The comic-looking tiger painted in ink on a 17th century Japanese folding screen by Kano Sansetsu slyly or shyly dares to drink from a river poised to crash over his head.
The creature knows something about suspense. So do the art collectors who voted this weekend to spend $280,000 to buy this tiger for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
They were participating in a rather dramatic annual event known as Collectors Committee Weekend, a popularity contest that LACMA director Michael Govan once called "the ‘American Idol' of the museum world."
On Saturday morning, several LACMA curators took the stage in a museum auditorium to make impassioned sales pitches for proposed acquisitions. At a museum gala that night, arts patrons who had paid dues to help create a kitty for acquisitions got to vote on particular purchases.
This group goes beyond LACMA trustees. This year a total of 66 couples participated, raising $1.8 million for art. It was enough to buy five of the eight works presented.
After voting for the tiger, for sale by a Kyoto gallery, the group chose a 39-piece collection of Tibetan furniture that California couple Ruth and Robert Hayward agreed to offer the museum at $500,000, even though it has been appraised at over $1.1 million. The committee also bought a bold 1879 oil painting of Madame Paul Duchesne-Fournet by French painter Jean-Jacques Henner for $335,000.
The remaining funds went to more contemporary works: a 1974 photographic suite by John Baldessari called "Portrait: Artist's Identity Hidden with Various Hats" for $500,000, and a 2009 neon installation by Glenn Ligon that plays on the word "America" for $100,000. (A sixth work, a mixed-media portrait by contemporary Iranian artist Samira Alikhanzadeh, was removed from the popular vote earlier that day, when collectors who liked it made a separate pledge of $15,000 to cover the full purchase price.)
The two works not selected for acquisition, an enigmatic fabric sculpture by Surrrealist Dorothea Tanning and a large avocado-colored ceramic by Ken Price, are currently on hold from New York galleries. They could, if additional funding materializes, be acquired later.
Since its inception in 1986, the event has brought some 170 works of art into the museum's sprawling collection, which ranges from antiquities to contemporary art. LACMA's Govan called this year's event "the most successful ever — with more money raised and more spent on art than any other year."
"We are a big museum without a big museum endowment," he says. "So this is a very important part of our acquisition program."
This weekend's activities began with private dinners at the homes of LACMA trustees Friday night, organized by event chair Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars. (At her house, chef Thomas Keller designed what she describes as "a great bistro menu," culminating in baked Alaska that Keller individually prepared for each guest.)
Colgin praised the curators' talks, which took place in a much less glamorous auditorium at LACMA, as the heart of the event. "The curators are so entertaining and passionate," she says. "Before the presentations, I didn't connect with some of the art I saw, but they really brought the objects to life."
J. Patrice Marandel, the head of European painting and sculpture, gave a memorable presentation on Henner's portrait of Madame Paul Duchesne-Fournet, "the wife of a prominent politician of the French Third Republic." His talk had a twist: He spoke from the point of view of the sitter, eager to show off the painting to her social circle.
The head of Japanese art, Robert T. Singer, emphasized the originality and rarity of the tiger painting, which was discovered four years ago in an English country house and, he said, "has already entered the canon of accepted masterpieces in Japanese art history." The curator, who has made 18 acquisitions through this event over the years, also noted that no museum outside of Japan owns any signed work by the artist.
Then, toward the end of his talk, he pointed out that 2010 is the Year of the Tiger in the East Asian zodiac. "I put it very delicately: Those who vote for this piece will accrue good fortune, especially if they or their family members were born in the Year of the Tiger," Singer explained later.
"I did not say ‘If you don't buy it, something will happen to you,' " he added.