Douglas Cramer Strikes His Santa Ynez Set

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

‘It’s sad to lose art that you’ve loved and been close to,” said television producer Douglas S. Cramer, wistfully winding up a conversation about his life as a collector. Nonetheless, he has consigned 22 sculptures--valued at a total of $2 million to $3 million--to Christie’s New York, to be offered May 7-8 in the auction house’s big spring sale of contemporary art.

The sculptures were taken from the 500-plus pieces in his personal collection and the 150 or so owned by the Douglas S. Cramer Foundation. The auction is not a signal that he has stopped buying art, visiting studios or looking for new talent, but it is an indicator of a major change in his life that represents a loss to Southern California. After 30 years in Los Angeles, Cramer is relocating to New York.

A longtime collector and trustee of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Cramer has been one of the city’s most visible art patrons. At MOCA alone, he has spearheaded art auctions, donated major artworks and provided funds for the current Ellsworth Kelly retrospective.


“Doug has played an extremely important leadership role and he has been very generous,” MOCA Director Richard Koshalek said.

Cramer also has established an art foundation and galleries on his 420-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, near Los Olivos, where the sculpture has been displayed. The ranch, called La Quinta Norte, is an idyllic retreat. It’s also a showplace that has been a destination of art tours and the site of exclusive art world gatherings.

Cramer plans to keep a house in Bel-Air, but he is letting go of the ranch. About 200 acres--including a horse ranch, winery and the galleries--have already been sold to his neighbor, Firestone Vineyards. He is still using the galleries--and even plans to present a couple of temporary exhibitions of local artists’ work there. But the rest of the property--including his luxurious house and entertainment areas--is on the market. Christie’s Great Estates has listed La Quinta Norte at $8.5 million.

“The auction really came down to the fact that I’ve put the ranch on the market,” Cramer said in a telephone interview from his New York apartment. “The ranch house itself, the galleries there and the foundation all grew out of an excess of collecting, the fact that I had filled the house in Bel-Air with art and I wanted more room.

“The ranch house started out as a simple set of cottages and ended up as 25,000 square feet of house. When the art overran the place, I built the galleries. By the mid-'80s, the original 66 acres had grown to about 420 acres, which included the land where I put up the first two galleries. In the next few years I kept adding and ended up with two buildings and five different [exhibition] spaces.

“But as my children grew up and left home, I was alone,” he said. “And I was spending more and more time in the East. Part of [the decision to move] came out of my business and television production. In the last three years, I shot two miniseries and 10 two-hour movies and a feature. One two-hour picture was shot in L.A. The rest were in New York, London, Toronto, Montreal, Paris and Prague. I decided last summer to sell the ranch and look for a place in Connecticut or the Hamptons, where I was spending more and more time on the weekends.”

He looked at warehouses and old buildings to create an East Coast version of his California ranch. “But I finally decided to go through all that--having done it once and knowing this is the ‘90s, not the ‘80s--didn’t make that much sense,” he said. Now he’s looking for a larger apartment in Manhattan and a smaller weekend place in the country.

In preparation for the move he began thinking about selling three or four of the larger artworks.

“Then I had lunch with Martha Baer,” he said, referring to the Christie’s contemporary art specialist, “and she convinced me to sell enough of the sculpture to make it a representative group. So it just grew like Topsy.”

The most valuable piece--valued at $300,000 to $400,000--is Joel Shapiro’s untitled bronze sculpture, composed of three rectangular-block figures, one diving, one reclining and one crouching. Other major works include a wall-mounted stainless steel piece by Ellsworth Kelly that resembles a crisply folded half-circle ($200,000 to $300,000); Roy Lichtenstein’s painted bronze sculpture “The Conversation,” ($150,000 to $200,000); Mark di Suvero’s “Ring,” a massive mobile sculpture composed of cast-off pieces of rusted and stainless steel ($100,000 to $150,000); and Jim Dine’s “Column With Rock and Axe,” an 8 1/2-foot-tall bronze ($70,000 to $90,000).

Proceeds from sales of foundation-owned works will go back into the foundation to underwrite exhibitions and other projects. Money from sales from his private collection will be used to buy “more manageable art” for his new homes, he said.

The art market has slowly rebounded from the crash of 1989-90, so he thinks this spring is a good time to sell.

“We’ve had a few bad years, but I think the market has solidified, especially for very good work and work that hasn’t been available or seen,” he said. “All the pieces I’m selling were bought out of artists’ studios or [at galleries] when they were first shown, or they were done specifically for the ranch. Short of--God forbid--a major downturn in the market, I think these auctions in May are going to be very good. I think it’s going to be an exciting month.”

Cramer grew up in Ohio and started his career in New York. “With a lot of reluctance I moved to California, in 1966, when that was what the business was about,” he said. Now back in New York, he is indulging his love of the theater and is already entrenched at the Museum of Modern Art, where he has served as a trustee since 1993 and chairs the board’s painting and sculpture committee.

MOMA, not MOCA, is his museum home now. He ended a 13-year tenure at MOCA last fall, rotating off the board in accordance with a policy enacted in 1993. Trustees now serve three-year, renewable terms and rotate off after six years. Although Cramer voted for the policy, he thinks it is “rather ridiculous” because major supporters can be lost, even though they are generally invited to return after a year.

The policy was enacted “to bring new blood on the board, give new people an opportunity to serve and provide trustees with a chance to assess their board life and see if they want to come back,” said David Laventhol, chairman of MOCA’s board and editor at large of Times Mirror, parent company of The Times. Four longtime trustees--Beatrice Gersh, Leonore Greenberg, Frederick Nicholas and Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs--have returned after taking a break, he said.

Founding trustee Eli Broad, who left MOCA and became a trustee at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before the rotation policy went into effect, has declined an offer to return to the downtown museum. But Koshalek said that he hopes Broad will rejoin the board, and Cramer definitely will be invited back.

The tenuous relationship has compounded a sensitive situation regarding Cramer’s gifts of artworks in conjunction with his move, however. He has given the Museum of Modern Art a triptych and a large black-and-white painting by Kelly, a Joel Shapiro sculpture and an Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup box. The Tate Gallery in London is receiving sculptures by Anthony Caro and Richard Serra. Works by Guy Dill and Peter Shelton are going to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

MOCA would seem to be a likely recipient of pieces being moved off the ranch. But no decision has been made as to which--if any--works will go there. Cramer said he is “disenchanted with certain aspects of MOCA” but declined to discuss the matter in detail.

The museum has been slow to respond to his offers, he said, and it has turned down some artworks. Like most museums, MOCA screens gifts to build a coherent collection, enhance its quality and avoid duplication, said Gersh, who heads the acquisitions committee.

“They finally gave me a list of some things they wanted. And hopefully I’ll work something out,” Cramer said. Meanwhile, he’s looking at art in New York.

“The art world has gone through a few years where there was nothing very exciting happening,” he said. “But I think a lot of artists who were a little stagnated are now really doing fabulous work. I recently bought another big Lichtenstein, a Joel Shapiro and I bought a Kelly last year. I just saw a show of David Salle’s work that’s opening at Larry Gagosian’s, and I think he’s doing the best work of his career.”