Buying art a la carte

Times Staff Writer

CONTRIBUTING to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s acquisitions fund is one thing. Throwing thousands of dollars into a pot and helping to decide how to spend it is something else again. But that’s what goes on once a year when members of the museum’s Collectors Committee gather for a weekend gala and ponder tough choices offered by curators.

Listen to Robert T. Singer, curator of Japanese art, pitching a curiously charming approximation of an elephant, carved circa 1300 by a sculptor who had never laid eyes on the real thing. Singer has been making proposals to the committee for 18 years and knows how to push emotional buttons while relating appropriate facts. He confides that the Japanese dealer selling the ancient wood sculpture misjudged its age and priced it too low -- at $126,100 -- but kept his word when he discovered the mistake.

Calling the elephant “our guy” and using what LACMA Director Michael Govan calls “the puppy dog strategy,” Singer notes that the elephant is “a composite creature” with the rear end of a water buffalo and the head of a basset hound. He flashes images of a live pooch and the sculpture on a screen, observing that both animals are smiling. Then he zeroes in on details of the elephant -- “laugh lines around the eyes,” “winsome dimples on the knees,” “wonderful tail.”

It’s a dazzling performance, but Singer has plenty of competition from eight of his colleagues, each offering something special.

What’s a community-minded committee member to do?

Vote for Jennifer Steinkamp’s computer-animated, video-projected, wraparound wall of flowers or the jade pendant of a bird-beaked deity worn by an ancient Maya king?


The 19th century French academic painting of “St. George and the Monster” by Gustave Surand or the 17th century Indian cabinet crafted of rosewood with ivory floral inlays?

The unique set of Agnes Martin’s 1973 prints that present 30 ways of constructing a grid, or the 19th century Japanese woman’s robe, elaborately embroidered in silk and gold?

It’s worse than apples and oranges. And the curators -- vying for part of a pot that has reached almost $1 million this year -- don’t make the decisions easier. Shameless promoters all, they advocate their candidates in slick PowerPoint presentations that combine scholarship and salesmanship. Each potential acquisition will fill a gaping hole in LACMA’s collection, they say. Priced from $100,000 to $220,000, each work is a bargain, an acquisition opportunity not to be missed. The museum and the people of Los Angeles need this particular contemporary Latin American abstract painting, this modern Austrian tea set, so finely wrought of silver and ivory.

“Message,” a luminous panel of gilded, perforated steel over wood by German-born Mathias Goeritz, who worked in Mexico from 1915 to 1990, is an “emblematic work” by Mexico’s leading “pure abstractionist,” says Latin American art curator Ilona Katzew. This “modern icon” will allow the museum to present “a more comprehensive picture of the development of art in Mexico and contribute to making our collection of postwar Latin American art truly world class,” she says. What’s more: “You can never go wrong with gold.”

Lynn Zelevansky, curator of contemporary art, makes the case for Steinkamp’s video-projected flowers. Titled “Jimmy Carter,” the flickering environment is partly conceived as “a paean to peace and calm in the face of global ferment,” she says. “A breakthrough from abstraction to natural forms” in the artist’s pioneering computer-generated work, it also updates French Impressionist Claude Monet’s water lily murals, Zelevansky says, showing side-by-side images of the two artists’ works.

In her presentation of “St. George and the Monster,” Claudia Einecke, associate curator of European painting and sculpture, offers “a pinch of fortuitous gore” in the human victims of “a fantastic dragon with an eagle’s beak, enormous lion paws, an iguana’s wattle and pointy spinal ridge and the iridescent scales of a snake.” The picture’s “idiosyncrasies give it a certain attractive edginess,” she says. “Its acquisition would add an original twist to LACMA’s presentation of the late 19th century and would set it apart from most American collections that reflect old anti-academic biases.”

Similar to organizations at a few other American museums but barely known to outsiders, LACMA’s committee was founded in 1986 by then-director Earl A. Powell and trustee Julian Ganz Jr. Patterned after a group at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles committee initially rallied supporters to buy contemporary art for a new wing at the museum. The focus shifted to decorative arts in the second year and to Japanese art in the third year, then broadened to encompass the full range of LACMA’s collections.

Artworks are acquired by the museum in many ways, and their number and value varies widely from year to year. Collectors Committee donations are just one piece of a complex puzzle, but they are “an invaluable legacy,” Govan says. Over more than two decades, the committee has donated about $14 million to purchase 150 works of art for the museum. Curators’ selections are based on the availability of appropriate works in the right price range, says Nancy Thomas, a deputy director at LACMA. This year the ceiling is $350,000, but the most expensive piece is the $220,000 Austrian tea set, designed by Josef Hoffmann for the Wiener Werkstatte, a workshop in Vienna.

One of many support groups at LACMA, the Collectors Committee counts several trustees among its members -- including Lynda Resnick, one of three vice chairmen of the board and chairwoman of its acquisitions committee -- but membership is open to all.

“It’s a way of broadening the museum’s community of supporters beyond the board,” says David Bohnett, who joined the committee several years ago and recently became a trustee.

Nine works for the weekend

AS usual, the event begins with a Friday night cocktail party at a spectacular house -- in this case, Robert and Kelly Day’s hillside home in West Los Angeles, with acres of terraced gardens, an open-air dining room and a breathtaking urban view. On Saturday morning, committee members gather at the museum for breakfast. They view the nine potential acquisitions installed in galleries with the curators on hand, then proceed to an auditorium for formal presentations. After lunch, there’s more time to look at the objects and talk to the curators. The evening brings dinner and a voting marathon at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

“It’s better than a weekend in Paris,” says Ellen L. Korney, a longtime LACMA supporter. “You can go to Paris any time. This happens once a year, and it’s a great way to help the museum.”

Michael Thaxton, an insurance executive who collects African art, is here for the first time. The reason: “Art, pure and simple,” he says.

Myron Laskin, a retired curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is back for the 11th time. “I know a lot of the curators, and I’m interested in what they do,” he says. “The collection is what makes a museum.”

This year’s committee consists of 60 couples and partnerships, the same number as last year. But Govan, who took charge of the museum a few weeks before the 2006 event, has raised the standard price of membership from $10,000 to $15,000 and introduced a $30,000 “benefactors” membership level, so there’s more money to spend -- $970,000 instead of $570,000. To attract younger people, he also has launched a $5,000 category for members younger than 40.

The entire pot of money gathered from subscriptions is used to buy art. In the past, members have pitched in additional funds as voting proceeded, but never enough to purchase everything.

This year may be different.

As trustee Eli Broad says, things have changed at LACMA.

“The museum is exciting,” he says. “Michael Govan has brought more energy than we have had in years.”

Resnick is also running on overdrive. And if she has her way, none of the curators will be disappointed when the voting ends. Working the dinner party crowd in a blaze of silky gold pleats, she shares the stage with Govan; Nancy Daly Riordan, chairwoman of the board; and Kelly Day.

With the nine artworks valued at a total of $1.3 million and $970,000 in hand, the gap between the money available and the sum needed to buy everything is smaller than usual, Resnick says.

Does she think the committee will rise to the challenge?

“It’s possible,” she says.

Just before the first round of balloting, she announces that Broad has made a last-minute contribution, bringing the pot to an even $1 million.

“We do not have a winner,” Resnick says when the first ballot produces a four-way tie. But before long, Steinkamp’s video piece emerges victorious.

“I’m surprised,” Zelevansky says, adding that the committee’s tastes have changed. “A few years ago, I proposed a work by Louise Bourgeois. That didn’t go anywhere.”

It’s time for the next round of votes, but not before an announcement that trustee Robert Kotick has purchased the Agnes Martin prints for the museum -- at $127,500, removing the work from balloting and pushing the committee closer to buying everything.

“I’m so happy, I’m going home,” says curator Kevin Salatino, who proposed the acquisition. But of course he does no such thing.

As wine flows and courses come and go, Marc and Eva Stern purchase the Japanese elephant as a promised gift to the museum, and the committee snaps up the rest of the art.

“This has never happened before,” Govan says. “This is a fabulous evening.”

But it isn’t over.

There’s good and bad news -- and more money to raise.

A Chinese sculpture of Buddha, one of the finest Asian pieces at the museum, was presented by Ruth Trubner as a promised gift in memory of her late husband Henry Trubner, a curator of Asian art at the Seattle Art Museum. But members of the family successfully contested the arrangement, Govan says. The family is willing to sell the sculpture to the museum at a deeply discounted price, about $1.25 million instead of the $4.9-million appraised value.

Govan wants to amass a down payment so that he can negotiate a firm price. He’s thinking of $20,000 from each of the nine tables, or $180,000. Within a few minutes, he has pledges amounting to $360,000.

“These dinners are too expensive,” says Marc Nathanson, one of the big givers. “The halibut was good, but not that good,” he says as the complaint dissolves in a smile.