It once seemed like a herculean, if not insurmountable, challenge – raising $600 million or more for an ambitious modernist building to serve as the new home for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Skeptics abounded when plans were first announced three years ago. But momentum now seems to be shifting in LACMA's favor with the announcement this week of two major donations that will push the fundraising campaign near the halfway point.
Elaine Wynn, who is one of the world's top art collectors and became a museum co-chair last year, has pledged $50 million to the project. At the same time, former Univision chairman A. Jerrold Perenchio has promised $25 million. Combined, it amounts to the largest monetary donation in the museum's history.
"Everything that is new and fun and earth-shattering is happening in L.A., and we want to be the bellwether of all that energy," said Wynn, who co-founded Mirage Resorts and Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas with her former husband, Steve Wynn.
The new pledges are contingent on the successful launch of the new Peter Zumthor-designed building project, which begins the environmental review process this summer. If all goes as planned, construction would begin in 2018 and be completed in 2023. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors previously approved $125 million for the project.
If completed, the new building would rank as one of the most important works of architecture to be built in Los Angeles since Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in 2003. Local leaders see Zumthor's sleek design as crucial to lifting LACMA to the top ranks of the world's art museums.
It will also serve as a much-needed overhaul, replacing four of the museum's seven buildings, which have fallen victim to time and disrepair.
With an emphasis on glass and transparency, and a layout that would spread the museum's footprint over Wilshire Boulevard, the new building is intended to energize the campus and provide a visitor experience that is both inviting and architecturally innovative.
Wynn said her $50-million gift was inspired by Perenchio's decision in 2014 to pledge the bulk of his private art collection to LACMA. His collection has an estimated value of $500 million.
"He was the first one to have the guts and nerve to make the commitment. He deserves all the credit," she said.
While Wynn has long been associated with Las Vegas, she is now a part-time Angeleno, with a residence in Beverly Hills.
"My children and grandchildren live there. … I've always loved L.A. I consider it to be a suburb of Las Vegas, but Las Vegas is really a suburb of L.A."
Perenchio, an entertainment industry veteran who rose to the rank of chairman of Univision Communications, said in a separate interview that he normally donates anonymously but wants to encourage others to support the project.
"The old buildings are that — they're old buildings. Great art has to have a great place to be displayed," he said, adding that the new building is important for the city and that he is "optimistic and bullish" that the museum will reach its goal.
Previous estimates had pegged the building at $650 million, but the museum said on Wednesday that the projected cost now stands at $600 million.
A LACMA spokeswoman said the figure is an estimate only and that the final cost can vary. She said the difference of $50 million represents "what we're budgeting for contingencies. The museum is working hard to keep the costs as close to $600 million as possible."
With the new pledges from Wynn and Perenchio, and the county money, LACMA said the total amount committed for the project now stands at $275 million.
Michael Govan, LACMA's director, said in an interview that he is extremely optimistic that the balance will be raised.
"I am positive — that's how optimistic I am," he said from London, where he was traveling on business. "I think the time is right. The board and the public are excited. In a sense, these [new] gifts give me this confidence."
He said that the museum faced skeptics early on in the campaign, but the new pledges exhibit "resolve and momentum."
Museum construction projects frequently go over budget as unforeseen developments tend to push costs up.
Keeping the LACMA building in line with estimates is something the board and other museum leaders have spent a great deal of time discussing, said Tony Ressler, who serves with Wynn as a museum co-chair.
"We spent an enormous amount of time on this process, pricing this effectively," said Ressler, who is a co-founder of the financial firm Ares Management. "For what it's worth, we're confident that we will bring this in on time and budget. These guarantees are dangerous to make, and I don't make them … but we have spent the time and effort [on this]."
Taken as a joint pledge, the $75-million gift from Wynn and Perenchio ranks above any single monetary gift in LACMA history, according to data provided by the museum.
Other significant gifts include $50 million from Eli and Edythe Broad, and $45 million from Lynda and Stewart Resnick — the latter of which was made in 2008 and resulted in the Resnick Pavilion, designed by architect Renzo Piano.
Many of the museum's top supporters have given continuously over the years, with their cumulative donations exceeding any single gift.
L.A. doesn't have the same art-focused philanthropic base as that of New York, but there have been a number of notable cultural gestures over the decades. The most significant is the nearly $1.2 billion that the Getty Trust received in 1982 from the estate of the late J. Paul Getty, making the institution the richest art museum in the world.
The Broads have spent and pledged at least $340 million toward their new contemporary art museum in downtown — $140 million for construction and $200 million toward the endowment.
Museums often court major collectors in the hopes of securing art from their private collections. As with the Perenchio bequest, which will take effect after his death, a major gift of art can be a windfall for a museum that could not afford to purchase them on the open market.
Three years ago, Wynn purchased a Francis Bacon triptych of paintings depicting Lucian Freud that broke auction records at $142.4 million.
"When I purchased the triptych, it was always my intention, if my financial condition was unchanged, to give it to the rest of the world," said Wynn. "Where it resides is still to be determined, but it is my hope and desire to be the last private owner."