Centre Pompidou Foundation: L.A.'s French connection

A CULTURAL BOND: Scott Stover, shown at his home in Beverly Hills, heads the Centre Pompidou Foundation.
A CULTURAL BOND: Scott Stover, shown at his home in Beverly Hills, heads the Centre Pompidou Foundation.
(Ken Hively, Los Angeles Times)

The Pompidou Center is a magnet for students, tourists and arts aficionados in central Paris, housing the National Museum of Modern Art, a public library and performance spaces in an inside-out building with mechanical systems encased in giant red, blue and green pipes and a view-to-die-for escalator in a transparent cylinder. But it gets by with a little help from its American friends -- and they are based in Los Angeles.

The Centre Pompidou Foundation, a nonprofit organization that allows donors to reap tax benefits, acquires and encourages gifts of American art and design for the museum’s permanent collection. To be sure, it’s not the only U.S. group lending a hand to a government-supported bastion of high culture overseas: There are similar affiliations for the Louvre, St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, Jerusalem’s Israel Museum and London’s Royal Academy of Arts, British Museum and Tate Gallery. All of those -- including the American Friends of the Israel Museum, with a branch office in Beverly Hills -- have their headquarters in New York. The Pompidou’s is the only group of its kind based in L.A.

In an age of global communication, office locations may not matter much. But the Centre Pompidou Foundation has always been a little different.

A circuitous route

Launched as the Georges Pompidou Art & Culture Foundation in 1977, the year the Pompidou opened, the group was founded by Dominique de Menil, a French American philanthropist and art collector who lived in Houston. The foundation was based in Texas for many years, but as De Menil aged, it became less active. After her death in 1997, it languished.

Then came Scott Stover, a New York-educated Francophile with an eye for L.A.

A native of Chicago who was smitten with Paris in his Columbia College and University days -- and lived there for about 30 years while pursuing a highly successful career as an investment banker -- he agreed to take charge of the foundation in 2005.

That meant returning to the U.S. But where?

“Paris is a perfect city in a European model,” Stover says. “It has a dense population, public transportation, culture, savoir vivre. It’s not obvious where you go from there. But Los Angeles represents a different way of life, more like a city of the future. It has a spectacular urban landscape. It’s living in nature. It just felt right.”

Stover and his partner, French landscape architect Philippe Cottet, bought a clean-lined modern house in Beverly Hills and turned it into an airy retreat that seems to float above the city. The foundation’s headquarters is in a Century City high-rise, in offices donated by a law firm.

Alfred Pacquement, director of the museum at the Pompidou, considers Stover’s choice “an interesting alternative” to New York. “We have had an interest in California and Los Angeles for many years,” he says.

Though it might sound like diplomatic director speak, the attraction went public with the sprawling exhibition “Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital” at the Pompidou in 2006 -- coincidentally, the same year the foundation opened its Los Angeles office.

Foundation members, who pay $20,000 annual dues to buy American artworks, are more concerned with the group’s collecting activities and perks such as annual weekends in Paris and far-flung trips than the L.A. link. But they have thoughts on the subject.

“It’s a little bit more of a safe harbor here,” says Tony Ganz, a Los Angeles film producer who heads the foundation’s acquisitions committee.

Speaking from New York, Robert M. Rubin, a former financier who chairs the foundation’s board, sees it this way: “There are lots of arguments to make as to how Los Angeles could be considered America’s leading art capital, as opposed to the capital of the art market, which is obviously New York.”

“In a way,” says Lisa Dennison, executive vice president of Sotheby’s North America and former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, “it is a very smart move because New York is such a competitive place. Why not be headquartered on the West Coast and start to build with a different constituency?”

Says Joan Davidson, a New York collector of early 20th century decorative arts: “I kind of like that we seek to do our own thing. The Pompidou is forward-looking. It does challenging exhibitions. There’s no formulaic procedure.”

Stover, who was recruited by Bruno Racine, former president of the Pompidou Center, has embraced L.A.'s lifestyle, but he and Cottet also have a country house with extensive gardens in the south of France.

“I had no thought of leaving Paris,” Stover says during a conversation in his living room. “But I wanted to do something that has some meaning. What I like about the Pompidou is the curatorial vision. It’s not about blockbusters, although they have some. It’s about art of the 20th and 21st century. The curators show what is important for the public and scholars. The exhibitions redefine art movements and create a new context.”

The next big thing is “Elles,” a project of curator Camille Morineau that will open this month and fill much of the museum for more than a year. More than an exhibition, it’s a retelling of 20th century art history exclusively through works made by women in the museum’s collection, including American pieces brought in by the foundation. (In all, the collection comprises 60,000 works by more than 5,000 artists from 100 countries, the largest holding of modern and contemporary art in Europe.)

Stover’s face lights up as he talks about the museum and what the foundation has accomplished on his watch. As leader of a group charged with fostering connoisseurship and an exchange of ideas as well as spending money on art, he describes himself as a bridge between the Pompidou and its American supporters.

Membership stands at 42, not far short of what he sees as the ideal number: 50. He and Rubin have quietly shaped a group of collectors and art professionals, many of whom speak French and all of whom profess love for the Pompidou. Eager to heighten the presence of American art in France, gain special access to the museum and participate in a travel program that opens doors to private collections, artists’ studios and museums around the world -- Japan in 2007, Brazil in 2008, Mexico later this year -- they form a small but dedicated cadre of like-minded philanthropists.

For Dennison, belonging to the foundation is one of many official associations that connects Sotheby’s auction house to cultural institutions in the United States and abroad. For others, joining the group is a more personal commitment -- sometimes made over a meal or a garden fence.

Ganz, who serves on drawings acquisition committees at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, wasn’t looking for another museum commitment when Stover came calling.

“Scott took me to lunch so many times, I finally had to say yes,” Ganz says. “But in the end, I joined because there is no museum collection that is as great as the Pompidou’s and that has as many requisite holes to fill, particularly in its postwar American holdings. I felt that even if we made a handful of key acquisitions a year, we would make an immediate and noticeable difference. We are not going to change their world with a few million dollars, but I think we can find work that will stick to the wall for them. Even on a modest collecting scale, that’s a contribution worth making.”

Stover also tapped Judy Pillsbury, a longtime friend. An American photography collector and former print dealer who has lived in France since 1965, she has a country house near his.

“What appealed to me most,” Pillsbury says, “is that we would have a connection with curators. Forty years ago I wouldn’t have thought that any French curator would want to hang out with a bunch of Americans. It would have seemed somehow against the rules of the game. But Camille Morineau, the curator I have gotten closest to, is amazingly generous with her time. It creates a bond. You feel invested in their success.”

For Suzanne Deal Booth, a conservator and philanthropist who recently moved from L.A. to Austin, Texas, joining the group has been a sort of homecoming. She came to Stover’s attention as a trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but he soon learned that she had close ties to the foundation. An assistant to De Menil in her college days, she also did postgraduate work at the Pompidou, restoring paintings in the collection, and received a grant from the foundation.

Since 2006, the revivified support group has brought in donations of 28 works, collectively valued at more than $14 million, and purchased many others. In 2008 alone, individuals donated about $5 million in art and the group bought works by 12 artists, including a bronze sculpture by Robert Gober, photographs by Zoe Leonard, a suite of lithographs by Robert Morris and a mixed-media, sculptural self-portrait by Jorge Pardo.

A committee of Ganz, Stover, Rubin and Steven J. Guttman, a retired real estate mogul who lives in New York and Miami Beach, coordinates collecting activities. With a lengthy wish list compiled by Pompidou curators as its guide, the group consults with other foundation members, who contribute art and money and solicit gifts from outside sources.

Pacquement describes the process as an ongoing dialogue: “They have ideas. We have ideas. We try to put them together.”

Notable contributions

Rubin, a leading patron of French Modernism, made the first major gift in 2005: “Tropical House,” one of three existing prefabricated residences designed by Jean Prouvé in 1949 for the French colonies. As the work of a French architect, valued at $4 million, the house did not conform to the foundation’s American art mission, but it set a high standard. Rubin found the house in the Congo, had it restored and sent it on a tour, including the Hammer Museum in L.A., before shipping it to the Pompidou, where it is installed on the fifth-floor terrace.

The group’s first purchase, at Ganz’s suggestion, was “S.O.S. Starification Object Series, Mastication Box,” a large installation by Hannah Wilke, a prominent feminist artist who died in 1993. Her sister, Marsie Scharlatt, who lives in Los Angeles and manages the estate’s collection of Wilke’s work, describes the acquisition as “a really good coming together.” It gave the museum a major Wilke piece and, as its first example of her work, established the artist at the Pompidou, where she will be represented in “Elles.” As an expression of gratitude, Scharlatt’s family donated two Wilke sculptures to the museum in honor of Ganz.

Among the foundation members who have donated works from their collections are Arne Glimcher, who chairs PaceWildenstein gallery in New York, and his wife, Milly. In the last couple of years they have parted with a 1999-2000 portrait of Arne painted by Chuck Close, a 1969 glass sculpture by Larry Bell and a 2004 abstract painting by Agnes Martin.

“Our mission is to place things from our collection where we would like to see them, not in one place,” says Glimcher, adding that he and Milly also have donated works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y.

Competition among museum support groups is inevitable, but most Centre Pompidou Foundation members contribute to several cultural institutions.

“It’s not either-or,” Stover says, “and what we do is good for American artists as well as the Pompidou.” What’s more, he says, “an American museum wants your whole collection, or 10 pieces. We are happy with one.”