LACMA’s Latest Art Treasures
By Catherine Taft
LEFT: The nearly 10-foot-tall Elevator Surround that Louis Sullivan designed in 1892 for the Chicago Stock Exchange Building. RIGHT: Speechless, from the series Women of Allah, by Shirin Neshat, 1996.
Great works of art should never compete for a viewer’s attention. Yet this premise becomes complicated when a group of truly remarkable and distinguished artworks must share a gallery, not to mention the prospect of finding a future home. Such was the case late this April when 10 singular objects were gathered for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's 2012 Collectors Committee Weekend, a high-profile annual fundraiser aimed at growing the institution's permanent collections.
Carefully installed in the light-filled, third-floor Jane and Marc Nathanson Gallery of LACMA's Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the 10 works—each from a different period, in discrete media, and boasting various provenance—came under the scrutiny of an excited group of powerful patrons. A monumental screen print by Robert Rauschenberg occupied prime real estate on 60 feet of the gallery's back wall; echoing the scroll-like print, a vitrine housing a 12th-century Chinese manuscript was strategically placed nearby. On another wall, a striking 1996 Shirin Neshat photograph played against the decorative lines of a Louis Sullivan elevator panel from the early 1890s. Across the space were equally rare and important works by, among others, German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer, Beat Era visionary Bruce Conner, and reputed 18th-century Mexican painter Nicolás Enríquez. In short, this year's prestigious Collectors Committee had some very difficult decisions to make.
Now in its 27th year, LACMA's Collectors Committee has grown to include 17 new memberships and a handful of corporate members such as Sotheby's, Christie's, J.P. Morgan, and Cartier. An impressive group of supporters, the committee of 79 member couples is made up of LACMA board members, young art collectors, industry magnates, actors, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and the like. The weekend has matured to include a series of intimate dinners with celebrity chefs and vintners, a breakfast (after which curators present the proposed acquisitions), a luncheon, and a gala dinner prepared by chef Joachim Splichal, which culminates in a live auction and a vote on how to spend the acquisition funds.
But at the core of the parties and fine dining remains a dedication to LACMA's mission for collecting and presenting significant works of art from a broad range of cultures and historical periods. During one of the museum's largest annual fundraisers, this only happens through the generosity of its committee members. "People want to have fun, and when they have fun, they become more involved," says Ann Barry Colgin, a museum trustee who is now in her fourth year of chairing the Collectors Committee Weekend. She adds, "The best thing we've been able to do in the last few years is to expand our audience. We have a lot of new people who joined this year or who came back from last year and that has been great. This weekend really gives people a connection to the art."
Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg director—the happy beneficiary of the weekend's largesse—draws attention to another focus of the fundraiser. "The event is as much about curators as it is about artworks in the sense that [for some works] you have decades of research assembled here by a small subset of our curators. It's very much about them and their passions." Indeed, the 10 works under consideration reflected a wide breadth of expertise, each object posing a different urgency to become part of the museum's permanent holdings.
On the morning of April 21, the curators had the chance to make their own pitches for the new acquisitions. Presenting a $1.2 million Venetian Renaissance canvas by Paris Bordone (a work once owned by The J. Paul Getty Museum), J. Patrice Marandel, Robert H. Ahmanson chief curator of European art, implored the committee to "bring this ex-California girl back to Los Angeles." In an equally stirring appeal, curator Wendy Kaplan, department head of Decorative Arts and Design, quoted Frank Lloyd Wright to describe "the erotic of the mind that was Louis Sullivan's ornament." She then compared the elaborate iron elevator panel to an incomplete version in MoMA's collections, adding that this potential LACMA piece would be "an excellent deal."
Stephen Markel, Harry and Yvonne Lenart curator and department head of South and Southeast Asian Art, even had a necktie made to match the chintz pattern on the 18th-century Indian writing desk he endorsed. Describing the Rauschenberg print—the last work of its kind being offered by the artist's estate—Britt Salvesen, curator and department head of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and Department of Prints and Drawings, appealed, "This is one of Rauschenberg's major statements, so the opportunity to bring in a work on this scale is incredible. We have a significant collection of Rauschenberg prints, but we don't have this one."
"We wish all of the works could get acquired," says Govan. "That has happened a couple of times but would be difficult in this case because it's a lot of money." At the beginning of the weekend, the committee had already raised $1.1 million net from membership dues, a pool of funds that would be augmented by a live auction chaired by trustee Suzanne Kayne. Says event auctioneer Viveca Paulin-Ferrell, who serves on several LACMA councils, is a LACMA trustee and an art auctioneer trained at Butterfield & Butterfield, "You need someone to bring the money in, so I'm happy to draw on my background to sell more things so we can buy more art."
Eight lots—ranging from private musical performances and hosted parties to a guided day trip to the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a week in Phuket, and a commissioned portrait by photographer Sharon Lockhart—were auctioned off during a particularly exciting portion of the gala dinner, ultimately bringing the weekend's grand total to more than $2.8 million. Paulin-Ferrell adds, "The committee members always keep their bids under wraps until dinner comes and the wine starts being poured. That's the moment when bidding wars can happen." And, not surprisingly, several healthy scrimmages developed, with Steve Tisch bidding against famed restaurateur Michael Chow for a selection of large-format bottles from participating Collectors Committee vintners and a competitive sale of a one-of-a-kind portrait by Lockhart, ultimately won by Paulin-Ferrell's husband, actor Will Ferrell.
In addition to these efforts, some charitable committee members donated additional funds earmarked toward specific acquisitions—in one case for the entire cost of an artwork to be purchased in advance of the voting. Trustee Jamie McCourt purchased Shirin Neshat's photograph Speechless ahead of time, which as Govan notes, was the only work by a female artist up for consideration. And a consortium of seven purchased Bruce Conner's film piece, Three Screen Ray, a wildly flickering composition with a sound track by Ray Charles, during the voting. These moves were reminiscent of last year Collector's Committee Weekend, which saw trustee Steve Tisch purchasing Christian Marclay's The Clock, a blockbuster, 24-hour-long, cinematic montage that has drawn thousands of visitors to the museum in the past year. "Works of art work in different ways," says Govan, "and the reason that a great work of art is great is that it lasts a very long time, extending its reach. My hope is that, like the Marclay, a work such as the Albrecht Dürer engraving can still be ‘playing' at LACMA well into the future."
As a result of the committee's vote, seven of the 10 proposed objects will soon be displayed at the institution, with the Dürer, the Rauschenberg, the Sullivan, the Enríquez paintings, and a rare 12th-century Buddhist sculpture rounding out the treasures. Lynda Resnick, LACMA trustee and chair of the board's Acquisitions Committee, perhaps best reflected on this triumphant event, its careful process, and the incredible importance of the committee members and their vote: "Even though [my husband and I] have our various genres that we collect, we don't collect everything. So when we come to LACMA, it is a great education," she says. "If you believe in lifelong learning, then LACMA's the place to be. Today, you're really the curators. Here, you have these fabulous objects before you, and you get to curate what the museum keeps. That's a powerful message."
Photography by Amy Dickerson