Museum Donors Exhibit the Art of Giving


Philip and Beatrice Gersh collect art for an old-fashioned reason: They love the stuff. And they deal with their most valuable possessions in an old-fashioned way: They give them away.

As owner of a long-established talent agency and a collector for 35 years, Philip Gersh has had calls from studio executives seeking advice on how to invest in art. His answer: “We don’t buy that way. You have to buy because you love the art. If you are concerned about liquidity and investment, forget it.”

He and and his wife, who is a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art, are dismayed by wealthy collectors who cash in on their art at auction. “They don’t need the money,” Philip Gersh scoffed. “You hear that certain pieces have become too valuable to keep in private collections. If the art is so valuable, it should be given to museums. The more valuable it is, the more reason that a museum should have it.”


A few years ago, before the art market zoomed into the stratosphere and before the 1986 income-tax law reduced art donors’ deductions to the purchase price of an artwork, instead of the appreciated price, the Gershes’ attitude toward their collection was relatively commonplace. But the new tax law has reduced gifts of art to museums by 63%, a study by the Assn. of Art Museum Directors shows. At the same time, rising prices have shut museums out of the market. With paintings going for $20 million, $30 million, $40 million or even $50 million a pop at auction, generosity seems to be an idea whose time has passed.

“Is the ethic of philanthropy an archaic notion? I’m afraid that’s about 90% accurate,” Philip Gersh said. That fear is part of the reason for a current show of the Gersh collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition at MOCA (to March 11) includes eight works that the Gershes have given or promised to the museum.

Prime among them is “Cubi III,” an 8-foot-tall aluminum sculpture by David Smith, whose works have brought as much as $1.3 million at auction. When the show opened, the 1961 sculpture was promised to the museum, but the couple have subsequently made a “partial gift” of the valuable work and have agreed to give the piece entirely to MOCA soon.

The towering sculpture--which is one of two “Cubi” pieces still in private hands--is essential to a contemporary art museum’s collection, MOCA director Richard Koshalek said.

Another “partial gift” from the Gershes is “Number 3,” a small 1948 drip painting by Jackson Pollock, whose auction record is $10.5 million. The other Gersh gifts are less pricey but highly desirable acquisitions for the museum: a mixed-media collage by Alexis Smith, a photograph by Boyd Webb and paintings by Ed Ruscha, Susan Rothenberg, Neil Jenney and Tom Wudl.

The Gershes hope that MOCA’s show of their collection will encourage others to give. Their example has already produced at least two followers: their sons Robert and David Gersh who collect contemporary art and support the museum.


“Collecting has enriched our lives,” Beatrice Gersh said. “Art is not a commodity. It’s something that gives great pleasure because of its quiet beauty, which can take many different forms. We feel strongly that the works we have should live together in our home and we’ve spent many years refining the collection.”

Every work that has become part of their collection has a life story. Wandering around the show and marveling at how different the art looks in a museum setting, the Gershes recounted tales of artworks bought in a fit of passion and others purchased after long periods of deliberation, dusty artworks rescued from storage bins and fresh ones snapped off delivery trucks.

There are also stories about artworks lost and gained. One dealer reneged on the sale of a Jean Dubuffet collage when a more valued client wanted it, but then came through with a better piece. Beatrice Gersh once missed a Francis Bacon painting because her husband found it too disturbing, she said. Years later, when she saw Bacon’s “Portrait of a Man With Glasses” in a London show, she announced that she wouldn’t leave the gallery until they bought it. The small 1963 portrait is on view at MOCA in an intimate display of works by 20th-Century masters.

“In the early years Bea was way ahead of me, but now our eyes have adjusted to the point that we often go for exactly the same thing,” Philip Gersh said.

“If I was ahead it’s only because I devoted more time to it,” Beatrice Gersh said. “One problem with many collectors starting out now is that they don’t have any idea of the past and how it relates to the art of our time. You have to put in a lot of time, going to galleries and museums, looking and getting trained.”

The Gershes have never employed a curator or an adviser to tell them what to buy. Instead, they have taken their own education in hand, traveling widely to see exhibitions and continually working to keep up with the changing scene.

They stand out as a rare example of public-spirited collectors, but they are not entirely alone in Los Angeles. Earlier this year, the Museum of Contemporary Art received a $60-million donation of classic modern and contemporary art from the Rita and Taft Schreiber collection. Among the 18 works by 13 artists are paintings by Pollock, Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian and Arshile Gorky, and sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

During the past three years, MOCA has also received works by Christian Boltanski and Sarah Charlesworth from Peter and Eileen Norton; a John Chamberlain sculpture from Robert Halff; and Red Grooms’ near life-size re-creation of a “Discount Store” from Irma and Norman Braman. Among other gifts, MOCA trustees Eli Broad and Douglas S. Cramer have each donated funds for the purchase of art.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art also has angels who remain devoted despite current tax laws. Pop singer Graham Nash recently announced that he will present the museum with about 140 photographs, plus half the profits from an upcoming auction of his photography collection.

Raymond and Frances Bushell have donated 141 Japanese netsuke as part of a larger miniature sculpture collection promised to the county museum. Mary Stansbury Ruiz bequeathed more than 600 Mannerist prints to LACMA, while Hans and Varya Cohn have donated more than 200 examples of ancient, Sasanian, Islamic and Indian glass.

Collectors Howard and Gwen Laurie Smits in 1987 gave the museum 171 contemporary ceramic works and subsequently established an endowment fund for the purchase of 20th-Century ceramics. In making the gift, the Smits said that the donation was the best way to make “maximum use” of their collection.

Film producer Ray Stark last year gave the museum Ellsworth Kelly’s “White Sculpture II,” a massive painted aluminum piece. “I have another one and I thought this sculpture would go well with the museum’s collection,” Stark said. Denying that he has “great altruistic motivations,” Stark nonetheless said that he plans to give most of his sculpture collection to the County Museum of Art.

“I think it’s a shame that the government discourages gifts of art. I can understand people who don’t want to give now (under present tax laws), but my personal feeling is that eventually I would like most of my sculpture to go to the museum,” Stark said.

The Gershes, like many other museum supporters, hope that income tax laws will be changed again to allow deductions for the appreciated value of art. “All our great museums have been endowed by great private collectors. The Reagan and Bush administrations have emphasized the responsibility of the private sector, but private collectors are selling at auction now--and at astronomical prices,” Philip Gersh said.

The couple used to buy at auction, when bargains could be had, but now they stay away. And they entertain no thoughts of cashing in. “We’re very happy in giving. We know people are going to enjoy the art,” Beatrice Gersh said.