By Aram Arkun
GLENDALE — There are only a handful of Armenian museums in the United States, and as good as some of them may be, none can be considered influential major institutions in the American cultural landscape. An attempt to found a museum in Washington, DC, foundered due to irreconcilable disputes among donors. A new attempt to create a major institution, called the Armenian American Museum, is taking place in heavily Armenian-populated Glendale.
Its mission, according to its fundraising brochures, is “to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Armenian American experience.” Armenia American Museum Executive Committee Chairman Berdj Karapetian has been involved as a volunteer from the start of the project. Professionally chief executive officer of HiChoice Health Care, a firm providing health care facilities for seniors in Southern California, Karapetian has been the founding executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) and past executive director of the ANCA Western Region. At present he serves on the board of the latter body.
Karapetian said that unlike a Washington museum, “this museum is about Californians of different immigrant populations who have come to the United States and made this country what it is today. The Armenian experience will be its core component, the permanent exhibit, because the Armenian American community is the one undertaking this project.” It will attempt to teach Armenians and other Americans “how we survive in a demographically rapidly changing population, and offer Armenian experiences on survival and cohabitation.”
The Glendale location will allow large numbers of Armenians from California, as well as other groups like Latinos and Asian Americans to come and visit and learn from this experience, and, Karapetian said, “become more vigilant in protecting the rights of others not like them. That is why to us Southern California and Glendale make more sense than Washington DC.” For Armenians, Karapetian said, “one of the main goals is to perpetuate Armenian identity in the US—for my grandchildren to be able hopefully to walk into a place and experience what I had the fortune to experience by talking to my grandmother.”
Zaven Kazazian, a business consultant active in many Glendale philanthropic organizations and member of the Museum Executive Committee from its inception, emphasized that there will be an important place for the Armenian Genocide in this museum, though its focus is much broader. It celebrates the survival, success and the future of the Armenians.
The idea of this museum seemed to have germinated in the minds of many people around the same time, according to Karapetian, who stressed, “that is why we believe it will flourish.” In 2013, the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of the Western US (AGCC), a body incorporating representatives from most major Armenian organizations in Southern California, was looking for landmark projects with which to commemorate the Genocide centennial in a lasting fashion. Several people proposed a museum during brainstorming sessions, and a landmark subcommittee was formed.
At the time, the sale of the Glendale post office building, which appeared to be a suitable site because it physically had the traditional look of a museum, was being considered by the city. Though in the end the building was not available, this stirred interest further among Armenians. Representatives of the AGCC approached Glendale’s city manager and mayor in 2014. With the approval of these city officials, the AGCC formally adopted a museum project, along with the march for justice which ended up attracting some 166,000 participants.
In August 2015, a new separate entity was created as a spin-off from the AGCC, based on the same representative model, with various church denominations, and major charitable, cultural and relief organizations. At present, it includes the following ten Armenian-American institutions and organizations with a regional and national reach on its governing board: Armenian Catholic Eparchy, Armenian Cultural Foundation, Armenian Evangelical Union of North America, Armenian General Benevolent Union – Western District, Armenian Missionary Association of America, Armenian Relief Society – Western USA, Nor Or Charitable Foundation, Nor Serount Cultural Association, Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, and Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Karapetian declared that the inclusive nature of this board makes the project different from other Armenian community ventures. He said, “This is an undertaking of the collective of the community versus individuals with good intentions and money. It is an undertaking we really haven’t done in the US before, when we all come together to create something positive instead of reacting to emergencies, such as in Syria, Artsakh or Armenia. We feel therefore it will have a stronger grounding. All of us are vested.” Kazazian added that “we have a harmonious group of people.”
As the project progresses, Karapetian said, the present ten organizations might end up being a permanent board, with a larger board created with rotating seats for more individuals and organizations not on the permanent board.
Along with the present board, a group of volunteers which became called the Executive Committee was created. Kazazian said, “The museum’s governing board and the Executive Committee work hand in hand.”
Karapetian said he has devoted at least 20 hours a week for the last two years in the Executive Committee. At various times, part-time employees have been hired for data entry, management and correspondence. As part of the agreement with the city of Glendale, there used to be a community outreach coordinator.
At present, Kazazian said, office space is being established in the local YMCA building and a communications director is in the process of being hired. As more money is raised and the project expands, an executive director will be hired to oversee the entire project.
The present board is following the planning example of other museums such as the Japanese American or Korean American museums, and organizations like the American Alliance of Museums, which the Armenian American Museum joined, have provided useful guidance.
Karapetian explained that first, a museum development firm, in this case Lord Cultural Resources, is hired. This firm has some familiarity with Armenians through their work for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. It prepared a concept development plan, which includes steps like identify the property to be used, select an architect, carry out a financial feasibility study, complete a capital development campaign and engage a firm for a museum management plan.
The second major step necessary is an exclusive negotiation agreement with the city of Glendale. While city council members and Mayor Paula Devine have expressed support for the project in principle, the Armenian group must demonstrate that it has the means of developing the museum and the ability to manage it afterwards.
After an attempt to lease property next to Glendale Community College for the museum did not work out, the current negotiation agreement was signed in summer 2016. The city in March 2016 had already recommended a site in the heart of downtown Glendale near the corner of Colorado Street and Brand Boulevard, which would be attractive for both tourists and residents. Design, traffic, parking, economic and environmental studies (the latter by Meridian Consultants) have been commissioned by the city and the museum to help determine the scale and elements of the complex, which will require a new public parking structure. A ground lease agreement between the city and the museum board will be considered by the end of the first quarter of 2017.
Alajajian-Marcoosi Architects (AMA), a firm cofounded in 1986 by Aram Alajajian and Sako Marcoosi, was hired in 2015 by a special search committee out of the 26 architectural firms which expressed an interest in preparing a “concept design” for the museum. Alajajian worked together with world famous architects like Arata Isozaki on the Museum of Contemporary Arts in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and he and Marcoosi received an award in 2001 from the Vatican for their design of the Saint Gregory Armenian Catholic Church in Glendale.
Alajajian unveiled his firm’s contemporary looking vision at a meeting of over 400 community members on December 8 at the Brandview Ballroom in Glendale. The external design is intended to reflect the rock formations and mountains of Armenia and the San Gabriel Mountains to the north of Glendale, as well as mountainous regions throughout the world.
He later elaborated on the design, declaring: “Most of the time, you say form follows function, but in this case, it not only follows function but it follows the concept. The fragments shown on the façade of the building come together to form the mountain. They are the fragments of various communities living in Glendale and the US. The mountain is the symbol of their unity.”
The central skylight formed by all the fragments uniting brings daylight into the central lobby, which is three stories high. Armenians will be pleased that a symbolic wall within the lobby area has letters from the Armenian alphabet, which symbolizes the culture and identity of Armenia.
Alajajian said, “We tried to make this project as open as possible, with as much public space on the ground level as possible, and exhibition space on the second floor.” The auditorium, giftshop, lobby and common amenities are all on the ground floor. The glazing allows seeing through the entire lobby.
The third floor will accommodate archives, a demonstration kitchen, learning center and “back of the house” support facilities. An outdoor deck would be a multifunctional space accommodating sculptural exhibitions.
The functional structure, Alajajian said, does not dictate the use of the space. Instead, it gives you freedom and openness. There will be no columns, for example, inside. This flexibility will allow a variety of uses, as the artefacts and other elements to be showcased have not yet been finalized. Approximately 30 percent of the exhibitions will be permanent, and 60-70 percent will be rotating. The museum will be able to use the most advanced technology available for its exhibits, Alajajian added.
Karapetian stated that a survey of individuals who had come to the unveiling and gave their emails showed that an overwhelmingly positive response, with a response rate of almost 50 percent. Others wanted more of an Armenian identity reflected in the design. Karapetian pointed out that much will depend on where the major sources of funding will come from.
The initial seed money for the museum was provided by the 10 organizations on its board, but pledges have already been received from over 50 individuals promising 10,000 dollars each, and other smaller pledges have also been received. The museum is incorporated as a 501c(3) nonprofit organization, so that it can provide tax deductions in exchange for donations. Various Armenian foundations soon will be approached for funding for the following year. Furthermore, the state of California provided one million dollars in its 2016-2017 budget as a grant, some of which will be used for costs such as architectural fees.
The museum group did a study of Armenian philanthropic foundations and found that they alone have the capacity to donate five to ten million dollars a year, if they so choose. In addition, there are a number of multimillionaire Armenians. Theoretically, the financial capacity of the Armenian-American community to build such a museum exists, but in order to be more certain, the group will conduct a financial capacity feasibility study in the next six months.
Karapetian said that a serious effort will also be made to engage non-Armenian constituencies of the United States in the development and sustaining of the museum, by pointing out the benefits of the values of acceptance and collaboration of ethnic identities it will foster. In the next six months, he continued, efforts initially will be focused on the Filipino-American community, because it forms approximately 6 to 7 percent of the Glendale population, and try to develop a relationship with a museum in the Philippines to bring displays of culture there to Glendale. The Latinos form about 17 percent of Glendale, as the second largest ethnic group there after Armenians, so contacts are being made with various museums focusing on Hispanic culture. The Indians from the subcontinent are another important group that will be contacted. Korean Americans, a major population in Glendale, are creating their own museum nearby, so it is unclear to what degree they may wish to collaborate at present.
The Armenian American Museum’s financial capacity study will indicate what size museum can be built. The design at present is flexible. It is a pure square form, allowing a 30,000, 55,000 or even 75,000 square foot building by maintaining the same geometric proportions while expanding the size anywhere from 20 to 30 percent.
Approximately 20 percent of the amount raised for construction must be placed into an endowment fund to be an ongoing source of revenue for operating costs of the museum, which, like all museums, will run on a deficit. Thus, if, for example, it costs 20 million dollars to build, another 4-5 million must be raised beyond this amount.
Exhibition design and other aspects of the museum will require funding that will occur later, and may range from $2 to $5 million, depending on the size of the museum itself. This will in part also determine the contents of the museum.
As Karapetian put it, “one of the challenges will be what historical artifacts we can have in our possession. We are talking about having a depository to store and preserve things of a historic nature and not just rely on holographs or photos.” If finances permit, there will be a library, and scholars on staff. Some items, such as books, have already been offered to the museum.
However, he said, the board is coming to the conclusion that an interactive approach may be the most effective one for visitors. He said, “Emotions are created not just by seeing a fourth century replication of a church or alphabet, but finding yourself immersed in a situation where you are experiencing what individuals experienced in the past. For example, Armenia became an independent country at the beginning of the 20th century, in 1918. You might find yourself in the parade after the battle of Sardarabad, or find yourself in the rally in the Opera Square in Yerevan more recently, when they were asking for Artsakh’s liberation…those are the emotions that we want the museum to create in individuals in the future through the Armenian permanent section, so that they begin to feel what it is to be Armenian.”
After the museum’s financial study is completed, there will be focus groups and exhibition envisioning studies to determine what should be included in the museum. At this point, existing Armenian libraries and museums in the US as well as Armenian historians and other specialists will be more directly engaged in the project.
Meanwhile, from April to June 2016, the museum cosponsored a visiting exhibition in Glendale from the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia [Museum of Memory and Tolerance] in Mexico City called “Armenia: An Open Wound” with the City of Glendale Library, Arts and Culture Department. More than 3,000 people saw it.
Kazazian exclaimed: “The Brand Library based on their own count said they had the most number of visitors of any exhibit in the library. We proved that we can do it and sent a message to the city that such an exhibit was welcome.” Several local television stations came to report on the exhibit, which was accompanied by weekly programs. There may be future exhibits while the museum preparation process continues, according to Kazazian.
Outreach efforts will soon extend to Armenian individuals and organizations outside of Southern California. For more information on the museum, see www.armenianamericanmuseum.org.