Robert Halff, 96; Ad Exec, Museum Donor

Times Staff Writer

Robert H. Halff, an advertising executive who loved collecting contemporary art and took even greater delight in giving it away, died Dec. 18 at his home in Beverly Hills of congestive heart failure. He was 96.

“The main thing is that collecting art has enriched my life enormously,” Halff told The Times in 1994, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented an exhibition of 40 donations from his collection. “I am just so pleased that I got involved with art and had the opportunity to live with it.”

Components of that gift included a classic Joan Miro canvas; an early Jasper Johns painting of the number 7; vintage works on paper by Sam Francis, Cy Twombly and Robert Motherwell; and Jeff Koons’ “J.B. Turner Engine” sculpture.

There also was trademark Pop art, such as one of Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Can” paintings, Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture of a baked potato, and Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-book-style painting “Cold Shoulder.”


“These are things the museum should have bought, but didn’t have the foresight or the money to buy,” Halff said. “They will fill a lot of gaps.”

A longtime trustee of the museum, he gave it 53 works over the years, including the 40-piece bonanza. He also contributed to the facility’s acquisition of works by such artists as Donald Judd, Sherrie Levine, Robert Gober and Toba Khedoori -- funded by groups of patrons.

Stephanie Barron, chief curator of LACMA’s Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, called Halff’s multipart donation “the most important gift of contemporary art received by the museum in 40 years.” Praising his thoughtfulness, she said: “He chose his gifts to museums very carefully.”

Among other beneficiaries of Halff’s largess, Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art has received 14 artworks from his collection, including sculptures by Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, Matthew Barney and Joel Shapiro and a pair of cardboard chairs by Frank Gehry.


The Los Angeles collector also gave artworks to the McNay Art Museum in the city of his birth, San Antonio.

Born in 1908 to a collecting family, Halff said acquiring art was in his genes. He fed his passion for the art of his time with profits from the advertising industry.

After graduating from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Los Angeles in 1942.

He initially worked as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he collaborated on screenplays for Ann Sothern, Red Skelton and Laurel and Hardy. He spent most of his career -- about 35 years -- in advertising. Ascending the ranks of the industry, he eventually became creative director of several New York- and California-based agencies, including Compton Advertising.

As he acquired the means to build a collection, Halff patronized galleries in New York and Los Angeles, welcomed fellow collectors to his home and joined art support groups.

He was a founding member of the Museum of Contemporary Art and LACMA’s Modern and Contemporary Art Council; a member of the Fellows of Contemporary Art, a Los Angeles-based group that sponsors exhibitions; and an honorary trustee of the McNay Art Museum.

Contributions in Halff’s honor may be made to the Modern and Contemporary Art Council Art Acquisition Endowment at LACMA, the Museum of Contemporary Art or charities of the donor’s choice.

A memorial service for Halff, who had no immediate survivors, will be held Jan. 14 at 3 p.m. at LACMA’s Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.