Donald Bren on his love of art


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Donald Bren, head of the Irvine Co. real estate firm, is the wealthiest man in Southern California and one of its more generous philanthropists -– but is also one of its least-known, with a well-established reluctance to talk to the press.

But when he opened up in a series of recent interviews with the Los Angeles Times, one of the surprises was that this 78-year-old businessman has had a serious, personal passion for art for more than six decades.


It dates to his teens, when his stepmother, the Oscar-winning actress Claire Trevor, brought him a signed Matisse poster from a trip to Europe. Trevor was very plugged in to the East Coast art scene when she married Bren’s father, and she knew many artists in the New York School of abstract expressionists. She introduced her stepson to them and their work, creating in him a lifelong love of that period.

“She was interested in all forms of art and she told me, ‘Donald, you have a curiosity about art ... you should broaden that,’” he recalled. “And for a while I didn’t know quite what she meant about that, but she was right. She got me started through art posters and I’d put them up on my wall at college and they’d always brighten my day. That was really the start of my interest in art.”

These days, Bren works with the Orange County Museum of Art and he’s given millions to the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UC Irvine. He’s also on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“That is a growing museum, and I think this new director is going to take it somewhere,” he says of LACMA and it’s director, Michael Govan. “I think that is going to grow into a true world-class museum. It’s not quite there yet, but it will be.”

Bren’s own collection of art hangs on the walls of his homes and at the Irvine Co. headquarters. Much of it was purchased early in the careers of the painters, and Bren has a particular fondness for work from the 1944-1984 period.

One of his favorites is the late Richard Deibenkorn, a Californian known for his abstract and figurative expressionist work. And in the room where Bren’s top executives meet for a weekly lunch is a large Peter Alexander painting, an aerial view of the approach to LAX.

“I collect a few things,” Bren says, “but what I’ve found is that you simply can’t collect them all. The most important part is having the knowledge and the appreciation.”

-- Scott Kraft