Arty, crafty, dependable

Muchnic is a Times staff writer.

When Wendy Kaplan became curator of decorative arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art seven years ago, she knew that part of her job was to work with Max Palevsky. Museum staff members routinely advise and assist potential art donors, but Palevsky was a special case -- a major supporter who was building a collection of Arts and Crafts furniture and decorative arts for LACMA.

Kaplan was expected to grab the baton from her predecessor, Leslie Greene Bowman, and maintain what had become an unusually close relationship. And it didn’t take long for the new curator to discover that Palevsky, who made a fortune in computer electronics, could be generous in surprising ways.

“My first task was to do an exhibition and book along the lines of ‘Virtue in Design,’ which was pretty much a catalog of his collection,” she says of a 1990 show organized by Bowman. “I said to Max, ‘OK, we could do ‘Virtue in Design Part 2.’ That would be about your collection and the gifts you have made and promised to the museum. Or we could do a big think-y loan show about the international Arts and Crafts movement. It has never been done, it would not be about you and it would cost you at least twice as much money to support.’ He said, without a flicker of hesitation, ‘Let’s do the big think-y show.’ Most people would say, ‘Let’s have the show about me.’ ”


As the project evolved into “The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America, 1880-1920: Design for the Modern World,” a traveling exhibition that opened at LACMA in 2004, Palevsky acknowledged that the international sweep of the show had broadened his perceptions of the movement.

Some results of that eye-opening experience can be seen in LACMA’s new exhibition, “The Arts and Crafts Movement: Masterworks From the Max Palevsky and Jodie Evans Collection.” It’s a relatively small display of 18 objects -- including a Tiffany table lamp, a copper urn and stained-glass window by Frank Lloyd Wright, and armchairs by Josef Hoffmann and Gustav Stickley -- installed near the entrance of the Ahmanson Building. But it’s the tip of an Arts and Crafts iceberg at LACMA. The works on view, from England, Scotland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, France and the U.S., are among 45 pieces recently promised to the museum by Palevsky and his wife, a community, social and political organizer. And the gift will join 382 Arts and Crafts pieces and about 100 other works previously donated or promised by the Palevskys.

At 84, Max Palevsky still has a lot on his mind. Although he’s convalescing from a recent bout of pneumonia, he agreed to talk about his collection. In the course of the conversation, he offers a glimpse into the passions, pleasures and quirks of one of Los Angeles’ major collector-donors.

Making his fortune

Palevsky’s poor-boy-made-good resume reads like a classical American success story: He is the son of immigrants, a Russian father and Polish mother who eked out a living in Chicago. Palevsky made his way through public schools, served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and, with the help of the GI Bill, studied math and philosophy at the University of Chicago, UC Berkeley and UCLA.

In a life-changing experience that he calls “a happenstance,” he attended a lecture at Caltech that inspired him to go into the computer electronics industry. In 1962, he and a group of associates founded Scientific Data Systems, which introduced a variety of computers, including Sigma 7, a groundbreaking machine capable of processing data for both business and science. Seven years later the company was sold to Xerox for nearly $1 billion, leaving Palevsky with $100 million.

What he did in the next 40 years is harder to track as he followed his passions into venture capitalism, politics, philanthropy and the arts. While pursuing business interests, he rescued Rolling Stone magazine from financial ruin; supported Democratic candidates in national, state and local elections; gave the University of Chicago $20 million to build dormitories; produced a batch of Hollywood films, including “Endurance” and “Fun With Dick and Jane”; and built a collection of Arts and Crafts furnishings, Japanese prints and Pop art.


Palevsky has a passion for music as well as art. But he claims to have no interest in the technology that made him wealthy. “I don’t own a computer,” he says. “I don’t own a cellphone, I don’t own any electronics. I do own a radio.”

He keeps up with news and politics, though. He’s thrilled about the election of Barack Obama, “a University of Chicago guy,” but deeply concerned about the economic disaster awaiting the new president.

“Oh, boy,” he says, pondering the challenges of the growing recession.

As the conversation moves on to art, he has a matter-of-fact explanation for his support of LACMA. “Given my interest in art, it seems perfectly natural to be involved in local museums,” he says. “Ultimately, we are going to give all of our Arts and Crafts things to the museum. It will be one of the best collections around.”

The Arts and Crafts collection is one of several sharply focused donations of major significance that have come to LACMA, including Edward W. Carter and Hannah Locke Carter’s Dutch paintings, Etsuko and Joe D. Price’s Edo period Japanese scrolls and screens, and Robert Gore Rifkind’s German Expressionist art. The museum believes that, thanks to Palevsky’s generosity, LACMA already has one of the world’s great holdings of Arts and Crafts material.

LACMA Director Michael Govan praises Palevsky’s “pursuit of excellence” on behalf of the museum. “For Los Angeles, this is a huge legacy,” he says. “One of the most important things anyone can do at the museum is to create a collection that is a destination. This is the kind of collection that people will come from around the world to see.”

Arts and Crafts works, including furniture and a variety of decorative functional objects, are products of an aesthetic and social movement that began in late-19th century England. Reacting to the dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution, the movement emphasized the pleasure and beauty of handwork. Although the likelihood of a high-tech guru being smitten by such ideology may seem remote, Palevsky has often commented on parallels between his feelings about computers and Arts and Crafts attitudes about industrialization.


“Computers were originally intended to expedite work and solve serious problems, from space travel to record keeping,” he wrote in one catalog. “Unfortunately, they have also become passive entertainment devices -- substitutes for interactions with the real world. Just as the Arts and Crafts movement took issue with the alienation of people from ‘pleasure in labour’ and the resulting loss of human creativity, I, too, oppose the depersonalization that comes from the hypnotic quality of computer games, the substitution of a Google search for genuine inquiry, the instant messaging that has replaced social discourse.”

Still, as he tells the story, his discovery of Arts and Crafts was a shock. Drawn to Modern architecture and design in the 1940s, he had become a staunch aficionado of the clean, forward-looking style before his horizons abruptly widened in the 1970s.

“My first interest and continuing interest in architecture and design has been in mid-20th-century Modern,” he says, recalling a trip to New York when he came across a small wood desk made by Stickley. “But then I was walking down West Broadway one day and I saw this piece in the window. I must have looked at it 10 times before I bought it. I had never seen anything quite like it. I was very impressed by the simplicity and the directness.”

One purchase led to another, and in 1984 he began working closely with Bowman to build a collection that would go to the museum.


Palevsky’s relationship with the Museum of Contemporary Art in its early days is a different story. In 1984 he tried to rescind a $1-million pledge in an argument over architectural control of the building designed by Arata Isozaki. Palevsky sued to retrieve the $500,000 he had paid and asked to be released from giving the rest. He didn’t get his money back but eventually settled for a sum that was less than he had promised.

But although he has contributed generously to MOCA since the falling out, he has no formal ties to the museum that he helped to establish and declines to comment on its current fiscal problems.


At LACMA, he enjoys what he calls a mutually beneficial partnership with curators. “We call attention to things for each other,” he says. “We provide a kind of critical facility for each other.”

Palevsky’s eclectic tastes and friendships with artists have led him to acquire a variety of Modern and contemporary art and Japanese prints. Paintings by French Modernist Fernand Leger and American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein hang in his primary residence in Beverly Hills, and he has what he calls “the largest collection in the world by far” of paintings by Richard Lindner, a German artist known for boldly mechanistic, highly sexual images of women.

“Richard Lindner was a close friend,” Palevsky says of the artist who died in 1978. “A friend in New York introduced me to him and we just hit it off.”

Although the pace of Palevsky’s collecting has slowed, he follows the art market and occasionally springs for something special, such as a recently acquired figure drawing by Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele. “I think I got eight auction catalogs this week,” he says.

At LACMA, it’s the Arts and Crafts collection that has made his mark. But when asked how he wants to be remembered there, he says: “Just as somebody who contributed to the community. We all have a responsibility. To the degree that we are able, we should support the museum.”




‘The Arts and Crafts Movement’

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

When: Ends March 8

Price: $12, adults; $8, students and seniors

Contact: (323) 857-6000 or