Christopher Knight wins Pulitzer for art commentaries
Los Angeles Times writer earns 2020 award for criticism
It wasn’t necessarily the $750 million price tag that made Christopher Knight, MA ’76, shake his head at the renovation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He felt the project’s proponents were focused on the new design at the expense of the artworks the building was intended to house.
As art critic for the Los Angeles Times, Knight used his column inches to make that point, creating a series of commentaries that helped him win the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
“The project had been underway for more than a decade, and almost all the attention was focused on the [building’s] aesthetics,” Knight says. “What had emerged, however, was that the plan would also radically alter the art museum’s established program. That feature of the project, which I think is most important, had received almost no public scrutiny. I was thrilled the Pulitzer citation says my columns demonstrated ‘extraordinary community service by a critic.’”
The museum, which opened in 1965, is encyclopedic, collecting art from all global cultures, ancient to modern. Knight says the virtue of such a design is that it joins the cultures in one place, reflecting the urban environment in which the museum is situated.
The campus is being demolished and the new building, Knight says, won’t allow the museum to grow as its collection expands. Going forward, the main collection would be the basis for constantly changing exhibitions. Satellite locations would open around the city, breaking the collection up. Through his columns, Knight wanted to change the conversation about the project and have the public see all the potential impacts.
“I knew that changing the conversation would not be easy, because a museum program is an abstract idea while the aesthetics of the building are shown in renderings that draw attention,” he says. “I had written three or four things over a number of years before this group of pieces, and demolition day for the project was fast approaching. But the controversial building design kept getting all the attention. So I realized it would be necessary to ‘flood the zone’ if the conversation was going to be changed. I decided to watch events closely and write off of the unfolding news.”
Knight had been nominated for a Pulitzer three other times, and this was the first time he won. The award recognizes Knight for his work on the museum commentaries as well as several exhibition reviews. Art critics rarely win a Pulitzer, and it’s even rarer for someone outside the Northeast to win the criticism category.
“We all know the old jokes about Los Angeles,” Knight says. “Tinseltown, where culture only exists in yogurt. So it’s a bonus to have that old-fashioned cliché challenged. In the 1980s, I was recruited by The New York Times and Newsweek in Manhattan, but I’m glad I stayed here in Los Angeles. Growing with the art world here, which is now a global powerhouse, has been a blast.”