CULVER CITY, Calif. — The Bhagavad-Gita Diorama Museum is not easy to find. It is hidden down a passageway in the Hare Krishna temple complex on a side street in Culver City. Though a sign outside advertised the museum as open, the front door was locked one fall morning; it took five minutes for a worker to arrive and reveal its warren of 11 dioramas depicting Hare Krishna history.
The Martial Arts History Museum, 22 miles away by car in Burbank, is more conducive to a visit — it’s on Magnolia Boulevard, one of the main thoroughfares in the San Fernando Valley — but at 2,000 square feet, it is so cramped that the museum has turned away buses of schoolchildren who wanted to view, among other artifacts, a headband worn by Ralph Macchio in “The Karate Kid Part II.”
“This is the first and only museum of its kind, can you believe it?” said its president, Michael Matsuda. “The only one in the world that covers all the martial arts.”
Over the past decade, Los Angeles has emerged as a global arts center, renowned for such prominent museums as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Broad and, most recently, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. But less visible is an extensive and important network of smaller museums, catering to niche audiences interested in topics ranging from olive growing to the Garifuna people of the Caribbean.
These museums, hundreds of them, reflect the idiosyncrasies and specialized interests of their founders while offering a window into the ethnic, cultural and historical diversity that has come to define Southern California.
“These alternate spaces have transformed L.A.,” said Jordan Karney Chaim, a contemporary arts historian in San Diego.
The variety and breadth of museums in Los Angeles reflect the overall expansion in the art scene here that began in the 1970s, when space was more plentiful and rents were lower.
Many are little known for a reason: They have odd hours, barely advertise their existence or are the passion projects of one or two people, with no paid staff. And many of them are not trying for mass-market appeal. There are museums devoted to skateboarding, tattoos, automobiles, bunnies, neon, sneakers, aviation, citrus trees and the Salvation Army.
Todd Lerew, the director of special projects at the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, has spent the past eight years trying to visit every museum in the region — 760, by his estimate. He has chronicled his first 650 visits on a spreadsheet and is preparing a book on his discoveries.
“I take an obsessive approach to all of my interests,” said Lerew, who often drives as far as 200 miles in a day. “When I want to know something, I want to know everything.”
His estimate reflects an expansive definition of Los Angeles — in this case, the entire metropolis, …….