited for The Pop Ups to bring their high energy and wildly inventive tunes to the Skirball. I spoke with Jason Rabinowitz and Jacob Stein about their influences and what we should expect from their upcoming performance.

How did you get started in performance?
We both started very young. Jacob’s father had a kids band called Dino Rock, Continue reading

Dancing with the Skirball

This Friday, December 6, Brooklyn-based indie rock band/dance troupe People Get Ready will perform at Into the Night: Progression, a late-night party taking place at the Skirball.

People Get Ready fuse music and modern dance in a combination that’s as arresting as it is unexpected. After attending one of their shows, Bob Boilen, host and creator of NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” dubbed it his favorite show of 2012: “No single show took my breath away the way this one did—part rock concert, part performance art, part dance, all perfectly melded together. … It felt like a band creating a music video for every piece of music performed.” Below, check out a live video of People Get Ready’s performance for the song “Middle Name,” followed by a collection of six music videos in which unexpected dancing is the name of the game—including a few videos featuring artists with ties to People Get Ready.


1- In this music video for Blonde Redhead’s “Top Ranking,” artist and filmmaker Miranda July contorts her body in a series of one-second-long poses. [Interesting connection: People Get Ready’s Steven Reker served as choreographer for July’s 2011 film, The Future.]


2- Bay Area–based art-rock band Deerhoof enlisted People Get Ready members Steven Reker, Jen Goma, and James Rickman to dance in their video for “Fête d’Adieu.” Check out Reker’s solo around 1:36.


Continue reading