The Petersen Automotive Museum reopens today in Los Angeles after a 13-month closure and a $90-million top-to-bottom renovation. The dramatic exterior is the first, vivid clue to the changes: Wrapped with 308 undulating, steel ribbons, the hot-rod red building looks like it’s wearing racing stripes and traveling at 100 mph, leaving streaks of glowing tail lights.
The new model Petersen is more than the ultimate man cave: It’s also the culmination of efforts by several ultra-successful, car-loving businessmen to preserve and advance knowledge of what they call the most complex, profitable and beautiful pieces of human-engineered art–cars. And trucks and motorcycles, too.
Twenty-five new galleries contained in three themed floors explore in interactive, multimedia exhibits how cars are built, raced, adored and driven into our collective consciousness. Cutting-edge projectors, speakers and lighting put visitors inside the action–whether it’s the cockpit of a racecar or inside a chase scene in a Hollywood blockbuster, such as the latest James Bond epic, “Spectre.” Ten racing simulators in the Microsoft/Xbox Forza Experience room put users on a virtual race track.
Some of the biggest names in the world of automobile collecting, racing and publishing are behind the Petersen’s creation and recent transformation. The late Margie and Robert E. Petersen built a publishing empire of auto enthusiast magazines and converted a ‘60s-era department store into the Petersen Automotive Museum in 1994.
In 2013, auto enthusiast and philanthropist Peter Mullin rejoined as chairman of the Petersen board to oversee the museum’s 21st-century overhaul. Mullin is also known for amassing a fortune in insurance and spending chunks of it on exotic French cars and the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, north of Los Angeles.
Mullin is sharing his collection with the Petersen, which displays the Talbot-Lago 150 and the Bugatti Atlantique, considered among the world’s most beautiful. Through past philanthropic efforts, Mullin significantly financed the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which now has a glass-walled satellite studio at the museum.
A longtime board member, Petersen Vice Chairman and real estate investor Bruce Meyer is among the world’s most well-known auto enthusiasts and collectors. His Bruce Meyer Family Gallery opens with an exhibit called Precious Metal, which marks the most expensive gathering of cars in the museum’s history–an estimated $120 million total, with several valued in the tens of millions each.
Michael Armand Hammer, the newest Petersen board member and the grandson of Armand Hammer, former Occidental Petroleum Corporation chairman, also heads the Hammer Foundation and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, which houses the family art collection. Hammer’s Petersen gallery is devoted to cars used as canvasses for art. It opens with BWM Art Cars and will rotate a selection of the rolling artworks, beginning with those by David Hockney and Alexander Calder.
For budding car fans, the museum partnered with “Cars” movie maker Pixar Animation Studios on a new, interactive exhibition, the Cars Mechanical Institute, which explains helpful things such as how brakes, suspension and engines work. Another high-tech touch is a new app that allows visitors to take self-guided tours by smartphone or tablet.
The racy and now controversial exterior of the museum was designed by New York architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (MOMA’s latest renovator). Co-founder Eugene Kohn imagined the building at the western gateway to the Museum Row district on Wilshire Boulevard as a literal–and figurative–monument to the auto.
The bold design has some sneering, including Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne who called it “happily tasteless.”
Yet inside the museum during a long-awaited preview open to sponsors and press, those concerns evaporated like a Ferrari’s vapor trail. L.A. is, at its heart, a car town.