Los Angeles art collectors Alan Hergott and Curt Shepard began acquiring works as a couple in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, homing their sights on works that dealt with gender and queer identity.
That meant acquiring photographs by Catherine Opie, whose visceral portraits explore questions of sexuality, or by the British duo Gilbert & George, known for creating brightly patterned, graphic works that naughtily fuse pop, religious iconography and homoeroticism.
Today, these artists and their works are part of mainstream discussions about art and its history. But in the early ’90s, Hergott and Shepard’s focus on gender and identity was often dismissed in art circles.
“Too niche, too gay, too twee, too tritely sexualized,” recalls Hergott of some of the reactions they received. “There was a lot of critical opinion that art and politics were strange, if not inappropriate bedfellows.”
A lot has changed.
Over the nearly three decades that the two have been together, Hergott, a prominent Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer who serves on the acquisitions committee of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, and Shepard, who serves as chief of staff at the Hammer Museum, have built a significant collection of some 200-plus paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations that explore one of the burning issues of our age.
“Alan — and then Alan and Curt together — were prescient in recognizing the importance of thinking about masculinity and alternative sexualities in the 1980s, well before the reemergence of the term ‘queer,’” says Richard Meyer, an art historian who teaches at Stanford University and is co-author of “Art and Queer Culture.” “I admire them for sticking to their guns about collecting this work, long before such an approach was embraced by museums and blue chip galleries.”
Now Hergott and Shepard are donating a sizable portion of their groundbreaking collection, 22 pieces — including works by Opie and Gilbert & George — to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s the single biggest donation of art to MOCA since retired television executive E. Blake Byrne donated 123 works in 2004.
This donation comes on top of 18 other works that the couple have given to the museum over the years — high-profile pieces by key 20th century artists, including installationist Mike Kelley, painter Lari Pittman, photographers Andres Serrano and Hiroshi Sugimoto and the prominent conceptualists John Baldessari and Bruce Nauman.
“We’ve told dealers and artists for years that our entire goal was to be able to give it away to a museum or museums,” says Hergott.
Shepard says the gift was motivated by a desire to support an important Los Angeles museum in its mission. “I think this is a demonstration of a kind of commitment,” he says. “It’s making a statement about the importance of supporting public institutions.”
It’s a statement MOCA director Philippe Vergne is happy to hear.
“For me, the gift is important on so many different levels,” he says. “Even before talking about the collection itself, it’s the impact the gift will have. I see art patrons who have been deeply involved in the art community here and and internationally and are showing their trust in MOCA.”
And it comes at an important moment for the museum, which is righting itself after the troubled tenures of Jeremy Strick and Jeffrey Deitch.
More significant is the nature of the works being donated.
“They were extremely deliberate to pick and choose works that would complement what MOCA already has,” explains Vergne, “or in some cases it’s given MOCA access to work that we couldn’t access for financial reasons.”
He cites the 1989 piece “Burning Sky World” by Gilbert & George, a photographic collage that checks in at a height of nearly 8 feet, and features a repeating pattern of a man, a sunset and a church interior, in a way that evokes stained glass. The artists have been the subject of solo exhibitions at institutions such as the Tate Modern in London and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.