L.A. museums’ collections grow despite poor economy

ACQUISITION: U.S. artist Reginald Marsh’s “ Red Buttons” (1936) is among works picked up by the Huntington.
ACQUISITION: U.S. artist Reginald Marsh’s “ Red Buttons” (1936) is among works picked up by the Huntington.
(The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens)

As Los Angeles art museums face the future in a down economy, building their collections may not be the highest priority, but it’s a big worry.

Will art acquisition funds dwindle to nothing? Will once-dependable patrons stop writing checks when curators pass the hat for art purchases? Will potential art gifts go to market? Will more museums pool resources to make joint purchases, as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Fowler Museum at UCLA recently did to buy a huge tapestry-like construction made by African artist El Anatsui using metal castoffs?

No one knows, and not only because it’s impossible to predict the length and force of the ongoing financial storm. Cash donations for acquisitions can be expected to plummet, but gifts of art are less predictable. In good times and bad, artworks come to museums in various ways -- from friends and complete strangers.

And despite the gloom that descended last fall, 2008 turned out to be a surprisingly good year for local collection growing.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, the grim economy compounds a long-festering financial debacle that led to the recent departure of Director Jeremy Strick. Still, the collection grew by 141 works, including 50 pieces donated by New York collectors Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, sculptures by Lynda Benglis and Hans Haacke, mixed-media constructions by Mike Kelley, a painting by Peter Saul and a conceptual installation by Lawrence Weiner.

LACMA gained 4,747 works, including 3,500 photographs amassed by L.A. collectors Marjorie and Leonard Vernon and a 46-piece holding of rare Oceanic art compiled by a Detroit foundation. Among other recent arrivals are Japanese guardian-animal sculptures, Native American ceramics, a 15th century Italian painting by Cima da Conegliano, a suite of late 19th century drawings by Belgian Expressionist James Ensor and “The Illegal Operation,” a 1962 installation by Edward Kienholz.

The J. Paul Getty Museum expanded its art holdings with 894 acquisitions, including a Roman sarcophagus, an Ethiopian manuscript, paintings by Paul Gauguin and Claude Lorrain, sculptures by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and photographs by Irving Penn and Carleton Watkins. The Fowler enriched its textile collection with 666 items from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. The Hammer Museum added 169 pieces to its fledgling contemporary art collection; the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts gained 192 works, including donations of 50 contemporary photographs from the David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg Foundation and about 40 drawings and photos from artist James Welling.

Plans for new American art galleries at the , sparked the acquisition of paintings by Reginald Marsh, John George Brown and Charles Sheeler and sculptures by Harriet Hosmer and William Wetmore Story. But the 146 objects added last year also brought European paintings, sculptures and decorative arts to the Huntington.

The riches reflect the collective work of museum staffs and support groups as well as the generosity of individual philanthropists. But each museum is a special case.

Although the Getty’s huge endowment allows it to make multimillion-dollar purchases, the museum also attracts donations of art. Last year, about 500 photographs and three 19th century paintings arrived as gifts from two dozen donors. The Norton Simon Museum makes relatively little effort to expand the collection amassed by its founder, but it still receives gifts. In 2008, a suite of 10 Indian paintings was given to the museum by Southern California collectors Dr. Narendra and Rita Parson.

Windfalls are rare. For every desirable object that slides through the transom or arrives on a silver platter, there are thousands that require considerable sleuthing, politicking, negotiating and fundraising. But every now and then, something wonderful falls out of the blue.

One day last June, curator Wendy Kaplan, head of decorative arts and design at LACMA, had just lamented about a big hole in her department’s Arts and Crafts collection when she received an e-mail message with an offer to fix the problem.

The writer was William J. Zeile of Arlington, Va., whose great-uncle co-founded a San Francisco furniture shop with Arthur and Lucia Mathews in 1906, in response to the earthquake that devastated the city. The firm mainly produced custom furnishings for offices and residences. But for close friends and family, the Mathewses made extraordinary carved and painted pieces that merge the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement with the classicism of the American Renaissance, and that’s what Kaplan coveted.

LACMA has a major holding of Arts and Crafts material, thanks to collector Max Palevsky and his wife, Jodie Evans. But a landscape by Arthur Mathews -- promised by Nancy Daly, former LACMA board of trustees chairman, and given to the museum last year -- was the museum’s only example of the Mathewses’ work.

To Kaplan’s amazement, Zeile wrote: “I noticed from the LACMA Web site that your museum recently received as a promised gift a landscape painting by Arthur Mathews. I am writing to inquire whether the museum would be interested in receiving as a gift other works of art connected with Arthur and Lucia Mathews, specifically some pieces of Arts & Crafts furniture that will soon come into my possession from my late father’s estate.”

Kaplan says she immediately called Zeile and “made a beeline” to the family home in South Pasadena with fellow curator Thomas Michie. Given their choice, they selected seven wood pieces: an elaborately painted chest, a table with a drawer, a large candelabrum that stands on the floor, two covered jars and a pair of candlesticks.

“Other than Max Palevsky’s gifts,” she says, “this is the best gift to come in my eight years here. The Mathewses are the most important Arts and Crafts furniture designers in Northern California. Now, all of a sudden, we not only have an example, we have some depth.” The entire group of Mathews material will go on view June 14.

Roy Hamilton, the Fowler’s curator of Asian and Pacific collections, had a similarly happy experience last year when he pursued a tip about a Japanese textile collection in search of a home. Bypassing the usual courtship, he went to see Dr. Jeffrey Krauss of Potomac, Md., and landed 201 intricately dyed and patterned textiles made from the early 19th to the mid-20th century. Unexpected as it was, the marriage was meant to be, Hamilton says, because the museum can accommodate entire collections and make them available for research, as the donor wished.

The Krauss collection and 180 objects donated by a longtime supporter, collector and curator Gloria Gonick, tripled the Fowler’s holding of Japanese textiles. Their large gifts and many smaller ones have helped to build a 15,000-piece textile collection known as one of the most comprehensive in the world.

But what about the future?

Museums such as the Fowler, which rely heavily on gifts of art and artifacts, are unlikely to be severely affected by the sagging economy, Hamilton says. But those that struggle to amass acquisition funds may come up short.

At MOCA, where the challenge might seem most daunting, chief curator Paul Schimmel says the museum has “a profound commitment to the collection.” Although acquisitions are on hold while the museum is reorganized, he says the collection will grow.

“If the severe downturn continues, you will see the effects next year and the year after,” he says. “It will be similar to what happened in the early ‘90s.” But there could be some benefits. “When works of art double or triple in value in a year or two, they tend to end up at auction,” he says. “When the market declines, people don’t do as much buying and selling. Some of them say, ‘Well, OK, it’s worth more as a gift.’ That affects the area of the market that moves most rapidly and where there has been the greatest speculation, and that’s contemporary.

“There’s also less competition to buy artworks in studios and at galleries and art fairs,” he says. MOCA can focus on less expensive areas of the market, including highly accomplished artists who have been overlooked or forgotten.

“This is the time when you hope institutions will really invest in their future by acquiring things that become available,” Schimmel says. “It isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you look at the art market in cycles of 10 or 20 years, there are opportunities special to the climate we are in right now.”