LACMA's star-jammed Art + Film Gala and how it signals a turning point for the museum and the city

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s sixth annual Art + Film Gala got off to a glamorously languid start.

Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” installation glowed brilliantly against an inky blue sky, creating painterly palm tree silhouettes along Wilshire Boulevard as a stream of black cars rolled up to the museum, depositing art world and fashion figures, civic leaders and A-list celebrities onto the red carpet.

Then came the scream. 

The communal, cacophonous cry came from across the boulevard, a greeting from the mostly female fans of pop artist Børns as he appeared in a flowy, silk pantsuit.  

Photographers closed in around the star, flashbulbs popping.

“Gay-la? Gah-la? Which is it?” Børns asked, tucking a loose strand of hair behind his ear.

It was the 24-year-old’s first museum gala and he wanted to get it right.

Nearby, Salma Hayek and Brie Larson strutted inside the Burden installation, posing for photos between rows of lampposts. This party, it seemed, had officially gained momentum — not unlike LACMA’s fundraising itself of late.

The museum’s ambitious, $650-million goal toward a new, Peter Zumthor-designed building, set to break ground in late 2018 or early 2019, got a significant boost this week with the announcement of a $25-million gift from trustees Eric and Susan Smidt. Their gift puts LACMA’s fundraising efforts close to the halfway mark —  a celebratory milestone that was top of mind Saturday night.

The evening, co-hosted by Leonardo DiCaprio and Eva Chow, was in honor of light and space artist Robert Irwin and Oscar-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow.

Bigelow hovered in one corner, gently urging guests to try out the virtual reality headsets on display showing her documentary short, “The Protectors,” about rangers shielding African elephants from ivory poachers.

On the opposite side of the room, Irwin — dressed in faded blue jeans and a plain, navy baseball cap — hunkered down in a dark corner with his longtime pal, artist Ed Moses, consciously avoiding the limelight.

“I hate these things; they’re a pain,” Irwin said. “But I’m a real fan of Michael [Govan]. He’s really turned this museum around, from moribund to a major player. That’s why I’m here.”

“I’m just here to celebrate my good friend, we’re longtime companions in the art world,” Moses said, sliding back and relaxing in his wheelchair. “He was always a winner. Still is.”

Meanwhile, black-clad wait staff passed trays of hors d'oeuvres through the crowd, which included Gwyneth Paltrow, Zoe Saldana, Kate Upton, Jeff Koons and Ed Ruscha. 

Of the Zumthor project, wHY architect Kulapat Yantrasast — who is designing the Maricano Art Foundation’s upcoming museum  — said, “It’s really ambitious, it’s awesome. It’s really needed. L.A. is such a great architectural city —  we have land, the sky, openness. It fits.”

“We’re not halfway yet, but we’re close — and it’s a big deal when you get this close,” LACMA director Michael Govan said of the project’s fundraising. “It’s a signal that this is really happening. It’ll be a huge deal for Los Angeles, for the art world, for art and film.”

Laura Dern, who’s on the board of the upcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, seemed equally inspired about the future of culture in L.A. “I’m very passionately excited about what this campus is about to be in the next couple of years,” she said.

The opportunity to celebrate a strong, successful female artist such as Bigelow, however, got Dern even more revved up.

“I’m a great fan; and it’s particularly good timing, 10 days before our election, to celebrate females-first, she being one of them,” Dern said of Bigelow. “She’s a pioneer in the kind of voice she has as a filmmaker, in terms of her bravery politically, in terms of action, in terms of a genre of film people might have said would have been more known to men. It’s continuing to break through boundaries.”

Artist Doug Aitken was in good spirits, munching on hors d'oeuvres while making plans to scuba dive with his girlfriend Carmen Ellis — Aitken’s “Underwater Pavilions,” three underwater sculptures, is floating off the coast of Santa Catalina Island. But discussing Irwin’s work, he turned respectfully pensive.

“Bob’s so seminal,” Aitken said. “His innovation in the light and space movement really opened up many other artists, from James Turrell to Doug Wheeler. That whole idea of perception, of art going beyond materiality, it’s had a big influence. He’s such an incredible role model.”

Dinner for the nearly 600 guests was held in a translucent, temporary structure ensconced in silk flowers — poppies, hydrangeas, magnolias — all strung up on fresh greens that snaked up the glass walls and across the ceiling.

The arbor effect was a nod to Irwin. His evolving landscape installation, the “Primal Palm Garden,” which he began working on for the museum in 2010, surrounded the structure outside. The short, bushy trees and tall spindly palms were specially lit for the event, so that they appeared dusted with snow, and they were visible from every angle.

Addressing the crowd before a backdrop of his “Miracle Mile” installation shimmering onscreen, Irwin kept his remarks short. “At this moment, having talked everywhere, anywhere, at the drop of a hat, I have nothing to say other than ‘thank you,’” he said.

Bigelow was equally humble: “Public speaking is not my métier,” she said, before redirecting most of her remarks toward her mentor, conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, whom she met in New York in 1971 at an art opening. “Lawrence was so pivotal to my formative years,” she said, adding “He was such a tremendous friend and champion and supporter.”  

She credited DiCaprio with pointing her in the direction of her VR short, “The Protectors.” He “sent me on this path of, I suppose, a kind of philanthropy or awareness — there can be no change without awareness,” she said. “And before that, Lawrence, who sent me on the path of challenging yourself and why you’re doing what you’re doing. And trying to delay the extinction, sadly, prevent the extinction of a species is certainly a moral and ethical necessity.”

“Both of them are cultural heroes to me, great artists,” Jeff Koons said during dinner. “I’ve always loved Bob’s work, dealing with perception, light, the ethereal quality. It’s very spiritual. And Kathryn I’ve loved ever since I saw the film “Strange Days.”

The event, which raised more than $3.6 million for the museum’s film initiatives and future exhibitions, acquisitions, and programming, was in full swing by the time Børns took the stage during dessert to perform.

His cover of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” rocked the room. But when he launched into his hit single, “Electric Love,” the party’s momentum hit critical mass.

Koons bobbed his head and tapped his foot. “He reminds me of a really young Zeppelin,” he said.

Chow, in a mauve tulle Gucci dress, downright jammed to the music, swaying back and forth and clapping her hands. “Oh my God, I think he’s so talented, I just love him,” she said. “He reminds me of a young Robert Plant.” 

As Børns commanded the stage, backed by swirling blue and purple spotlights, guests table-hopped, danced and dug into a desert of sorbet-filled frozen fruit. 

“It’s a big moment, this is a celebratory moment,” board co-chair Elaine Wynn said, surveying the scene. She and the board, she added, were “gleeful” over LACMA’s fundraising success.

Philanthropist and former Univision CEO A. Jerrold Perenchio “is really deserving of the credit for coming forward first [with his gift to the museum],” she said. “And when I made my gift, it was my hope that it would be a signal of confidence as well. That was helpful in making everyone look around the table and say ‘Hey, this is something that’s happening now.’ It got the momentum going.

“That’s an overused word sometimes,” Wynn added, “but LACMA has momentum. We are on the fast track now. We’re absolutely optimistic, not even cautiously optimistic. This is can do L.A.”

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin

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