A memorable moment from Saturday night’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art gala: 93-year-old assemblage artist Betye Saar, one of the evening’s two honorees, greeting guests in the museum’s central plaza during cocktails. The woman whom the New Yorker recently called “one of the most significant philosopher-artists of the past century” wore a flowing, sparkly black Gucci gown, her hair tucked into a turban bearing a diamond-encrusted eye pendant that her date this evening, Neil Lane, had designed for the occasion.
“It’s the all-seeing eye, it sees everything,” Saar whispered, leaning forward conspiratorially, bathed in the hazy, ethereal emerald and lavender lights from Robert Irwin’s adjacent “Primal Palm Garden.” “It’s a symbol of wisdom.”
Behind her, Space Age-like light projections shimmered against a museum wall. The vibe at this early stage of the event was mystical and otherworldly. Which was fitting, considering that Saar has used the mystical eye image in her work, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The atmosphere was also a nod to the work of Oscar-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, the gala’s other honoree, particularly his space adventure movie “Gravity.”
“They’re both legends in their fields,” LACMA Director Michael Govan said during cocktails. The gala, he added, “is about bringing art and film together civically and raising the level of appreciation of film generally. In a way, it’s culminated in the Academy Museum [next door] and the partnership on Wilshire Boulevard — art and film will sit together forever and that’s a different vibe than any other city on Earth.”
Laura Dern, a member of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ board of governors, said Govan had wanted LACMA to be a collaborative hub for artists. “And you can’t ignore what film is as fine art, especially in Los Angeles,” she said. “So the combination of the two spaces is really exciting.”
LACMA’s ninth annual Art +Film gala, again co-chaired by museum trustee Eva Chow and Leonardo DiCaprio, raised more than $4.6 million for the museum’s exhibitions, educational initiatives and film program as well as future art acquisitions.
Separately, LACMA continues to push toward its $650-million goal for a new museum building by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The project’s fundraising campaign, Govan said, is “pushing $580 million.” LACMA is aiming to break ground in early 2020.
LACMA may be a veritable ghost town these days, with roughly half its galleries closed as the museum readies for construction. But on Saturday night, more than 800 guests crowded into the gala dinner tent. They included artists Mark Bradford, Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger, Mary Weatherford, Lauren Halsey, Julie Mehretu and 99-year-old Luchita Hurtado, whose prints and paintings LACMA plans to exhibit next spring; as well as actors, filmmakers and musicians including Salma Hayek, Jon Hamm, Keanu Reeves, Brie Larson, Ricky Martin, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Jared Leto, Kiki Layne and Billie Eilish.
“I feel like Alfonso is in the breadth of his career, firing off on all cylinders,” Bradford said. “And Betye is like this elder statesman. They can almost learn from each other. It’s perfect.”
Hamm added that his aunt had been a docent at LACMA decades ago. “I remember coming out to visit her when I was a little kid and going to LACMA and seeing John Baldessari and David Hockney and all the classic L.A. contemporary art. It was an eye opener for me,” he said.
During dinner, John Legend introduced Saar, whom he called “one of the most important artists of her generation” and “the vanguard of assemblage art.”
Saar said in her speech that she’d been coming to LACMA since she was in grade school in Pasadena. Back then the museum was in Exposition Park in the basement of a museum of history, science and art. “I’m really proud to have lived through those times,” she said. “It’s really wonderful to be able to live your life doing what you love to do. And that’s what art is to me.”
Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos thanked the museum for being “such a great champion of film” and said Cuarón was “one of the true masters of cinema.”
Donald Glover added that Cuarón had made “some of the most captivating films of the last 30 years.”
Cuarón, in his speech, spoke about the power of words and stories “to make sense of our mysterious world and to bring order to the random nature of human existence.” In our fast-paced, technology-driven world, he said, “there has never been a more important time to tell humanity’s story.”
“This is why maybe humans still gather in dark spaces to hear simple stories,” he added, “of good and bad, of important things in life that never change — love, loss, friendship, loyalty.”
At the end of the evening, Will Ferrell appeared onstage and announced, “Viva Mexico!” Then he ushered everyone outside to the plaza, where Grammy winner Anderson .Paak performed in a swirl of those emerald and lavender lights, shot through with bits of electric yellow. A sizzle of mysticism and magic.