It was not your usual scene from “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” In a crimson gown by Georges Hobeika, Kim Kardashian was touring the new Renzo Piano-designed Resnick Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. After posing on the red carpet, she tweeted, “I’m at the most magnificent masquerade ball at the LACMA Museum!” to some 5 million followers.
Welcome to gala season in the art world, the time when L.A.'s leading museums roll out red carpets and stage black-tie parties to raise money — and their public profiles. Last month LACMA grossed nearly $5 million with an event that drew Kardashian, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Teri Hatcher and Christina Aguilera, who also performed. This month the Hammer Museum raised $1.3 million with a festive dinner (minus the red carpet) co-chaired by Will Ferrell, where Jane Fonda introduced honoree Alice Waters. And the Museum of Contemporary Art takes the stage Nov. 13, with artist Doug Aitken choreographing the activities and actresses Chloë Sevigny and Sandra Oh expected to attend.
For years, museum leaders here would commiserate with one another, if not publicly, about the lack of philanthropy coming from Hollywood. The industry has its share of contemporary art collectors, and filmmakers are visual artists in their own right, the thinking goes, so why aren’t they supporting the visual arts in their own backyard?
Today, the picture looks brighter, with Kardashian and others smiling for the paparazzi in front of museum logos. And galas have proved a crucial fundraising tool. But once the red carpets are rolled up and returned, how deep does Hollywood’s support for local museums really go?
Elizabeth Currid, a USC urban planning professor who studies the cultural economy, says that industry members generally do not make arts philanthropy a priority. “They tend to go for big causes: developing countries, geopolitical issues or research for the cure of a disease,” she says. “Being in a creative industry themselves, they don’t necessarily see museums as a philanthropic cause.”
Dean Valentine, a TV executive turned media entrepreneur who sits on the board at the Hammer Museum, says he has bumped into more industry types at art fairs and events over the last decade, as contemporary art has become more fashionable. But “there is a big gap between an agent buying art and becoming involved with a museum in a meaningful way,” he says.
Museum leaders have been working to close that gap. “Considering its size and the money it generates, it’s surprising how few people from the industry support the museums of this city. But we have begun to see that change,” says Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum. “And frankly it’s a relief.”
Maria Bell, a producer and head writer of the CBS soap opera “The Young and the Restless” and co-chair of the MOCA board, believes that making the contemporary art museum “less elitist and intimidating” helps. She helped bring the populist-minded Jeffrey Deitch on as director of MOCA, and is the driving force behind the museum’s increasingly star-studded galas — including last year’s Lady Gaga showcase, where Brad and Angelina (Pitt and Jolie) made a cameo and Gwen and Gavin (Stefani and Rossdale) stayed for dinner.
She also credits Philbin at the Hammer and Michael Govan at LACMA (where her husband, Bill Bell Jr., and sister-in-law Colleen Bell are both trustees) with making inroads.
“One thing that Michael especially has done is made it cool to be on museum boards,” she says. “He’s made it stylish to be a board member — not all drudgery but something you aspire to socially.”
Board membership is one of the few concrete ways to measure philanthropy in the museum world. LACMA costs $100,000 to join, with annual dues in the same amount. MOCA requires a minimum contribution of $150,000 or $250,000 upfront (international trustees get the discount) and $75,000 annually. The Hammer does not disclose its numbers. (Neither do major New York museums, where it reportedly takes a seven-figure commitment just to sit at the table.)
And the trustee ranks have been swelling with more recognizable names, if not core industry players. LACMA currently has 50 active board members; 30 of them have joined since 2006, the year of Govan’s arrival, including Barbra Streisand, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, designer Dasha Zhukova, TV journalist Willow Bay (whose husband is Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger), producer Brian Grazer, Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton and former Warner Brothers executive Terry Semel.
Govan doesn’t take full credit. “It’s not like I came here and everything changed — a lot of these people were brought in by trustees like Casey Wasserman and Bobby Kotick, the same group who pursued me. It’s all part of a larger push to take the museum in a new direction.”
LACMA’s director says his strategy has been to assume that industry philanthropy is not a special case. “Do you know how many wealthy people in L.A., not in the entertainment industry, don’t give to museums?” Govan says. “I find it easier to ignore the ‘industry issue’ and treat people on an individual basis.”
(The only industry-specific frustration Govan acknowledges is with LACMA’s film program, which sparked ample outrage — but little money — from filmmakers when it was almost canceled in 2009. Govan says the program is being retooled with the help of “some important industry figures” under the assumption that “it might not be engaging people it needs to engage.”)
At MOCA, which has 40 active trustees, new board members over the last two years include “Sex and the City” creator Darren Star, media magnate Peter Brant, Lauren King of KingWorld, Staples Center CEO Timothy Leiweke, Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk, and philanthropists Lilly Tartikoff Karatz and Jamie Tisch.
“I would say the majority of our trustees have, or have had, some connection to the entertainment industry,” says MOCA director Deitch. “But what interests me most is not just trying to line up patrons in the film and music business but working on creative collaborations that cut across the fields.”
Deitch notes that one area still sorely lacking is corporate sponsorship. “We would welcome more corporate support from big entertainment companies,” he says. (Chanel is the sponsor of this year’s gala.)
At the Hammer, which has a 22-member board of overseers, Philbin says her team is heavy on “behind-the-scenes types — not movie stars,” surmising, “I’m sure it has something to do with going to meetings — you can’t pin some people down.”
Her longtime board members include Peter Benedek and Jeremy Zimmer, founders of United Talent Agency; Michael Rubel, general counsel of Creative Artists Agency; and George Freeman of William Morris Endeavor, with Bob Gersh of the Gersh Agency joining this year.
The number of agencies represented on her board is not lost on Philbin. “These people are in their hearts talent scouts, so it’s not surprising they would be interested in contemporary art in the same way,” she says.
Philbin also sees promise on the talent front, mentioning Tobey Maguire, Rachel Griffiths and Will Ferrell as genuine fans of contemporary art who also write checks for gala seats. Griffiths, who attended the Hammer gala this month with her husband, painter Andrew Taylor, says spending time with artists and collectors is part of the attraction.
“One reason I love going to MOCA and Hammer parties is that you don’t have to listen to people from the industry whining about how boring L.A. is,” Griffiths says. “The art community here feels very diverse and energetic.”
Still, challenges remain for museums courting members of the entertainment industry. One is getting actors who aren’t used to buying things to buy event tickets. With few exceptions, celebrities taking the $5,000 seats at museum galas are not paying their own way but coming as guests of more established arts patrons.
Last year, Jessica Alba was a guest at Miuccia Prada’s table at MOCA. This year, LACMA trustee Casey Wasserman hosted at his table Kim Kardashian and her mother, Kris Jenner — “family friends,” he says.
Perhaps the biggest thorn still stuck in the side of museum directors: Some of L.A.'s most prominent collectors from the industry, such as Michael Ovitz and David Geffen, are not affiliated with art museums in town. While Ovitz lives with his art in his new Michael Maltzan-designed museum-like home in Beverly Hills, he is a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and not a local museum for reasons he declined to discuss.
Nor is Geffen (who also declined to comment) currently affiliated with a local museum, despite a one-time $5-million gift to MOCA in 1996 that put his name on the Geffen Contemporary. Many believe it’s Govan who, through LACMA trustee Lynda Resnick, has a shot at bringing Geffen into the fold as a donor.
Govan dismisses the idea that a gift of any sorts is in the works but acknowledges the importance of Geffen’s collection. “Obviously, I think the world of David’s collecting — he has a wonderful eye,” he says. “I won’t speak for David, but I’m sure part of it is that he wants to be involved with the highest quality museum. L.A. institutions are young and haven’t reached their full growth potential yet.”