This Is How LACMA Buys Art
“This is how we buy art, this spring ritual, the frenzy of buying art," said Michael Govan to the group of Los Angeles County Museum of Art supporters known as the Collectors Committee at 9 a.m. this past Saturday morning. Most of the collectors had barely put down their cups of coffee when nine curators began their hard sells.
LACMA celebrated its 50th anniversary this past spring by receiving 50 major donations—including the promise of media mogul Jerry Perenchio's vast collection—but usually they have to sing for their supper. Almost literally. The Collectors Committee weekend is part game show, part art history class, and part curator cage match.
Here's how one of the most unique and colloquial weekends in the art world plays out: collectors buy into Friday night dinners with scaled membership fees ranging from $15,000 to $60,000 (those joining at the highest level received a Helen Pashgian print). The dinners are held at local notables' homes, like New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch, finance executive Kelvin Davis, and Twin Peaks alum Kyle MacLachlan who staged a Shakespearean performance on his Elizabethan grounds.
The Committee dinner fee money gets pooled, and then nine LACMA curators make their pitches the next morning. Finally, there's a lavish dinner with a live auction called by to raise more for the pool, and then the 79 Collectors Committee members vote for what to use the funds on. Also, at any time, collectors can donate money towards a particular piece, consortiums can be arranged to buy pieces, or collectors can buy works outright for the museum.
The weekend isn't the only time the museum collects works, but it is a time when curators try to get help funding pet projects that might be just outside the institution's financial reach. Many big ticket and million-dollar items have been added to LACMA's collection as a result of the weekend, including a major work by Sam Durant, Christian Marclay's The Clock, and important pieces by James Turrell, Do Ho Suh, and Agnes Martin.
“The light goes on and you realize why my museum would be enhanced by this purchase," said Ann Colgin, the Napa Valley vintner who is credited with revitalizing the committee weekend, turning it from a daylong event into a weekender.
Aspen collectors Richard and Kitzia Goodman kicked off the frenzy with a rare early surprise announced during the pitches. They dropped $170,000 to buy the museum a series of 22 prints by Iranian photo-manipulator Siamak Filizadeh, presented by Linda Komaroff, curator of LACMA's Art of the Middle East department. “I don't know why it connected with us," Richard Goodman told me.
“We aren't necessarily collecting Middle Eastern art," said Kitzia Goodman, "but there was something about these photographs that were so luxuriant, and it's work from a place we don't get to interact with that much."
The next lot to go was the Mike Kaplan movie poster collection, made up of 880 rare vintage movie posters. Kaplan had promised the museum half of the $4 million collection. Wolf of Wall Street producer Riza Aziz ponied up $1.1 million to go along with the $1 million he'd already pledged. LACMA director Michael Govan revealed that Aziz was to have hosted a dinner the night before, but had been held up in Europe—the $1.1 million was a mea culpa.
Head of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and Prints and Drawings Department, Britt Salveson, who pitched the collection, told me Aziz has been pivotal in building up LACMA's graphic design collection. I asked her why LACMA's new neighbor, the future Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, hadn't added the posters to their already vast poster collection. “They are getting ready for their opening [in 2018]," she said. “So we thought, we should go and get these instead of allowing them to go up for private auction, god forbid."
After the first course (arctic char cooked by chef Joachim Splichal), Viveca Paulin-Ferrell, who calls for Los Angeles Modern Auctions, led a live auction. Lots included a private party for 30 inside the currently-on-view Rain Room, a getaway to LACMA redesign architect Peter Zumthor's cabin in the Swiss countryside, and a private performance by Lionel Richie, which went to a pair of L.A. collectors at the front table for a hefty $260,000. Actor Will Ferrell surprised Paulin-Ferrell, his wife, by bidding $35,000 on a Jonas Wood drawing of a potted plant. “Happy birthday," he mouthed from the audience.
“Thanks," she said. “Now people are to embarrassed to bid more, because Will bid."
By the end of the live auction, the Committee had amassed nearly $1.7 million to spend on $3.9 million in art—including a Claes Oldenburg “Typewriter Eraser," Idelle Weber's pop art masterpiece Jump Rope, and 150 videos from Electronic Arts Intermix. Voting commenced in between courses two (basil risotto) and three (carved tenderloin of beef paired with a Colgin “Jubilation" merlot), led by new LACMA trustee Ryan Seacrest. “Thank you for letting me host," The former American Idol host quipped. “I was out of a gig last week. Now text 1-866-IDOLS-01 if you'd like to vote for Taylor Hicks." He even threw in an “…and the winner iiiiis" before announcing the Oldenburg had been selected by the Committee on their electronic voting devices.
Stephanie Barron, who for 40 years at LACMA has not been known for suffering fools gladly, told me LACMA would have to put a plaque next to the piece explaining what the device was, which was quotidian when Oldenberg developed it as a subject in his work in the 1960s. “It's interesting to see how technology changes for such a simple act," she said, before demonstrating to me how one would use a typewriter eraser.
Rita Gonzalez, who has been filling in as the head of Contemporary Art at LACMA following Franklin Sirmans left to direct the Pérez Art Museum Miami late last year, had a compelling pitch for the EAI films of the early 1970s, featuring early works from Hannah Wilke and John Baldessari, William Wegman's first dog art, and a video of Carolee Schneeman in “meat clothes 50 years before Gaga," said Gonzales. “But the Joan Jonas videos are my favorite. And I'm working with Ant Farm."
“It was the beginning of the medium," I overheard Govan telling a small group including Will Ferrell, who nodded studiously. “These artists had to beg, borrow, and steal to get a camera."
And of course, perennial Collectors Committee star Robert T. Singer, head of Japanese Art at LACMA, delivered an exceptional performance. A pair of zen paintings of oxen from the 19th century were what he deigned to add to the department's collection—he underscored their importance and previewed a show he's planning called “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art," for which these screens would be the centerpiece. He also hilariously pointed out a female oxen's “round, soft, demure shape. And great eyelashes."
The piece was the second to go during the voting process, giving Singer 24 successful bids in the 25 years he has presented at the Collectors Committee.
In the end, seven out of the eight pieces (a Delacroix still life proved to be a bit too expensive at $1.6 million) were acquired for the museum, a total of $6.4 million worth of art, by far a new record for the museum.