In a move to close his leadership of Walt Disney Corp. with a philanthropic flourish, Chief Executive Michael Eisner announced Thursday that the company would donate its African art collection, hailed by experts as one of the most important such collections in private hands in the U.S., to the Smithsonian Institution.
In making the gift -- 525 objects, spanning five centuries and valued at $20 million to $45 million -- Disney turned away suitors including the French government and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and solved a quandary that Eisner said had vexed him for 20 years.
“A lot of museums contacted me,” said Eisner, noting that French President Jacques Chirac “made several calls ... and became increasingly aggressive.” But Eisner said he wanted to place the collection with a museum that charged no admission fee, and “there’s only one Smithsonian, only one museum for all Americans.”
The gift will become part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, which plans a debut exhibition in 2007.
In choosing a destination for the collection, Eisner had a lot of options and at least one built-in connection. His wife, Jane, has served on the Smithsonian National Board since 1998 and is currently vice chairwoman.
Under terms of the gift, said Sharon F. Patton, director of the National Museum of African Art, at least 60 items from the collection are to be labeled the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection and be displayed in the institution for at least the next three decades.
“I see this as a way of really boosting the profile of the museum,” said Patton, whose institution reported 165,000 visitors last year and trimmed its staff by more than 10% earlier this year. “Euphoria permeates the building.”
The list of items includes Nigerian masks of wood and antelope skin, a carved ivory-and-metal hunting horn from the area now known as Sierra Leone, intricately carved ivory armlets made for Yoruban kings and Shona stone carvings from the area now known as Zimbabwe.
Dozens of wooden carvings range from delicate mother-and-child figures to rough-hewn ceremonial swords. In one 17th-century piece from the post-missionary Democratic Republic of the Congo, the artist has fashioned a copper alloy crucifix.
In Washington on Thursday, Smithsonian officials said they’d been nudging Eisner for about three years but that the talks didn’t get serious until Disney representatives called the museum in July.
Officials at LACMA acknowledged that they tried to get the gift. “We had been talking to them over the last five years about it,” said Nancy Thomas, deputy director of LACMA. “We were really hoping that it would stay in Los Angeles, and we would have been very interested in having it come to LACMA. It’s a collection that’s been on our radar for a long time.”
Many of the works going to the Smithsonian have been loaned to LACMA and other Southern California museums, including the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
The pieces were first collected by New York real estate developer Paul Tishman and his wife, Ruth, beginning in the 1960s. Paul Tishman, whose firm served as contractor in the construction of Disney’s Epcot Center in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., had been courted by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which staged a special exhibition of Tishman holdings in the early 1980s. Instead, the Tishmans sold the collection to Disney in 1984 for an undisclosed amount, with the idea that Disney would display the items at Epcot, reaching a broader audience than would a museum display.
But before the year was out, Eisner had arrived to take control of the company and plans for Epcot changed. Cost was a key factor, said Van Romans, who was then Disney’s executive director of cultural affairs and now serves as president of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Though Disney has displayed some works in Florida, made scores of loans to museums worldwide and occasionally used pieces in its movies, most of the collection has been in storage for most of the last 20 years.
“Take a look at ‘Coming to America,’ with Eddie Murphy,” said African art specialist and former LACMA curator Elisabeth Cameron, citing the 1988 film in which Murphy played an African prince. “There’s a part where he goes to an exhibition of art from his people. That’s the Tishman collection.
“They had a good eye and bought good pieces when they could be had,” Cameron said, noting the many ivory sculptures in the collection. International trade in ivory has been largely banned since 1989.
James Willis, a San Francisco-based dealer, appraised the works in 1984 and again in the 1990s. Though he hasn’t made a detailed study of the works or the market since then, Willis said, he’d estimate its worth at “as low as $20 million and as high as $40 [million to] $45 million.” Disney and Smithsonian officials declined to state a value.
The move puts Disney in step with several other major corporations that have been shedding art collections in recent years, although many have chosen to sell rather than donate.
The most notable art sell-off may have been Enron Corp.'s in 2003 after that company foundered. But many other companies have made similar moves. Soon after MGM Grand Inc. bought Mirage Resorts from Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn in May 2000, the new owner sold 11 artworks from the Mirage’s Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, raising $124 million. In November 1998, Reader’s Digest raised $94.5 million by auctioning off 37 Impressionist, Modernist and contemporary works from its 8,000-piece collection.
At Disney, discussions about where to place the African art collection had been underway for years, said Romans, who left Disney a year ago to head the Fort Worth museum. Before leaving, he said, he recommended the collection go to the Smithsonian to maximize public exposure. He said he learned from Eisner a few weeks ago that terms of the donation had been ironed out.
“It was time to get it to the right place,” said Eisner, whose last official workday as Walt Disney Corp. chief executive is today, which also marks the end of the company’s fiscal year. Neither he nor a company spokesman offered any other reason for the timing.
Since taking over in 1984, Eisner has guided Disney’s revenue growth from $1.5 billion a year to more than 20 times that. But he lost support of many stockholders and crucial board members in the last two years.
Though LACMA “actively pursued this and took it as far as we could,” Thomas said, the museum’s last meeting with Disney officials was more than a year ago. Noting that the Louvre currently has several items on loan from the collection, she said French officials had been hoping to land a donation as well. As a legacy of his leadership, Chirac is building a museum to celebrate indigenous cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.
“It’s a big loss for Los Angeles,” said Doran H. Ross, a veteran Africanist and director of the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA from 1996 to 2001. “It’s probably the single most important private collection that’s been out there.... Disney cared for the collection with a lot of integrity.”
Neuman reported from Washington and Reynolds from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Kim Christensen contributed to this report.