Top Story: Arts

Good news for Bowl bottoms

March 5, 2014

Alaskan yellow cedar benches are going in at the Bowl, replacing old ones that have seated millions.

Consider the lot of the lowly Hollywood Bowl benches.

Every summer, they bear silent witness to sublime symphonies, cool jazz and the musical stylings of some of the biggest names in pop. They brave the elements year ‘round, and when the amphitheatre is in full swing, get up close and personal with some 14,000 rear ends a night (some shielded with cushions, others not so much.)

Is it any wonder that eventually even the staunchest Bowl bench starts to crack under all the pressure?

But relief is on the way for the current crop of benches, which were installed at the dawn of the Reagan Administration and have hosted more than 18 million backsides in their time.

Mark Ladd, the Bowl’s assistant director of operations, calls the bench replacement “a once-in-a-career project.”

“It’s exciting to see it get done,” Ladd said. “If you take a look at some of the older wood, you’ll see it’s overdue.”

Underwritten by Prop. A park improvement dollars and other funds made available by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the $1.6 million project is expected to wrap up in time for this year’s opening night on June 21. (Concertgoers for this year’s pre-season lease events like Black Sabbath, Billy Joel and Bruno Mars and Pharrell Williams will see a work in progress, with a mix of old and new benches available for seating.)

The benches are showing their age.

Beyond putting to rest the occasional splinter complaint, the new seats—which, like the earlier benches, are made of golden-hued Alaskan yellow cedar which will weather in time to a silvery gray—will be visually striking in their inaugural season.

And they’ll be widely used. While some music fans pony up for pricey box seats, the vast majority of Bowl patrons flock to the benches, where some weeknight concert tickets can be had for little as $1. (Another buck rents you a cushion for the night. For more on that and other tips for making the most of your Bowl experience, click here.)

The bench replacement project is part of a long list of improvements that have gone into the county-owned facility in recent years, including replacement of the legendary shell itself. New restrooms, park furniture to make it easier for more people to picnic at the site, “speed ramps” to whisk patrons to the Bowl’s upper levels, LED screens, a wine bar and a state-of-the-art sound system are among the upgrades in the just the past few seasons. (Industry professionals seem to be noticing; the Bowl recently nabbed its 10th straight Pollstar award as the nation’s best major outdoor concert venue.)

In addition to the new benches, this summer season will also be illuminated with new landscape lighting around the site, also funded by Yaroslavsky’s office. And the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which operates the Bowl under a lease agreement with the county, is replacing the stage floor, a maintenance procedure it undertakes every 10 years or so.

As construction workers buzzed around the site this week, assistant operations director Ladd noted that those venerable Bowl benches, installed back in 1981, may still not have reached the end of their long service to the people of Los Angeles County.

“We’re looking to re-use as much as we can,” Ladd said, pointing out that the wood can be re-milled and made available for repairs and future construction projects throughout the county parks system—an environmentally-friendly encore worthy of the Bowl itself.

The benches, last fully replaced in 1981, will eventually weather to the familiar silvery gray.

Posted 3/5/14

The people’s art

February 27, 2014

Megan Rice's "Horse and Reader" adds some whimsy to the Topanga Library.

From a rammed earth sculpture in the high desert to glimmering bronze leaves channeling the olive groves of yesteryear, the county’s civic art collection is as diverse as Los Angeles County itself.

And it’s growing fast.

In just the past four years, the program has added 58 new artworks and restorations to its collection. The new works join a vibrant array of earlier projects commissioned and managed by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission as part of the Civic Art Program, which requires that 1% of the design and construction costs on new county capital projects be set aside for art.

Since the Board of Supervisors approved the program in December, 2004, a total of 80 projects have been completed at L.A. County facilities. And more are on the way, including the first $1 million civic art endeavor, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Campus, as well as projects at the renovated Hall of Justice and the new San Fernando Valley Family Support Center.

Margaret Bruning, who directs the program, said the aim is to “create artworks and facilities that reflect who we are as a community and a culture, where we are now—and where we think we’re going.”

“We often say that civic art is about the art of the place…But it’s more than just art in the pure sense,” she said. “It’s about people and their experience of this place and of each other. And I think that’s the civic-mindedness that comes through in civic art.”

As the program’s 10th anniversary approaches, take a spin through the photo gallery below to appreciate some of the compelling, beautiful or just plain fun artwork that has been integrated into county facilities—from swimming pools and skate parks to libraries and fire stations—over the past decade.

 

Posted 2/26/14

As LACMA grows, economy lights up

January 23, 2014

"Urban Light" is part of a transformative LACMA campaign that's boosting the county's economy.

There’s art that enriches the soul and there are investments that boost the bottom line. And then there’s the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has embarked on a “Transformation” campaign that—in addition to creating new galleries and installing epic works of art like “Urban Light” and “Levitated Mass”—generated more than $477 million in economic benefits for L.A. County, a new report finds.

The report by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, commissioned by the museum and being released today, studied visitor patterns and the direct and indirect impacts of building new destinations on the LACMA campus, ranging from the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the Resnick Pavilion to Ray’s and Stark Bar.

Overall, the museum spent $269 million over nine years to complete the first two phases of the three-part initiative, with about $30 million coming from Los Angeles County and the rest from donors.

It was money well spent, the study found. In addition to generating economic output of more than $477 million, it supported 3,650 jobs—1,300 of them ongoing and not directly related to the construction itself—and contributed to an additional estimated $22 million in state and local taxes and $41.7 million in federal taxes.

The benefits don’t stop there, said Christine Cooper, the study’s lead author. “It’s going to keep on coming back,” she said, noting that researchers estimate that $255 million in continuing economic activity flows from the new-and-improved LACMA each year, plus state and local taxes of $11 million.

“LACMA’s Transformation demonstrates how public investment and private philanthropy can together create a larger overall benefit to Los Angeles County,” the report said. It noted that the county investment “will be repaid in tax revenues to the county within just a few years” because of all the resulting economic activity.

During the course of the campaign, museum attendance has more than doubled, reaching over 1.2 million visitors last year. And the museum’s visibility on the local, national and international scene has grown as well, with the arrival of LACMA director and CEO Michael Govan in 2006. Chris Burden’s much-photographed “Urban Light,” one of the artistic hallmarks of LACMA’s growth initiative, has become an instantly recognizable icon to passersby and museum-goers alike. And the slo-mo, 105-mile journey of the 340-ton boulder that plays the starring role in Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” created a populist, communal sensation across the Southland and beyond.

The two phases of the initiative completed so far have “elevated the museum’s cultural standing to gain national and global recognition as a center of arts and entertainment,” the report said.

LACMA continues to draw the majority of its visitors from California, mostly from the Los Angeles region. However, the number of international visitors and those from other states grew from 11.5% in fiscal 2007 to 16% in fiscal 2013, the report said. “This shift in the origin of museum attendees is evidence of the growing international reputation of the museum and of the Los Angeles region and its global draw,” it found.

That’s economically significant, the report said, because visitors from outside the region tend to spend more when they visit—on gift shop purchases, food and drink, and other items. The benefit also goes beyond the museum itself; LACMA’s out-of-town visitors paid for accommodations, transportation, entertainment and meals around the area to the tune of $29.1 million in fiscal 2013—nearly three times as much as they spent in fiscal 2007.

The third phase of the “Transformation” initiative focuses on the east side of the LACMA campus. A proposed new signature building by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor is in the planning phases.

The changes so far have had a remarkable impact, one that promises to endure, said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

“Over the past seven years, LACMA has evolved into a thriving center of cultural activity,” Yaroslavsky said in a statement. “LACMA’s success is an example of a private/public partnership that will offer economic and educational benefits for years to come.”

Posted 1/23/14

An artful salute to veterans

December 12, 2013

Kent Twitchell stands under one of his towering murals in the Patriotic Hall lobby.

As the county’s Bob Hope Patriotic Hall is formally rededicated this week after an extensive renovation, a trio of murals brought to life over the past 3½ years by acclaimed L.A. artist Kent Twitchell will share the spotlight with the array of dignitaries, veterans and military bands on hand to mark the building’s transformation.

Twitchell’s murals, which reimagine the original artworks by Helen Lundeberg that mysteriously vanished from the building’s lobby sometime in the 1970s, depict veterans of many generations in patriotic scenes. This video captures Twitchell’s work in progress last year.

Twitchell’s work, called “We the People, Out of Many, One,” consists of three large tableaux, each measuring 20 feet by 12 feet. It was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission as part of the county’s Civic Art Program.

The Patriotic Hall setting represents an unusual venue for Twitchell: the great indoors. He is best known for his massive and much-celebrated outdoor works, including “Harbor Freeway Overture,” that have helped define the L.A. cityscape for decades. But some of his greatest exterior works have been lost over the years, including the six-story high “Ed Ruscha Monument,” which was painted over by work crews in 2006. As he started work on the Patriotic Hall project, Twitchell said that he welcomed the opportunity to create art inside, since the outdoors increasingly seemed like “enemy territory.”

Although the rededication event on Friday, November 8, is not open to the public, the building is already up and running as the new home of the county’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The county’s Department of Mental Health also offers services to veterans in the building, which was originally dedicated in 1926. Other veterans service organizations are also expected to move in by the end of the year. Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, located at 1816 South Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles, has long been a familiar landmark to motorists traveling through the intersection of the 110 and 10 freeways.

Among those expected to take part Friday in the rededication is 103-year-old veteran Bea Cohen, believed to be the oldest living female veteran in California. Cohen, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II, remains an active volunteer for veterans’ causes.

The celebration of the building’s reopening after its $46 million renovation will be emceed by NBC4 weatherman Fritz Coleman. Also participating will be representatives of StoryCorps’ Military Voices Initiative, who will record the stories of veterans and their families at the site. Among those slated to record their stories: Kent Twitchell himself, who in addition to being a renowned muralist also is a Vietnam veteran.

"Free Ballot" is one of the three murals now on display.

"The Preamble to the Constituion"

"Free Assembly"

Posted 11/6/13

LACMA redesign to respect tar pits

September 26, 2013

Jane Pisano of the Natural History Museum addresses supervisors, as LACMA's Michael Govan, far left, and James Gilson of NHM look on.

Leaders of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Natural History Museum are pledging to work together to make sure that a proposed new signature building on the LACMA campus doesn’t harm the landmark La Brea Tar Pits.

Preliminary plans for the new art gallery, to be designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor, were unveiled this summer as part of LACMA’s “Presence of Past” exhibition, which showcased the architect’s concepts for transforming the museum campus.

The Swiss architect’s proposal calls for a largely transparent gallery—allowing passersby to view art through glass even without entering the museum—built in a curving shape reminiscent of the tar pits on the site.

But concerns about those tar pits quickly bubbled up after an early model and design were put on public display.

Officials of the Natural History Museum and its Page Museum, which oversees the Pleistocene era fossil-rich tar pits as an active scientific research site as well as a public attraction, were worried about the impact of the proposed LACMA construction.

On Tuesday, leaders of LACMA and the Natural History Museum came together to inform the Board of Supervisors that they are committed to working together to make sure the tar pits are protected.

“We can guarantee that there will not be a significant impact on the La Brea Tar Pits as we develop the plan,” Michael Govan, LACMA’s director and CEO, told the supervisors. He added that the design, now in its “earliest stages,” is meant not only to improve LACMA but also to create better access to the Page Museum and the tar pits that share the Hancock Park site, which he said would end up with an additional 1.2 acres of ground space. A cantilevered section of the design over the tar pit lake bed already is being altered in response to concerns, Govan said.

Jane Pisano, the Natural History Museum’s president and director, noted that LACMA’s plan is still “very preliminary and fluid, and if there is a negative impact on the tar pits, the design can and will be adjusted to protect them. This is something that Michael has said many times, and we take him at his word.”

However, she added, there are challenges ahead.

“Preliminary review of the plans for the building indicate that it would severely impact six of the nine tar pits in the park,” she said.

“So, early days, we know we have a lot of work to do. But we are assured that it is early days,” Pisano said. She said the early collaboration is essential to ensure that this “world-renowned destination” and unique scientific resource isn’t harmed.

“Ice Age fossils and micro fauna trapped in the tar below the surface provide invaluable information about life thousands of years ago, as well as possible clues for climate change and habitat in the future,” Pisano said.

Both parties said they are continuing to work with the county’s Chief Executive Office in the coming weeks to develop a memorandum of understanding to help them chart the course ahead. If the project is approved by LACMA’s board of trustees, the museum would undertake a two-year feasibility study. Construction would not begin until sometime after a new motion picture museum opens on the campus in 2017.

Govan said that the project presents LACMA with a unique opportunity to be a leader in reimagining how an encyclopedic museum can be structured.

“It has a plan that will be more accessible to the public than I think any that’s been designed anywhere in the world to date,” he said. “And that’s one of the exciting opportunities of a museum in a park.”

Doing nothing is not an option, he added, given the deteriorating state of the four buildings that would be replaced by the new structure.

Just bringing those buildings up to code would cost $317 million, he said. Early construction cost estimates for the new building range from $400 million to $450 million—costs that would be offset by significant energy savings from the building’s solar panels and by an increase in visitors to the museum, he said.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that he was “not overly thrilled’ by the design at first, but has come to see it as a “stroke of genius.”

“This is a controversial plan architecturally. Any decent architectural plan is going to be controversial. If there’s no controversy, it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

“Being able to build your project without doing any damage to the tar pits and the scientific research that continues to be done there is a no-brainer,” Yaroslavsky said. “There is room enough on that campus for both the tar pits and for the museum. And that’s the way it’s going to have to be.”

Architect Peter Zumthor's initial vision for LACMA shows a cantilever over tar pit lake bed. That element has since been altered. Photo/LACMA

Posted 9/25/13

No bouncing in the park

September 6, 2013

Exxopolis as it starts to rise in the Civic Center, creating a temporary, inflatable, walk-though world.

“It lives!” exclaimed Christine Breihan as air began to fill Exxopolis—the city-like, inflated art installation that opens to the public this Saturday in Grand Park.

Exxopolis arrived in a box truck Thursday morning, and Breihan and her confederates began setting up immediately, a bit behind schedule after a forklift had to be located at the last minute. Deflated, the exhibit only took up half of the truck, but after being rolled out and positioned, the grey, blue, green and red polyvinyl spanned 175 feet by 95 feet. And as it rose, the installation’s largest dome soared 23 feet into the air.

The fanciful, portable city is making its Los Angeles debut, with the public invited to stroll, free of charge, through its translucent, color-filled interiors over the course of the next two weekends. It is the brainchild of artist Alan Parkinson, whose Nottingham, England-based Architects of Air studio creates giant inflatables called “luminaria” and sends them out into the world on a mission to inspire wonder. Their work began more than two decades ago, growing out of a theatre project for audiences with disabilities. The fully accessible creations aim to attract the widest possible audiences; 500 of them have been displayed in 37 countries since 1992.

But before Exxopolis can work its magic, there’s plenty of advance work to get it off the ground.

Just ask Shanti Freed, the Exxopolis exhibition manager in charge of installing, managing and tearing down the structure after each day’s exhibition.

“There are a lot of floating variables,” Freed said. “It takes a good, long, steady day to set it up and make sure it is all laid out and ballasted correctly.”

Exxopolis requires 32,500 pounds of ballast just to hold it down. Concrete cones and drums are arranged like tent stakes along the perimeter and in gaps between the structure’s undulations. Inflating is the easy part; that only takes about 20 minutes.

Freed’s No. 1 consideration is making sure the 80 or so people who will be in the exhibit at any given time are safe. Staff from the Music Center, which manages Grand Park, will be trained to ensure guests follow rules, which include no running, jumping or sliding.

“The only thing it has in common with a bouncy castle is that it’s inflated,” Freed said of the artwork. “Anyone under the age of 16 must be with a parent; you have to be respectful of that space.”

Her biggest enemy is weather. Last year in Michigan, people were touring when tornado sirens blared. “It was the fastest evacuation I ever did,” Freed said. Trees were uprooted just 2 blocks away and, when Freed emerged from an underground storm shelter, three inches of rain had soaked everything.

Freed said L.A.’s heat shouldn’t pose any difficulties. While it may not be as cold as an office building, massive air conditioners pump air constantly, keeping the interior a few degrees cooler than outside.

The bubble shaped buildings, which are grey on the outside with patches of color where light enters and is reflected, are a striking temporary addition to the park’s green lawn across from City Hall. But things really get interesting inside.

“It’s like a kaleidoscope rainbow, but with no hard edges,” Freed said. “Everything is curved,”

Exxopolis’ L.A. visit comes as part of a U.S. tour. (Next stop: Shreveport, Louisiana.) It will be open to the public on the next two weekends, September 7 through September 8 and September 13 through September 15.  People can tour it from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. The free exhibit has already generated a lot of interest, with advance reservations completely filling up. However, those reservations only comprise half of the possible slots, so walk-ups will be taken on a first come, first served basis. The wheelchair-accessible exhibit is open to all ages.

The experience even comes with a soundtrack, of sorts. The Music Center’s senior director for programming, Barbara Leonard, has arranged for 80 performances called “Random Acts of World Culture,” which will be staged at various places during the exhibition. Most will take place in a large dome called the Cupola, a cathedral-inspired space with plastic “stained glass” windows. Performances will range from individual artists to a septet, with musical styles that span the globe. It is the first time that live music has been integrated into one of the inflatable installations.

“I am very aware of the vision of Grand Park—‘the park for everyone,’ ” Leonard said. “We put the focus on 77 cultures that are a part of our city’s history.”

Leonard met Parkinson in 1994 at a conference, and toured several of his exhibits in other cities. Impressed, she tucked away the idea of bringing a luminarium to Los Angeles someday. When Grand Park opened, the opportunity presented itself. Thursday, she was giddy to see the structure take shape at last.

“Exxopolis is its own little city in my mind,” Leonard said.  “We want to make sure the space and the performances have a harmony, have a beauty.”

Its outside is striking, but Exxopolis' interior is downright kaleidoscopic.

Posted 9/6/13

A magic moment, even for Bowl pros

August 28, 2013

Sarah Horn, left, with Kristin Chenoweth after they shared their "a star is born" moment at the Bowl.

The people who work behind the scenes to produce one memorable concert after another at the Hollywood Bowl every summer might be forgiven for getting a little jaded.

This season alone, they’ve witnessed superstars ranging from Willie Nelson and Diana Ross to Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman performing under the stars before tens of thousands of people.

So that makes what happened at the Bowl last Friday all the more remarkable.

A music teacher from Riverside named Sarah Horn, selected from the audience to sing a duet with Kristin Chenoweth, turned in a note-perfect performance of “For Good” from “Wicked” that did more than bring the Bowl audience to its feet. It also knocked the seasoned Bowl staff off theirs.

“All you could hear [backstage] was ‘Wow!’ Other than that, you could have heard a pin drop,” said Paul Geller, production director for the Bowl and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which leases and operates the county-owned facility.

The Bowl team, along with the concert audience of 9,214, was the first to witness Horn’s performance, in which she harmonized fluidly and effortlessly traded solos with Broadway legend Chenoweth. But they weren’t the last. A friend’s video of their performance, posted to YouTube, had racked up more than 2.2 million hits as of Tuesday afternoon. Her own account of the evening was posted on Broadway World.com and the story has been picked up by media outlets ranging from the Huffington Post to the Hollywood Reporter.

“I was there and it was amazing,” said Chris Ayzoukian, the Philharmonic vice president who oversees the orchestra as well as productions at the Bowl and Disney Hall. “We see a lot of shows. Magic happens a lot at the Hollywood Bowl…but when something special happens, you just feel it in the air.”

As the second half of the concert got underway, Ayzoukian was attending to his usual performance night duties from Box 1041, texting staffers backstage with comments about audio and video quality.

Then Chenoweth selected Horn—who was attending the concert with friends and family—from among fans in the audience vying for a chance to sing onstage with her.

“Sarah sang literally the first note and we were like, ‘Hello. This is serious business,’ ” Ayzoukian recalled.

In short order, he stopped texting the backstage crew about technical issues and started sending messages like: “Wow, someone hire her immediately.”

Horn, of course, was living out a popular fantasy: who hasn’t daydreamed of belting out a show-stopping number before a spellbound audience? Then there was the undeniable tension inherent in the moment: would this unknown blow her big chance, forget the lyrics, sing out of tune?

No, no and no.

“I think part of it is the sense of surprise—this amazing singer who’s among us in the audience. She represented everyone in the audience that day,” Ayzoukian said. “That’s why it was so inspiring.”

(Inspiring, and so good that the questions started almost immediately: was Horn a plant? “Absolutely not,” the Philharmonic says.)

After the show, Geller, the production director, raced into the audience to get the voice teacher’s contact information and invite her backstage.

“Both she and her parents were fairly wide-eyed,” Geller said. “They knew that they were walking backstage at a world-famous venue.”

The crowd of VIPs clustered around Chenoweth’s dressing room—“all pretty high-powered people in the industry,” as Geller put it—gave her a welcome to remember.

“As soon as they saw her, they started chanting, ‘Sarah! Sarah!’ ” Geller said. “It was the most unbelievable experience.”

Geller, who has worked at the Bowl since 1970, has had his share of incredible moments over the years and this one, he said, is going on the list. “It was moving,” he said, “for all of us there.”

Meanwhile, Horn’s return engagement at the Bowl already has been booked. She’ll be serving as a guest judge of ABBA-Capella, a “show-tune-styled sing-off” contest among collegiate groups that is part of the Bowl’s ABBA Fest concert on Sunday, Sept. 8.

Chenoweth and Horn, seen above in video shown on Bowl's LED screens, shared a duet from "Wicked."

Posted 8/28/13

L.A.’s story comes to life

July 10, 2013

Gov. Pio Pico and his family at the Natural History Museum's big new show, "Becoming Los Angeles."

Los Angeles is young compared to most American cities. It incorporated in 1850, the same year Levi Strauss began manufacturing jeans. But no one can accuse the nation’s second-largest metropolis of being uneventful, and this weekend, a new permanent exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County will begin counting the reasons.

From missions to movies, ranchos to railroads, “Becoming Los Angeles”—a show almost as sprawling as its subject—will take visitors through 500 years of local evolution, tracing the environmental and cultural shifts that turned Southern California into a 21st century global hub.

The 14,000-square-foot exhibition, which opens to the public on Sunday, will not only be the museum’s largest, but will serve as the finale to a decade-long overhaul of the museum, which celebrates its centennial this year.

“We’re looking at Los Angeles history through the lens of how people and the environment have interacted,” says Margaret Hardin, division chief for anthropology and history at the museum. “That’s our overarching narrative.”

Some of the stories are well known—how water from the Owens Valley allowed Los Angeles to grow in the early 1900s, for example. But others are less-told tales, such as the story of the night a surging L.A. River jumped its banks and changed course, or the tale of the grasshopper plague that helped set the stage for the region’s transformation from agriculture to industry.

Tying the narrative together is a swooping steel architectural canopy that touches down at pivotal points in the history of the region. Underneath, four galleries of cultural artifacts give life to the story: the Mission San Gabriel cross, a stuffed grizzly bear, the antique writing desk of California’s last Mexican governor, the headlight of a Southern Pacific locomotive, a souvenir bottle of water from the 1913 opening of the Aqueduct, Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” costume, the workstation where Mickey Mouse was born.

Sprinkled throughout are interactive multi-media installations. A scale model of downtown L.A. in the 1930s, for instance, lets visitors time travel through the centuries in ten neighborhoods. A bench near the display on the mission era plays a snippet of devotional music when visitors sit in it.

Another interactive exhibit explains the environmental change that turned the Los Angeles region into an annual fire hazard, where invasive, non-native species edged out native, perennial grasses—a process accelerated through “cow poop,” in the words of the museum. This particular display is aimed at one of the museum’s most faithful audiences—little boys.

“We really had a great time,” says Hardin. “There are all these small delights.”

The Natural History Museum's new exhibit on Los Angeles includes four galleries of cultural artifacts.

Posted 7/10/13

L.A.’s biggest science project ever

June 13, 2013

Natural History Museum “citizen science” yielded the first L.A. sighting of this gecko species. Photo/Gary Nafis

When the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County launched its recent renovation, one of the goals was to make room for more science. Turns out it also made room for more scientists—of the backyard amateur variety, no lab coat required.

With the addition of the new Nature Lab and Nature Gardens as part of its centennial celebration,  the museum’s growing involvement in so-called “citizen science” projects has gained new prominence, enlisting Southern Californians by the thousands in projects to catalogue the region’s biodiversity.

From insect counts to inventories of freeway roadkill, the museum has more than a dozen initiatives that are either ongoing or in the works now in which the public is playing a key role in the study of wildlife in Los Angeles County.

“It’s like crowdsourcing, and it can be an amazing resource,” says Lila Higgins, manager of citizen science and live animals at the museum.

Also known as participatory science, citizen science has become increasingly common as technology has made it easier for scientists, professional and amateur, to share observations and collaborate.

“In some ways, it isn’t new,” says Greg Pauly, curator of herpetology at the Natural History Museum, noting that volunteers at the NHM’s Page Museum have been helping process fossils for many years. “But with the Internet and smart phones and other digital devices, anyone can, say, photograph an organism and send it over the net to be included in scientific research. And people of all ages can help that way.”

Worldwide projects, such as the extraterrestrial life site SETI@Home, and the ornithology database eBird, have been reaching out to the public for more than a decade, and the Natural History Museum has been among the local pioneers of the concept. As far back as 1994, for instance, museum ornithologists enlisted the public in a study of feral parrots in Southern California.

The California Parrot Project, which is still ongoing, asked birdwatchers to let the study’s organizers know about local parrot sightings, and eventually yielded one of the first reliable counts of the numbers—upwards of a dozen species—of parrots breeding in the wild here, says Kimball L. Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the museum.

“It was extremely primitive—we’d mail out newsletters,” says Garrett. “But all this research from the mid-1990s gave us a baseline to figure out whether these populations are expanding or contracting now.”

Of the museum’s current batch of citizen science projects, the oldest is the 11-year-old Spider Survey, which asks the public to collect spiders in their homes and gardens, take down some data and bring or send what they find to the museum, Higgins says.

“At the time, it was the cutting-edge thing,” she remembers. “We launched it in 2002 at the museum’s Bug Fair, and the first week, a thousand spiders came in.”

Since then, some 6,000 spiders have been sent into the museum from throughout Los Angeles County; among the project’s findings was the first sighting of a brown widow spider in L.A.

“We’re a port city with people and goods coming and going on a daily basis, and with them, creatures sometimes hitch a ride,” Higgins explains.

Other citizen science projects have yielded even more exciting data. In 2010, Will and Reese Bernstein, a father and son from Porter Ranch, submitted a photo of a tiny reptile they’d seen at a backyard dinner party to the museum’s Lost Lizards of Los Angeles project. The critter turned out to be the first documented discovery of a Mediterranean House Gecko in L.A.

Although the non-native gecko (also known as Hemidactylus turcicus) has been spotted in the southeast United States, the L.A. sighting was so significant that the Herpetological Review plans to publish the finding this fall, says Pauly: “So Reese Bernstein, who is 12 years old now, will already have published a paper in a scientific journal.”

In April, the Lost Lizards project turned up yet another out-of-state reptile, an Indo-Pacific Gecko that was found in a backyard in Torrance. The project has been so successful, in fact, that it’s being expanded to include amphibians.

Greg Pauly’s Lost Lizards of Los Angeles project worked so well that it’s expanding. Photo/SoCal Wild

“Maybe you see a turtle at the park, or an alligator lizard in your yard, or maybe a salamander in the Santa Monica Mountains,” says Pauly. “You submit a photograph of it to our project, and that data will be available to scientists for generations to come.”

Coming up will be the citizen science component of Bioscan, a 3-year look at, among other things, the diversity of Los Angeles insects. Project Coordinator Dean Pentcheff is looking for a homeowners willing to host bug traps in their backyards and volunteers willing to sift through the take, sorting beetles from butterflies. A special side project in August will count bugs drawn to porchlights.

“We’re about three months in,” says Pentcheff, “and already we’ve found new species unknown to science.”

Pauly, the herpetologist, says such projects are especially important in places like Los Angeles County because the interface between the wilderness and the expanding urban landscape is on the cutting-edge of science these days.

“When you ask people here where they go to see nature, they say things like, ‘Sequoia’ or ‘Anza Borrego.’ But we’re surrounded by incredible diversity, and you don’t even have to leave L.A.”

The California Parrot Project was one of the museum’s early citizen science initiatives.

Posted 6/13/13

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