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Opening of LACMA’s Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion brings L.A.-area art patrons and their collection to light

Would Lynda Resnick have been able to save Marie Antoinette from the guillotine? It’s difficult not to wonder as much when the marketing dynamo, known as the POM Queen for the pomegranate-juice empire she runs with husband Stewart, starts discussing the French queen’s public relations problems.

Wearing a flesh-colored Dior dress with Louboutin shoes, Resnick was standing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in front of a painting she owns: a luminescent portrait of a young Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée. A later version hangs at Versailles.

“A great deal of her bad press was manufactured by her enemies,” Resnick says. “She needed a better publicist. And she certainly needed a stronger husband.”

Resnick knows something about both. Over the last 30 years, she and Stewart have built their fortune with a string of companies, from Teleflora and the Franklin Mint to POM Wonderful and Fiji Water, for which she steered the marketing campaigns. The Los Angeles Business Journal estimated their net worth this year at $1.79 billion.

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Now, with the opening of a new Renzo Piano-designed building on the LACMA campus that bears their names after a $45-million gift, the Resnicks are entering the ranks of the city’s leading arts patrons. The Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, a highly flexible building designed for temporary exhibitions, opens to the public on Oct. 2.

The pavilion’s opening marks the first time a substantial part of their collection will go on public display.

And the gift makes them L.A.'s biggest arts donors whom you’ve probably never heard of. Without being household names like the Broads or the Annenbergs, they have joined a small group of philanthropists with the means and commitment to transform a cultural institution.

“Fifty years from now, we will see the Resnicks as part of the great cultural history of Los Angeles that includes Henry Huntington, Norton Simon and Edward Carter,” says Scott Schaefer, the paintings curator at the Getty who helped shape their collection early on, dating back to his own days at LACMA.

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L.A. County Museum of Art director Michael Govan says their $45-million donation to LACMA, accompanied by a pledge to donate artwork worth $10 million, represents “the second-largest single gift in the museum’s history.” The largest, $50 million plus $10 million in art, came from Eli and Edythe Broad.

What makes the Resnicks’ gift so “extraordinary,” Govan adds, is that they have made it with “no strings attached.”

“At the beginning, when the pavilion was in drawing form, they asked a lot of questions — Stewart is a very tough thinker financially,” says Govan. “then basically they came to visit two or three times during construction. It was an amazing vote of confidence.”

This represents a dramatic contrast, board members say, to Eli Broad’s involvement throughout construction of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA, also by Renzo Piano.

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Resnick herself, a LACMA trustee since 1992, acknowledges the difference. “We see no need to micromanage; we have seen the negative effects of it,” she says.

She declined to discuss Broad in any more detail but was happy to talk about other patrons who inspire her, including Ronald Lauder and David Geffen. “David has been very generous in his gifts and gives with no strings attached — I love that about him,” she says.

Geffen also comes up in an example she offers of just how unfashionable her French 18th century tastes can seem in L.A., where “everyone buys contemporary art. People just don’t understand why we collect Old Masters.”

For years the couple’s friends, such as Geffen, Barbra Streisand, Jared Diamond and Walter Isaacson, could see the Resnicks’ art collection at their 25,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts home on Sunset Boulevard, which in its décor and general grandeur has been compared to Versailles. But this month the couple threw a party at the Sunset house after the Old Masters pictures were removed for their LACMA installation.

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“David called me the next day, at 6:30 a.m. because that’s how he strikes,” she says. “He called to say that Nora Ephron likes the house better without those pictures. And she’s not the only one.”

Her own interest in Old Masters, Resnick says, comes from her childhood experience with her hometown museum: the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “That’s where I learned to love painting,” she says. “My father carried me around in his arms there.”

She even considered art school — “I had a nice hand, that’s all,” Resnick says now, noting that she was accepted at Chouinard in Los Angeles. But she says her father wouldn’t pay for it. So she took courses at Santa Monica City College (“it was like high school with ashtrays”) before starting her first advertising agency at age 19.

She married Stewart in 1972, after trying to land his firm as one of her advertising clients. She never got the account “but sure got the business,” as she likes to say.

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They built their fortune together through agricultural holdings (pistachios, pomegranates and more) and several consumer-driven companies, with Stewart providing the financial stewardship and Lynda the memorable marketing touches.

She paid a record price of $211,000 for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ fake pearls at Sotheby’s to create a Franklin Mint doll that replicated them beautifully. She devised the heart-based POM logo for their pomegranate juice and invested millions in scientific research documenting the fruit’s antioxidant-fueled health benefits. She rebranded Fiji Water with the greener slogan “untouched by man.”

Fiji Water has since come under intense scrutiny, along with other bottled water manufacturers, for its environmental impact. And POM Wonderful, which was boycotted before it stopped animal testing, this year received a warning letter from the FDA about making health claims befitting an unapproved new drug, like its promise to “slow prostate tumor growth.”

But sales remain strong, and the Resnicks’ supporters undaunted. Arianna Huffington praises Lynda Resnick’s skills as “very cutting-edge: She understands that marketing is really about engagement, not manipulation.” The dozens of book jacket blurbs for her memoirs, “Rubies in the Orchard,” that hint at the breadth of her social network are even more effusive.

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If the Resnicks are known for taking calculated risks in buying companies, their art acquisitions are arguably even more adventurous. Along with buying Old Masters gems in a town that skews contemporary, they are also known for buying lesser-known, or even unidentified, artists they just happen to love.

While their longtime curator Bernard Jazzar provides research and expertise, he readily admits that their Old Masters acquisitions always start with them. “If they don’t love something, there’s no convincing them.”

He says the collection has about 3,500 works, including objets d’art such as a Zsolnay ceramic bowl in the shape of a pomegranate, the paintings and sculptures now at LACMA, and more contemporary material at the offices.

Typically Lynda tends to pursue the paintings, and Stewart the sculpture, but they run purchases past each other first. And they share a taste for the sensual, which translates visually into an abundance of flesh, from over-ripe cleavage to outright nudity.

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The running joke is that it’s an R-rated collection.

“We had trouble finding images that we could use on the street banners,” says Govan.

Still, there are exceptions to the worldly decadence. One is a Madonna by Ingres, showing a serene Mary standing at an altar. One of the Resnicks’ few religious paintings, it hung in their master bedroom before being installed at LACMA.

“I’m a closet Catholic,” says Lynda, who is in other respects Jewish. “I love the iconography of the saints.There was a point in my life when I was going to convert to Catholicism, but I didn’t want my grandmother spinning around in her grave like a rotisserie chicken.”

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For Stewart, the most personal piece is surely a massive marble sculpture of Napoleon that presides over their drawing room at the Sunset house. It is not in the LACMA show. “It was too big to move,” he says. (“It’s hideous; it reminds me of Forest Lawn,” his wife declares.)

While their art collection is admittedly flashy in these ways, their philanthropic activities over the years have been more discreet. “We have tried to keep a low profile,” says Stewart Resnick, who granted only a brief interview for this article. “Giving should be its own reward.”

They made their first major gift in 1987, when they owned the Franklin Mint in Philadelphia. They gave $1 million to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to endow the rotunda gallery, where Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” now hangs. (Lynda still sits on the board of the Philadelphia museum as well as the Aspen Institute and some medical boards, while Stewart Resnick is a trustee at the Getty and Caltech among others.)

More recently, they gave $15 million to UCLA for the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital and $20 million to Caltech for a new sustainability institute. They have also tried to cultivate a philanthropic culture within their company, Roll International Corp., through a program started in 2006. Along with matching employee gifts to charity, Roll Giving grants every full-time employee who has been with the company for six months — currently 3,700 out of 4,500 — $1,000 a year to give to the charity of their choice.

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“It’s much more effective for us to let each employee give $1,000 away than for us to donate a lump sum of a few million dollars somewhere,” Stewart says.

As for donating artworks, the couple has made occasional gifts to museums , but nothing along the lines of their $10-million pledge of art to LACMA. Word is that they will announce the first major donation under this pledge at LACMA’s black-tie gala on Saturday: Jean Restout’s 1717 mythological painting, “Venus Ordering Arms from Vulcan for Aeneas.”

What about the rest of the 3,500-work collection? Lynda Resnick says the plan is to donate those works too, provided “there’s something left in our estate and our heirs don’t have to sell the pictures.” (The couple has five children and four grandchildren.)

“We really do think of ourselves as stewards of these works,” she says. “We want our collection to go to public institutions. Obviously LACMA is No. 1, but we’ll also think about the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Getty.”

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But that’s enough talk of legacy for Mrs. Resnick, who does not like to disclose her age. “I don’t plan on going that quickly,” she says.

jori.finkel@latimes.com


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