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Peggy Guggenheim wasn't just outrageous and flamboyant, she was a true art patron

These days, it seems that the notion of a collector is someone who buys and spends. Real estate mogul Eli Broad is a collector and patron because he owns more than 2,000 works of art and recently opened a private museum. Connecticut publishing honcho Peter Brant is a collector and patron because he owns more than 1,000 works and he's opened a small exhibit space in which to see them in his backyard. Greek industrialist Dakis Joannou has more than 1,000 pieces of art (including 40-plus works by Jeff Koons) and he is therefore also accorded with the prestigious appellation of collector and patron.

But a true patron is one who does more than simply buy. And seeing the new documentary on New York heiress Peggy Guggenheim's life, "Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict," serves as a good reminder of just that. 

Certainly, when it came to 20th century art patrons, there wasn't anyone else quite like her: determined, flamboyant, the kind of woman who took lovers openly and casually — among them the playwright Samuel Beckett and the surrealist Max Ernst (whom she later married and divorced). As she described herself in a public radio interview in 1969, "I've always been considered the enfant terrible of the Guggenheim family."

But Guggenheim was more than just a bon vivant. Born into a wealthy, high-profile German Jewish family in New York at the turn of the 20th century (her uncle Solomon was the mining magnate who founded the Guggenheim Museum), a conventional path for Peggy would have been to marry a nice mogul and settle into a life of socializing on Park Avenue.

Instead, she decamped to Europe, where she hung out with the surrealists, palled around with Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton and ran a gallery in London called Guggenheim Jeune. These experiences made her a keen supporter of the arts — one who went beyond simply buying up canvases. (Though she did do plenty of that, too.)

When World War II brought her back to the United States in the early 1940s, she opened the highly influential Art of This Century gallery in Manhattan. This ground-breaking space — with its zany curving walls — served as an important point of connection between American artists and prominent European exiles. It was also the place to see important American painters early on in their careers: Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Willem De Kooning, among countless others. 

For Guggenheim didn't simply buy up artists' works, she supported and promoted them at crucial points in their careers — often when they were still nobodies. Most famously, she took on Pollock, who was then working as a carpenter at her uncle's museum, and gave him an allowance so that he could focus on painting. She commissioned a mural-sized work from him to show in her home (which was on view at the Getty Museum last year). And she gave him his first solo show. She did all of this when it was nowhere near certain that Pollock would be an artistic success.

The new documentary on her life, ably directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, is a reminder of what an engaged patron Guggenheim was. At one point in the film, an interviewer asks her what the role of her gallery was in the realm of American painting. "To give birth to it," replies Guggenheim. "I was the midwife."

Beyond that, what makes the documentary a winner is an intriguing cache of previously unheard interview tapes that Immordino Vreeland tracked down via Guggenheim biographer Jacqueline Bogard Weld. Weld, the author of 1986's "Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim," had spent hours interviewing Guggenheim, along with more than 200 of her friends and associates, but had somehow misplaced the tapes.

Immordino Vreeland found them in a shoebox in Weld's basement. It was the longest interview that Guggenheim had ever done — and it is this audio that serves as the spine of the film. Peggy Guggenheim is the subject of myriad art tomes and biographies. But this audio represents a bonanza.

I did a public radio documentary about Guggenheim and her gallery for WNYC in 2010 — and one of the challenges I faced was that good audio of Guggenheim was in short supply. The Weld tapes offer a much more complete picture, in her own candid voice, of the high-profile collector and patron. In them, Guggenheim is smart, funny, playful, catty and incredibly frank.

She describes getting married for the first time, to painter Laurence Vail, so that she could lose her virginity. She recalls her flight from Europe at the dawn of World War II, her burgeoning art collection obscured as household goods so as not to arouse the suspicions of the Nazis. And she describes the seminal show of her collection at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1969. "My uncle’s garage," she cracks, "...all that circular business is the way garages are built in Europe."

Toward the end of the film, Weld asks the elderly Guggenheim if she misses the days when she would listen to Ernst and Breton expounding on the topic of the day. "No," she replies matter-of-factly. "I wish I were young enough to have lovers."

The documentary is a sympathetic portrait of a figure who was resolutely herself — at a time in which women weren't encouraged to be so. Thankfully, another essential aspect of her character wasn't simply that she just bought works of art, but that she was passionately invested in the artists who made them. At a time when collecting is all about high-profile buying, "Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict" reminds us that a true patron brings much more to the table than just money.

"Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict" debuts at the Landmark Nuart Theatre on Friday at noon. Filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland and LACMA curator Stephanie Barron, along with producers Dan Braun and David Koh, will participate in a Q&A after the 7:30 p.m. show on Friday. Producers Braun and Koh will also appear after the 7:30 p.m. screening on Saturday. 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, peggyguggenheimfilm.com and landmarktheatres.com.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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