In a moment that reflected pride in an ancestral homeland, the yet-to-heal wounds of a genocidal campaign and the successful integration of a diaspora into American culture, dozens grasped gold shovels in Central Park on Sunday, July 11, and tossed some fresh soil onto the grass.
As the dignitaries did so, dozens of white doves were released and flanked an audience of more than a thousand people who heartily cheered as ground was officially broken for what will become the Armenian American Museum and Cultural Center. The future landmark will begin construction at the site after the park is formally closed at the end of this month.
In crediting all involved in the ambitious project that has been planned since 2014, Executive Director Shant Sahakian recalled the proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”
“Today also represents what our community can accomplish when we are working together with united mission and united purpose,” he told the crowd on Sunday. “This museum is your museum. It is our accomplishment. It is our historic moment to celebrate today.”
The two-story, 50,820-square-foot institution will rest atop the park site, in effect forming a campus with Glendale Central Library and the Museum of Neon Art at the southeastern edge of City Center. The endeavor has garnered more than $14 million in capital, including $8 million in funding from the state (largely through the advocacy of state Sen. Anthony Portantino, who sported an Armenian tricolor necktie on Sunday) plus $1 million from Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger through her discretionary funding.
As for the largest donations from private parties, Kevin and Alexia Kevonian of the family behind Armen Living made a personal contribution of $1 million, as did the Arakelians, who own Athens Services.
Congressman Adam Schiff, who spent most of his career in Washington advocating for formal U.S. recognition of the early 20th century Armenian genocide, announced later in the week that he helped secure $950,000 in federal funding for the institution.
“Museums play a central role in shaping our society, educating current and future generations and bringing together people of all backgrounds,” Schiff said Sunday. “This unique and first-class education and cultural center will not only inform the public about the history, culture and heritage of the Armenian people, but will also encourage people to see the cross-cultural connections and embrace the diversity of the United States by sharing the Armenian American story.”
Additionally, the project is benefiting from a makeover of the site by the city in 2019, the waiving of permit and plan-check fees and a $1-per-year lease agreement for the park.
“This project will be an arts and culture destination for residents and visitors from throughout the region and from around the world. The Armenian American museum represents an invaluable investment in arts, in culture, in education and in this community,” Mayor Paula Devine said Sunday. “In moments like this, I think about our Glendale students and students around the world. I think about your children and your grandchildren and the thousands of visitors who will stand where we stand today for years to come.”
The fruition of the museum represents an enormous victory for members of the Armenian diaspora, whose population significantly exceeds that of their nation-state in large part due to the scattering effect of the genocide — beginning in 1915, the then-Ottoman Empire began an extermination campaign that killed more than 1.5 million Armenians and drove countless others from their ancestral land. Significant populations have since settled in Lebanon, Russia, Iran, Syria and the U.S., including California, where they have gained significant political influence in enclaves like Glendale, North Hollywood and Fresno.
“Truly,” Schiff said, “your story is an American story: persevering and building something amazing, anew.
An Armenian American, George Deukmejian, was the 35th governor of California, a role he assumed after serving as the state’s attorney general. In Glendale, three people of Armenian descent sit on the City Council, four are members of the school board, and many others hold administrative roles in each operation. Adrin Nazarian, who also lobbied for state funding, represents the Sherman Oaks area in the state Assembly.
Event host and Glendale native Ellina Abovian, an Emmy-nominated KTLA Channel 5 reporter, noted that when immigrants such as her family relocated to Glendale it was “quite clear that we did not blend in.”
“Armenians decided to stay true to themselves and to build upon this community, add to this community and be part of the fabric of what makes Glendale so special,” she said. “We started as humble immigrants here, trying to learn the language, but now when I look around, we have Armenian Americans servings at top ranks within our cities. That is an amazing accomplishment in just a few generations.”
In illustrating the community’s social achievements, Abovian recalled being recruited by KTLA, a process that in her interpretation was motivated by not just her successes but also a recognition of how important representation is in Southern California.
“It was for three simple letters: i-a-n,” she said, triggering applause. “Your representation is now needed. Representation is something we’ve talked a lot about over the last year, and we understand how important it is. This museum will be a shining beacon of hope.”
The museum will include an auditorium, demonstration kitchen and other learning centers, and also permanent and temporary art and educational exhibitions. On-site researchers also will maintain archives and conduct additional study of the Armenian nation.
Councilman Vrej Agajanian said in the days leading to the groundbreaking that he pondered how Ottoman Turkish leadership considered staging a museum exhibition depicting a single Armenian, presumably after carrying out its destructive campaign against the ethnic group.
“I was thinking how different this is going to be,” he told the crowd. “This will be a museum for all of those to remember what happened to Armenians and to be able to show what we have accomplished. There will not only be one Armenian in the museum — it will be a museum for everybody, for good-hearted people of the world to come here and see our accomplishments.”
Abovian considered how, as a journalist, her job is to tell stories, and in reporting on her own community that means reporting a lot about Armenians’ past.
“We as Armenians have a lot of wounds,” she said. “Some of our wounds go back more than a hundred years. Some of our wounds, we felt just last year. Some of the wounds, we’re feeling right now. But I strongly believe that in order to heal, we have to focus on building.
“Our history runs very deep — deeper than our wounds,” she added. “Our history is very rich, and now it will be on full display, for anyone who visits this city, to experience it, to see it and to carry it with them.”
The nation and diaspora are still reeling from a 44-day war last year in which Azerbaijani forces invaded and ultimately seized control of much of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which had operated under an autonomous government since 1994 after the Armenian population there attempted to secede from Azeri control. Although Armenia-backed forces had repelled Azerbaijan’s military from the region after a four-year war, it remained unrecognized as Artsakh by the globe and was always considered sovereign Azerbaijani territory. That it fell under Azeri governance to begin with is a relic of the Soviet Union’s imperialism, which often redrew individual republic boundaries to sow ethnic division.
“After the devastation to our people last year, the need for cultural preservation is imperative now more than ever,” observed Alexia Kevonian, whose family made the $1 million donation. “That need can be met right here, on this soil beneath your very feet. This museum will be us — all of us, our Armenian American life on display.”
Proportionally, the loss of more than 4,000 Armenian soldiers during this most recent conflict equated to the U.S. losing a half-million people, Councilman Ardy Kassakhian said. More positively, Kassakhian observed that the groundbreaking took place during his favorite Armenian holiday — Vardavar — in which celebrants throw and spray water on each other to observe the transfiguration of Christ. Armenia was the first country to establish Christianity as its religion.
“How appropriate is it that we are here today on Vardavar to consecrate this ground,” he said, “to put our shovels in the dirt and say that we are ready to do the work to make sure that this nation of young, hardened, tough people will not perish from this earth?”
Cheekily, Councilman Ara Najarian considered the likelihood that government operatives in Baku and Ankara — the capitals of Azerbaijan and Turkey — had tuned into the livestreamed ceremony, “stomping their feet, clenching their fists in disappointment,” as if to say, “Look at these damn Armenians.”
“We can make our fists, too,” Najarian said, speaking into the camera. “When we make our fists, we say, ‘Getseh Hayastan, getseh Artsakh!’” — long live Armenia, long live Artsakh.