Trustee’s Donation a Milestone for MOCA

Times Staff Writer

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has received a gift of 123 works by 78 artists from E. Blake Byrne, a MOCA trustee and retired television executive. The bonanza of paintings, sculptures, drawings, videos and photographs is the largest group of artworks donated by a private collector in the museum’s 25-year history.

The record gift deepens holdings of works by such prominent artists as John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol, and adds new names to the collection. The young institution is considered to be in the very top tier of contemporary art museums, with one of the world’s finest collections of post-World War II art.

“This is a milestone for MOCA,” said Jeremy Strick, director of the museum. “Blake’s contribution makes a tremendous impact on our collection by enhancing our existing holdings of American and European art -- both building on strengths and filling gaps -- while augmenting our ongoing efforts to acquire video, sculpture and other works by emerging artists.”

Particularly strong in European work, Byrne’s eclectic and adventurous collection, Strick said, is also “a document of one man’s enormous range of interests, his passions and his engagement with artists.”

Los Angeles art dealer Shaun Caley Regen called Byrne’s collection “very, very good,” describing it also as “strong,” with important examples of influential artists’ work. “He has a tremendous eye,” she said. “He really understands philanthropy and collects not just for himself but for the greater good. This is fantastic for MOCA.”


Byrne, whose name has appeared on ARTnews magazine’s annual list of the world’s top 200 collectors, said that his donation had not yet been appraised and that he didn’t know its current market value. Art market experts estimated the value at $5 million to $10 million.

But the donation isn’t about money, said chief curator Paul Schimmel. It’s about expanding the collection’s geographical and stylistic reach and keeping up with an ever-changing field. Part of MOCA’s mission is to identify rising stars whose work will accrue critical acclaim and financial value, as well as to amass superior pieces by well-known figures.

The Byrne collection encompasses concentrations of works by artists from California, New York, Latin America and Asia, as well as Europe. It also provides the museum with its first pieces by German sculptor Stephen Balkenhol, New York-based video artist Steve McQueen, French conceptual artist Annette Messager and British sculptor Tony Cragg, all internationally recognized figures whose works appear in major museums around the world.

Seminal pieces by the late American conceptualist Gordon Matta-Clark, known for making art of dismantled buildings, are rare on the market, but the museum has one in the Byrne gift: a rough chunk of parquet flooring excised from an office in Antwerp, Belgium, accompanied by a photograph.

The addition of an untitled sculpture by Robert Gober, composed of two handmade doors constructed in an X shape and folded into a corner, strengthens an already strong holding, giving MOCA one of the world’s best collections of the highly regarded New York-based artist’s work. Marlene Dumas, a South African who lives in Amsterdam and has soared to fame in the last year, is represented by five Expressionist drawings in ink, watercolor, oil and collage.

The museum, founded in 1979, has weathered a financial downturn and regained its stability while amassing nearly 5,000 works in what Strick calls “a collection of collections.” MOCA failed to win the collection of Eli Broad, who has shifted his allegiance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but it has landed major holdings from many collectors, including Italians Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza di Biumo.

The public will get its first look at the Byrne gift in an extensive exhibition opening July 3, the day after the donor’s 70th birthday. The 10,000-square-foot display at the Grand Avenue facility will include a group of carved wood figures in graduated heights by Balkenhol; a 16-foot-tall photographic work by Baldessari, who is based in Los Angeles; collages by French artist Jacques Villegle; and paintings by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

“I can’t think of anything more fun than to celebrate my birthday at MOCA by making a gift to the museum,” said Byrne, who moved here in 1989 as president and general manager of KCAL-TV Channel 9 and became a partner of Argyle Television.

“I have lived in 10 states and traveled all over the world,” he said. “I love this city, and I want to say thanks for making my life so wonderful. I also hope that sharing something that is important and intimate to me will create a desire for others to do the same.”

Described by Strick as “fundamentally philanthropic,” Byrne has supported the arts in other cities and spearheaded the campaign for the Nasher Museum of Art, scheduled to open next fall at his alma mater, Duke University, in Durham, N.C. But his growing involvement with MOCA has put the Los Angeles museum at the top of his list.

He credited MOCA trustee Beatrice Gersh and her late husband, talent agent Philip Gersh, who have given the museum a dozen important artworks.

“The Gershes were my mentors,” said Byrne, who joined the museum’s acquisitions and collections committee in 1997 and was elected to the board of trustees in 2000. He led the museum’s effort to purchase a major sculpture from Gober’s 1997 show at MOCA and let it be known that some of his private acquisitions were destined for the museum. But his gift was sparked by birthday plans.

“On my 60th birthday I had a dinner for my friends in Paris, my favorite city next to Los Angeles,” said Byrne, who subsequently bought an apartment in Paris and lives there about four months a year. “It turned into a weekend -- a wonderful, festive occasion. But about a year and a half ago, when I began thinking about what to do for my 70th, I decided to do it in Los Angeles.”

Around the same time, MOCA officials approached him about firming up plans for a gift from his collection, and “one thing led to another, to another,” he said.

Instead of making his own selection, Byrne presented Strick and curators Ann Goldstein and Schimmel with a list and pictures of everything in his collection -- about 500 pieces displayed at his West Hollywood home, his Paris apartment and offices of his charitable foundation or stored.

“I wanted to be sure they got what they really needed,” Byrne said. “They went through very methodically and chose about 160 items. Then I went through their list of priorities with my children, because I didn’t want to give away their favorite things.”

Next he reserved a few pieces as potential gifts to the Nasher Museum. “Then,” he said, “I put all that into a pot and stirred it.”

After several months, he and the MOCA representatives agreed on the 123 works.

They reflect the taste of a collector who said he learned to respect original art as a child but dropped out of an art appreciation class at Duke because he was terrified of having to memorize a huge body of information.

He began seriously collecting contemporary art in 1988, when he visited the annual art fair in Basel, Switzerland, and came away with recent creations by an international sampling of artists.

Over the last 15 years, Byrne has trusted his instincts while amassing a collection that Schimmel characterized as a testament to curiosity and international awareness rather than allegiance to a particular style.

“I have the advantage of being a one-person decision-making team,” Byrne said. “When I decide I like something and it fits my budget, it’s a done deal.”

The gift to MOCA is a done deal too, but it may expand.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I give them more things,” he said, “but they’ve got a pretty good start.”



Two Decades of Major Gifts to MOCA

The Museum of Contemporary Art launched its permanent collection in 1984 with the $11-million purchase of 80 works by nine leading Abstract Expressionist and Pop artists from Italian collectors Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza di Biumo. Since then, the museum has built a collection of nearly 5,000 works, thanks in large part to major donations, including the following:

* 1985: 68 Minimalist and Neo-Expressionist works by 41 artists from the estate of Barry Lowen

* 1989: 18 Abstract Expressionist paintings, sculptures and drawings from the estate of Taft and Rita Schreiber

* 1989: 183 photographs by Max Yavno from the artist’s estate

* 1991: 13 artworks and an endowment that has funded 13 additional acquisitions from the estate of Scott D.F. Spiegel

* 1993: 10 paintings by Sam Francis from the artist

* 1994: 70 works by 10 Los Angeles-based artists from Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza di Biumo

* 1995: 11 paintings and drawings by Ed Moses from the artist

* 1996: 83 works on paper by 51 artists from the estate of Marcia Simon Weisman

* 1996: Six box constructions and 15 collages by Joseph Cornell from the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation

* 1997: 114 works by 53 artists from the Lannan Foundation

* 1997: A $600,000 grant from the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation to partially fund the $1.5-million purchase of a 2,100-piece documentary photography collection that the museum agreed in 1995 to buy over a five-year period

* 2004: 123 works by 78 artists from E. Blake Byrne