Manhattan Beach couple opens new art museum in El Segundo

From the Daily Breeze, by By Kristin S. Agostoni, January 24, 2013:

It seemed an unlikely place to display art - a strip of land sandwiched between El Segundo's old Main Street post office and an El Tarasco restaurant.

But Brian and Eva Sweeney saw the possibilities, and just about a year ago the Manhattan Beach couple got started on a major construction project. They converted the former 15-foot alleyway and a 10-foot-wide piece of the now-closed post office into a building with a soaring ceiling, burnished white concrete block walls and rooftop "solar tubes" that send sunlight pouring through.

Fencing has shielded the new building's facade for some time, leaving passers-by to wonder what was taking shape behind it.

But this weekend the public will get its first look at the new El Segundo Museum of Art - ESMoA - a new attraction in the city's downtown that will initially rely heavily on the couple's personal art collection in exhibitions.

"What we like about this property is, it's right on Main Street," said Eva Sweeney, 42, an architect who helped design the tall space that measures a mere 25 feet across by 137 feet deep. "It becomes part of an urban setting."

The museum at 208 Main St. opens at 10 a.m. Sunday for its first exhibition, Desire, which will display works by impressionist painters, realists, pop artists and many others, including Christo, Gustave Courbet, Camille Corot, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissaro, Alex Katz and more. The focus is on the human desire to keep nature pristine while struggling to live sustainably.

Admission to the museum is free, and not just on Sunday; that's a promise the couple has made to patrons who visit during regular hours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

As part of the celebration this weekend, ESMoA will offer activities such as a scavenger hunt and kid-friendly drawing project. By 2 p.m., visitors will be able to build mock galleries and create and arrange original artwork.

That all seems to fit with the Sweeneys' goal of creating a "laboratory" and "functional art space" - one that not only displays pieces, but encourages a dialog and cultural exchange among visitors.

The museum also includes a second-floor artist-in-residence space.

It's not like the Sweeneys set out to build a museum in downtown El Segundo when they began scouting the city's nearby Smoky Hollow industrial section for storage space.

Brian Sweeney, 51, is a real-estate investor concentrating on commercial sites, including El Segundo's former eastside fire station property that he plans to develop with a 7-Eleven, Farmer Boys restaurant and other retailers. He was also involved a decade ago in buying prime coastal properties and later selling them to conservation groups.

Sweeney said it was his wife and her brother, Bernhard Zunkeler, who sparked his interest in art. Before he married Eva, with whom he has three young children, his collection at home was mostly nonexistent.

"Bernhard, between him and my wife, they worked me hard," Sweeney said. "We started acquiring I'd say about five years ago. We could fill up a number of exhibitions."

As they expanded the collection, which today includes about 400 pieces, the couple considered building a storage area in the alleyway next to the post office building that Sweeney had purchased as an investment.

But with former El Segundo Mayor Eric Busch, who'd been contacted by the Sweeneys' Realtor, they came up with a different plan for the small piece of property.

"We started chatting about it and, after kicking that ball around for a while, we thought Brian may think about opening it up to the public," Busch said.

The couple's decision was made easier by the fact that Zunkeler is an artist and curator who is active in Berlin. He's also the project development director for artlab21, an arts foundation in Germany and Los Angeles that the Sweeneys established a few years ago. The nonprofit foundation will operate their new museum.

Zunkeler, who with his sister was raised in Bochum, Germany, will help produce four exhibitions per year. The idea is to display pieces from the Sweeneys' collection with others, and eventually evolve so that other curators participate.

Zunkeler sees El Segundo as a perfect spot for the museum, given its location near major freeways and its diverse mix of businesses - from the sprawling Chevron refinery and other industries in gritty Smoky Hollow to toymaker Mattel and the aerospace companies occupying land on east side of Sepulveda Boulevard.

"I think El Segundo has a lot of potential for creativity. ... It's a place with so many people with specialities," Zunkeler said. "It gives you the perfect mix of being in a big city but acting locally."

And another benefit is the nearby beach - which the museum plans to use next month for its second public art "experience." Anti-Ark, which will be based upon paintings by German artist Michael Sistig and feature a sculpture of an emaciated polar bear, is meant to spark discussions on climate change and sustainability. It opens on Feb. 8.

Sweeney was vague about how much the couple has spent developing the museum, but said their investment is "into the millions."

Former Mayor Busch sees the finished product as a valuable addition to the downtown and a chance to spark creativity in residents and businesses. He'll have an easy time getting there; Busch and his wife own Electric Bikes LA just across Main Street.

"I think there's a lot of opportunity for ESMoA to make a significant beneficial impact on our community. It's great to see," Busch said. "What a gift."