Petersen Automotive Museum Reopens After $90 Million Revamp

Courtesy of Peterson Automotive Museum
"Precious Metal" exhibit at new Petersen Automotive Museum

Sheathed in love-it-or-loathe-it swirling stainless steel and Ferrari-red aluminum, the museum sheds its dowdy image in a glamorous reboot.

The Petersen Automotive Museum — once as dowdy as a DeSoto and traveling an uncertain path — reopened Monday following a controversial $90 million, 14-month renovation meant to place it within aesthetical hailing distance of next-generation Los Angeles art institutions, such as downtown's Broad Museum and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

"We have transformed what was once an old department store into one of the most groundbreaking structures in Los Angeles," Terry Karges, the Petersen's executive director, said Dec. 3 at a press preview at the museum.

Situated across the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, the Petersen opened in 1994 in affiliation with car-magazine publisher Petersen Publishing and, over the years, has suffered from a blurry mission statement and spotty attendance (not to mention infamy; rapper Biggie Smalls was assassinated while departing a party at the museum in 1997).

The new Petersen's swirling aluminum and steel exoskeleton — a metaphoric manifestation of wind-tunnel slipstreams and meandering roadways — has polarized locals and stands in striking contrast to the modest office buildings nearby, including the complex housing The Hollywood Reporter's headquarters.

"We looked at the aerodynamic quality of the car and the notion that a ribbon could express that," Gene Kohn, president of the Kohn Pedersen Fox architectural firm that designed the museum's exterior, said during the preview.

Fabrication of the 308 interlocking steel and aluminum ribbons comprising the exterior was outsourced to Zahner, a Kansas City, Mo.-based engineering firm that specializes in unorthodox metal structures and worked on New York's September 11 Museum. The result recalls Bejing's Bird's Nest stadium from the 2008 Olympics and "represents speed, motion and the fact that the car is also a work of fine art," said Kohn.

The museum's interior was gutted and redesigned by The Scenic Route, a firm specializing in museum installations and set design (it handled the staging for Elton John's "Million Dollar Piano" residence in Las Vegas). Three floors with 90,000 square feet of exhibit space joined by a spiral staircase are devoted to galleries that will transform as cars are rotated out of the museum's fabled downstairs vault. By changing the exhibits often, it is hoped that the Petersen will have more dynamic attendance than in the past, said Scenic Route's Brittanie Kinch, who worked on the project.

"We really, really want repeat customers," Kinch told THR. "The only way to do that is to have new content, so we designed the spaces to be flexible."

The third floor, formerly occupied by the museum's administrative offices, now showcases the history of the automobile, along with a collection of cars used in movies and television. Among those currently on display are the 1965 Lincoln Continental convertible driven by Drama in Entourage; Walter White's hapless 2004 Pontiac Aztec from Breaking Bad; and a 1979 VW Microbus, with its famously malfunctioning horn, from Little Miss Sunshine.

The second floor emphasizes design and technology. Attendees can watch students from Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, a hotbed of car innovation over the past decades, work on future designs. The Pixar Mechanical Institute display features characters from the Cars franchise and a full-size Lightning McQueen to explain how a race car's engine and transmission actually operate. Also on the second floor, and an example of the thematic possibilities afforded by the new museum's flexible gallery spaces, is Precious Metal, a stunning exhibit of cars ranging from a 1959 Corvette XP-87 Stingray to one of the Aston Martin DB5s driven in the 1964 James Bond classic Goldfinger — all of them painted a luminous silver. 

On the first floor, an exhibit of "art cars" commissioned by BMW, including a 1995 BMW 850 CSI painted by David Hockney, along with a salon filled with sumptuous bespoke Bugattis and other rarities from the Art Deco era, some culled from Petersen board chairman Peter Mullin's extensive collection, would seem to fulfill the new Petersen's ambition to be more than a diversion for gearheads. "We want the people who are not car people — people who wouldn't ordinarily think an automotive museum would be their destination," said Kinch.

"One of our goals was: Let's the take the ground floor and dedicate it to cars as an art form," Mullin told THR. "The automobile became art a long time ago but wasn't recognized as art."

Mullin added that while the original Petersen "was a very good local museum, our aspiration is to be a global museum — meaning cars from around the world."


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