July 19, 2013
Following the response to a recent article discussing the pending sell-off of a portion of the Petersen Automotive Museum’s holdings and the museum’s transformation, Terry Karges, the museum’s executive director, offered some clarification regarding the cars that the museum will sell and museum’s future plans.
Hemmings: There seems to be some confusion, prompted by the Los Angeles Times piece, on changes coming to the Petersen Museum. You’ve said that the museum won’t change its focus, yet you’ve also expressed a wish to “transform the museum inside and out.” Is such a transformation possible without a shift in focus?
Karges: First, the transformation is as much about the space as the museum itself. The building we’re in was originally constructed as a department store, not a museum. It was converted into a museum in 1994, but think of what has changed, technology-wise, in 20 years. To broaden its appeal, the museum needs to modernize, with things like interactive exhibits, while expanding to include more galleries. We’d like to see things like a motorsport gallery, a biography gallery addressing those significant to the history of the automobile, and an advanced technology gallery that shows where the automobile is heading. We’d like to offer more adult education programs as well, focusing on things like the future of automotive design and the future of automotive journalism.
As for changes, let me be clear that we are not going away from our current focus. Bruce Meyer was one of Robert Petersen’s closest friends; he’s still on our Board of Directors, and he would never allow the speculated changes to occur. While we are looking to re-invest in our collection, our goal is to do so with a focus on car culture in Los Angeles.
Hemmings: Our readers have expressed a fair amount of concern about the Petersen becoming dominated by French cars. While it’s logical to share cars from the Mullin Museum, French cars have not played a major part of Los Angeles’s automotive culture. What are your plans in regards to this?
Karge s: Whil e we’d like to see more than an occasional exchange of cars with the Mullin Museum, our focus will be on far more than just French cars. There’s a bigger story to be told in the evolution of automotive design, encompassing things like the art deco movement and streamlining, and relating this involves French cars, but it also involves German cars and American cars, too. We recently brought in consultants from the art museum world and asked them what is special about the Petersen. Their response was “the story of the cars is what is magic,” and we need to do a better job in telling that story.
Hemmings: Part of what makes the Petersen unique is its “Main Street” diorama exhibits. Is it possible to preserve the spirit of these displays while modernizing the museum to include more interactive exhibits? Will the transformations result in a different direction for displays?
Karges: The diorama format is 50- to 70-year-old display technology; it’s an existing set that can’t easily be changed. Galleries with rotating exhibits and interactive displays are a far better way to tell the story. What leaves a more lasting impression: seeing a car that topped 200 MPH on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, or experiencing what it was like to drive that car at speed at Le Mans?
Hemmings: In a radio interview you stated that the 30 percent number (in regards to the portion of the holdings to be sold off) isn’t accurate, yet the numbers (12 cars that sold at Gooding Amelia Island plus 137 apparently consigned for the Auctions America Burbank sale, out of 410 total in the museum’s possession) seem to indicate otherwise. Can you address this?
Karges: It’s the policy of the Petersen’s Board of Directors that we don’t comment on the sale of assets. I can confirm that some have been sold and some are scheduled to be sold, but it is not the 30 percent number than has been reported. Some of the vehicles sold were donations and not part of the collection, but to address an ongoing concern of readers, those donating cars can specify that their gift may not be sold. It is then up to the museum on whether or not to accept the donation under these terms. This has become an issue, I believe, as the Petersen has not previously sold cars in its 20-year history. The cars being sold, however, are not essential to the stories being told or the stories that we’d like to tell in the future. In some cases, as with the Bugatti Veyron, upkeep was cost prohibitive. It costs $30,000 per year just to maintain a Veyron, and Peter Mullin has two in his collection. Borrowing one is a far more cost-effective to owning one. In the case of the Edwards America Coupe, the costs of restoration to transform the car into a museum-quality piece were simply too great. In any case, even with the cars we’re selling, the museum is still short on storage space.
Hemmings: In 2011, the museum received a gift of $100 million from Margie Petersen and the Petersen Foundation, reportedly to enhance the museum’s collection, curatorial expertise and exhibitions. Why not use this money to fund the renovation instead of selling off a sizable part of the collection?
Karges: The $100 million often quoted is more than a little misleading, as that number includes the building, part of the collection and an endowment of $30 million. The annual proceeds from the endowment aren’t sufficient to run the museum; in fact the majority of it goes to maintenance and repair of the building itself.
Hemmings: In the radio interview, you stated that it was a “curatorial decision” on which cars will be sold and which cars will remain. Who, ultimately, approves this decision and what is it based upon?
Karges: Following a review of all cars in inventory, the decision was made by our curator, members of our Board of Directors and myself. Essential cars were kept; we have nine AMBR (America’s Most Beautiful Roadster) winners in our collection, and they aren’t going anywhere. Duplicates and cars that would not be part of current or future displays were marked for sale. We are also fortunate to have our Checkered Flag Club members, who have the ability to track down cars as needed for on-loan displays. We’re confident that we’ll be able to borrow cars we don’t already own to tell the stories we need to tell.
Hemmings: Future tech and alternative fuels seem to play a big role in the museum’s future direction, yet there are very few aspirational electric / alternative fuel cars on the market today. How can you portray this segment while still maintaining the museum’s focus?
Karges: Southern California is the home of clean cars, and the Petersen already has one of the largest collections of alternative fuel cars, dating to the early 1900s. We’ve got wood-burning cars in the collection, hydrogen-fueled cars and electric cars. Alternative fuels are nothing new, and they’re essential to telling the complete story of the automobile.
Hemmings: One of the wilder rumors we’ve heard in recent days is that the Petersen acquired Juan Manuel Fangio’s Mercedes-Benz W196 racer. Any comments on this?
Karges: In my wildest dreams! We’ve been trying for years to get the Silver Arrow racers on loan, but haven’t been successful. As much as I wish we were, the Petersen is not in position to spend $29.6 million on a single acquisition.
Hemmings: What type of cars will the Petersen look to acquire in the future?
Karges: This will be a mixture, but it depends upon what cars are relevant and interesting and what stories we want to tell. Currently our focus is on cars built in Los Angeles, as well as Hollywood cars and celebrity cars. At one time, 90 percent of the cars run in the Indianapolis 500 were constructed in Southern California, but there’s no reference to this in any other museum. Personally, I’d like to see us acquire more muscle cars, too.
Hemmings: Any parting thoughts on the future of the Petersen?
Karges: To clarify a few things, Peter Mullin’s role as Chairman is not new; he was Chairman of the Board a few years back. Bruce Meyer served as Chairman for some 10 years, and we’re extraordinarily lucky to have both men on our board. Many of the same guys who got the museum started are still in place, which makes the idea of such radical change seem almost absurd.
The Petersen Museum as you know it is not going away. We’re expanding on it, we’re improving the facility, we’re working on more outreach and we’re updating our collection. We’ve grown from 40 annual special events a few years back to over 100 today, and our attendance numbers are trending upwards. The changes planned, which we’ll detail at Pebble Beach on August 18, will improve the museum experience for new visitors, which account for 70 percent of ticket sales today, while hopefully increasing the number of repeat visitors.