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LACMA curators lobby for new pieces at Collectors Committee event

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Nine o'clock on a Saturday morning might seem a tad early for an art opening, but this one, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is particularly spirited.

About 200 people -- trustees, patrons, museum curators and others, some of whom have flown in from Dallas and New York for the event -- stream into the lobby of LACMA's Resnick Pavilion, where a range of works have been staged across three galleries.

At one end, a dapper man in a plaid sports jacket inspects an 18th century painting by Antonio de Torres, “Virgin of Guadalupe,” with a magnifying glass (plucked from a bowl of them at the exhibit entrance). Nearby, a couple from London huddles over a 3,300-pound, lavender-hued chunk of cast glass by Roni Horn, its polished surface reflecting slivers of the passing crowd.

CHEATSHEET: Spring 2014 arts preview

One nook features Feng Mengbo’s wall-length interactive video game involving a Chinese soldier fighting off Russian tanks with explosive Coca-Cola cans. Museum director Michael Govan’s 9-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, in a sundress and hot pink glasses, is planted in front of the immersive installation, gripping the game control, transfixed. “Nooo, you gotta be kidding me!” she yells, tufts of smoke and fire rising up around her. “What kinda game is this?!”

Yup, another Collectors Committee. "She comes every year,” Govan says. “This year I told her there’d be a surprise. She loves that the art moves.”

Saturday was the first full day of the museum’s 29th annual Collectors Committee weekend, an event that LACMA calls “a celebration of art, food and wine” and that Govan once referred to as "the 'American Idol' of the museum world." It’s one of the museum’s biggest fundraisers, to which participants, or "committee members," pay $15,000 to $60,000 for a weekend of festivities and the opportunity to vote on which artworks -- from a short list developed by LACMA curators -- should become the next acquisitions for the permanent collection.

Christina Yu Yu, assistant curator of Chinese art, selected the Mengbo video game for Collectors Committee consideration. “It looks like just a fun game, but it has all these historical references to China in the 20th century,” she says.

The weekend kicked off Friday night with seven lavish dinners at private homes around the city, catered by celebrity chefs and prominent vintners such as Josiah Citrin of Mélisse, Nobu Matsuhisa and Gregorio Stephenson of Nobu Malibu, and Beth Novak Milliken of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery. Judging from the recaps overhead in corners of the room Saturday morning, the night before got lively: Dinner at producer Steve Tisch’s home evolved into a full-on disco party; musicians from the USC marching band showed up at the home of businesswoman Jamie McCourt.

ART: Can you guess the high price?

Saturday morning, nine works on display at the Resnick are all on the ballot. The list includes the Pablo Picasso drawing “Bull and Picador,” a Japanese “Pair of Guardian Lions” from the 9th century, and Mitra Tabrizian’s large-scale photograph “Tehran, 2006.”

Voting took place Saturday evening at a gala at the museum. The exhibition was a chance for participants to ogle the works in person, confer with one another over the nearby buffet, and listen to a hard-sell presentation given by museum curators. Each curator has five minutes to convey his or her passion for the piece and persuade the room why one particular work should earn a vote over the others.

Funds come from the 87 couples who bought tickets to this year's Collectors Committee event, as well as from a live auction that takes place at the evening’s gala. That’s typically enough money to acquire about half of the works being presented, says the museum’s deputy director for art administration and collections, Nancy Thomas. If the museum is lucky, as in years past, individuals might step forward during the gala and sweeten the pot by pledging additional funds or by offering to buy outright one of the works, as Tisch did in 2011 for Christian Marclay’s “The Clock (2010).” Last year LACMA raised a record $3.2 million that went toward acquiring eight of nine proposed artworks.

“What I love about this event is everyone is so involved,” says Ann Colgin, event chairwoman for the last six years. “A contemporary collector will suddenly get excited about something from the Japanese curator from the 9th century. Also, since we’ve introduced the food and wine element about six years ago, we’ve been able to reach newer and younger [Collectors Committee participants]. We have 23 new members this year.”

Despite the jovial atmosphere, however, Collectors Committee weekend is serious business for LACMA curators, Thomas says.

“It’s the best opportunity throughout the year to acquire new works,” she says, “and because the amount of money is finite, there is competition. They want their pieces to be recognized and acquired.”

Jarrett Gregory, associate curator of contemporary art, put up the Horn glass work for consideration.

“When you know the artist, it especially feels like there’s a lot at stake,” Gregory said. “We have so many stupendous male artists ... but I was thinking about some of the important female artists I look up to.”

Curator and Department Head of Japanese Art Robert T. Singer has an estimable track record at the event. This is his 25th time pitching during a Collectors Committee weekend, and he’s had works purchased 23 out of 24 times.

The secret to his success? “When I see the piece for the first time, they have to call CPR. Because my heart is beating that fast,” he jokes. “Don’t overthink it; it has to appeal to you, not the audience you’ll be pitching to."

After all nine presentations are over, Govan makes an announcement of good news: Museum trustee Tisch, who is not in the room, has donated a third of the price tag on the Horn piece, which is $950,000.

What’s more, Collector Committee members Jill and Dennis A. Roach have offered to buy the Tabrizian photograph outright, which is $40,800.

There’s an uproarious round of applause in the room. The 29th annual Collectors Committee games are clearly underway. Check back with Culture Monster for results from the acquisitions voting.

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