The Van Goghs and Rodins of the world have museums to showcase their heart-stopping art. So why not the Bugattis and Ferraris? That was the simple premise behind the founding of Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum in 1994. Create a home for classic cars in a city that was defined by them. The late Robert Petersen’s life was catapulted to financial fame thanks to a small hot rodding magazine that blossomed into an empire, and he was eager to dedicate a space to celebrating the art and impact of the machines that were responsible for his success.
But despite a great mid-city location and the best of intentions, the museum’s road was a rough one. Initially linked to the city’s National History Museum, wildly optimistic attendance figures were never met and there was a feeling that the non-profit enterprise could founder. Those fears, however, have just vanished. Margie Petersen, Robert’s widow, recently announced a $100 million gift to the museum that promises to permanently anchor “The Petersen,” as it’s known among car enthusiasts, to the L.A. firmament.
“Margie’s gift is nothing short of spectacular, and it allows us to immediately institute our five-year plan,” says Buddy Pepp, the museum’s executive director.
Specifically, he says there will be a full-scale interior and exterior renovation of the Wilshire Boulevard property, a development team will begin looking into starting an endowment, and staffing requirements will be revisited, with the hope of boosting some frozen salaries and even adding a few new positions.
We are so auto-centric here in Southern California. Remember, where most cities grew up, into high-rises, we grew out, into suburbs. All thanks to the automobile. - Leslie KendallPepp says he doesn’t expect or need big increases in visitor numbers, which are holding steady despite the recession at around 160,000 a year. Admission is $10; the museum also buses in around 9,000 L.A.-area school kids annually at its own expense.
“The appeal of our museum is that it’s not just a bunch of cars stacked up like cordwood,” says Pepp. “We work very hard to display cars in context. We have the Hollywood Gallery, the Racing Gallery and even dioramas that explain the automobile’s role in the growth of L.A. We’re trying to show people history as much as the cars themselves.”
One thing that will not happen is the purchasing of more vehicles, at least for the moment. Currently the museum has nearly 400 classic cars in its vaults — from stately Duesenbergs to wild hot rods — and the $100 million adds “135 cars, plus it gives us ownership of the building we’re in and an undisclosed but substantial amount of cash,” says Pepp.
No one is more pleased by the gift than Bruce Meyer, a major car collector who has been involved with the Petersen since the day its doors opened to a curious public. He says he spent many years as the “ombudsman” between the Petersen and the Natural History Museum, where he was on the board of directors, which initially housed the collection before it moved a few blocks away into a former Ohrbach’s department store.
“Let’s just say that you either have cars in your DNA or you don’t,” Meyer says with a laugh. “If you’re the kind of person who has to ask what cars he needs in the collection, then it’s not in your DNA.”