Nicolas Berggruen explains why he intends to give art to LACMA

Nicolas Berggruen travels more in three months than most people do in a lifetime. Dubbed "the homeless billionaire" because he prefers living out of five-star hotels to owning any homes, his business and nonprofit ventures this winter alone have taken him to Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, New Delhi and Zurich, with a side trip to Antarctica.

So it's not entirely surprising to learn that Berggruen, who owns a Gulfstream IV, is not big on cars. "I can drive," said the energetic, boyish-looking 50-year-old. "Let's just say you don't want to be in the passenger seat," he added, flashing the hint of a smile.

The talk about driving was inspired by a visit to LACMA, where a major art work owned by Berggruen that basically looks like a kid's overgrown racetrack, with hundreds of cars zipping by at top speeds, has recently gone on view. Chris Burden's "Metropolis II" is at the museum on a 10-year loan, but it just might become the first of many permanent donations to the museum. For Berggruen has over the last year quietly spent tens of millions of dollars buying museum-quality works by 12 leading contemporary artists, which he says he intends to donate to the museum — if some general conditions are met.

In a city where it often appears there are more museums than top-level patrons to fully support them, he seems almost made to order to fill a major role on the cultural scene.

He's the son of the great Jewish-German art dealer-collector Heinz Berggruen, who donated more than 100 works by Picasso and 60 by Klee to the Berlin museum system. He's glamorous, with enough Hollywood connections to throw a popular annual pre-Oscars party at the Chateau Marmont. And he's serious about world events, to the point where he would much rather talk about his participation in this year's meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, than any swanky party.

Oh, and he's worth about $2.3 billion, according to Forbes, and plans to give it all away.

"Other people might have family — three kids or five houses. In my case, that doesn't exist," said Berggruen, who has never married. "I'm going to give everything away. Everything has been transferred to charitable trusts. There is no question about that. The question is where, not if."

California, where he lives just a few months a year, stands a good chance of being a leading beneficiary on two fronts. The German-American citizen has already announced that he will spend at least $20 million in support of Think Long, a bipartisan think tank that he founded with such high-profile members as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Condoleezza Rice and Eli Broad, to help repair what he calls California's "broken political framework." (Next step: getting proposals like a reform of the state income tax and a new tax of 5% on services such as hair stylists and lawyers before voters in the form of propositions.)

And, what few people realize, he is also ramping up his plans for cultural philanthropy. In his most extensive interview on the subject, he said he has been working closely with LACMA director Michael Govan on acquisitions intended for the museum, from sitting down together to refine a wish list of artists to reviewing works under consideration.

"I've been doing this very cooperatively with LACMA, so the artists are artists that Michael likes and the works are ones he likes," said Berggruen, who became a museum trustee in 2008 with encouragement from friends like Broad and video game mogul Bobby Kotick. "I want to give this all to LACMA."

The list consists of Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Charles Ray, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Martin Kippenberger and Thomas Schütte. Apart from Nauman, who now lives in New Mexico, all are either Californian or German; most are on the edgier end of the contemporary art spectrum. Five are represented by the Gagosian Gallery.

That none are women doesn't trouble Berggruen. "They were picked one by one, not picked because they are old or young, have a beard or no beard," he explained.

"What I love about his idea is that here he is, a citizen of the world, with no residence — call him and he's in Africa, South America, Asia, and he's zoomed in on these artists from Los Angeles," said Govan, who has focused on building up LACMA's contemporary holdings. Asked about his contribution to the acquisition list, Govan described it a bit differently than Berggruen did. "Just to be clear, this is not my list of artists, it's Nicolas' list," he said. "It's very much his personal sensibility."

Whatever the extent of Govan's involvement, the billionaire said he has bought dozens of artworks, including several ambitious large-scale works. One, a 1989 sculpture by Nauman, brings together rows of caribou, deer and fox forms into an "Animal Pyramid." Another, a sprawling, primal-philosophical installation by Beuys, "Lightning With Stag in its Glare," was completed in 1985, the year before the artist's death.

But he also likes the idea of "buying in depth." So instead of just buying Burden's racetrack, Berggruen has bought eight pieces by the artist, from documentation of 1970s performances to a massive 1996 kinetic sculpture called "The Flying Steamroller" that actually sets a 12-ton steamroller into flight. For now he keeps most of the works in storage.

"My work is difficult to collect — it's sort of the opposite of the canvas you hang with two nails," said Burden. "It takes a brave person to buy something that complicated." The artist takes it as a sign that Berggruen is serious about donating the works and does not plan on flipping them at auction — a reasonable suspicion considering the volume he is buying. "They are awkward and difficult works. If he was a speculator, he wouldn't be buying my work."

But as Berggruen readily volunteers, he has not actually given any of the works he has bought to LACMA. Nor have any pledges been signed.

Could this be a repeat for LACMA of the debacle it suffered when Broad, after financing a new building on the museum campus to house part of his blue-chip collection, announced that he would not donate it to the museum?

Berggruen insists that's not the case. "I've been very upfront with Michael. I've been very, very transparent. I want this to end up with LACMA, but LACMA should not be one person's efforts; there should be four or five people who really contribute to give it the depth and critical mass and texture it needs to be really vibrant. If that happens, my donation makes sense. If it never gets there, it won't," he calmly explained that day at LACMA.

Govan said he shares Berggruen's thinking. "If you're going to make an investment on that scale, hundreds of millions of dollars, you want to see at least two or three times that size investment from other people. I'm on his side. I understood that from the day I began working with him."

For now, at least, the men seem to be in sync and clearly enjoy talking art and politics together. And they sound remarkably similar when talking about LACMA's strengths — its encyclopedic collection, its central location and its position within a cluster of museums like the Page, the Petersen and the pending Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which Berggruen imagines could one day could become a major tourist attraction like the five-institution Museum Island in Berlin.

"Museums in L.A. today are very dysfunctional," Berggruen said. "We have all these different museums spread out on their own: the Norton Simon, the Getty, MOCA, LACMA, the Hammer Museum and now Eli's museum. I think if L.A. can develop a couple of cultural nodes, where you really achieve critical mass, you could have a much more active public cultural life."

LACMA's other strength, according to Berggruen, is that it receives some public funding. "What I really like is that it's in essence a public and private partnership because it's supported by the county, so it has a better chance of having longevity than purely private institutions," he said, sounding every bit the savvy investor.

A 'very special' city

Even if his reasons for choosing LACMA are clear, it remains something of a mystery why Berggruen set his sights on L.A. in the first place. Born to a German father and French mother, he was schooled at École Alsacienne in Paris and Le Rosey in Switzerland. His first real landing pad in the U.S. was New York, where he completed his undergraduate degree at NYU in three years.

In New York, he also began building his fortune through what one writer called "classic value investing." He started by buying real estate before moving on to stocks, bonds and early private equity vehicles. Later, after founding Berggruen Holdings, he bought troubled companies like FGX, the eyewear company that he rebuilt and took public at an enormous profit.

Today, the investments that he oversees as part of Berggruen Holdings are highly diversified or, as its website says, "industry agnostic," including the Karstadt department store chain in Germany, the Keys budget hotels in India, the UEI chain of vocational schools in California, and assorted power and renewable energy companies.

He took his first big trip out West as a teenager, visiting L.A. and San Francisco, home to his older half-brother gallery owner John Berggruen. (An older half-sister, Helen, lives in wine country outside San Francisco, and his younger brother Olivier lives in New York.) He later returned on occasion for work, including one time in which he tried to purchase a commercial property from the notoriously hard-driving businessman and art collector Norton Simon. It was "quite a negotiating learning experience," he said, calling Simon "a very determined and unbelievable negotiator" who was also "curious and creative."

Later, as his business grew, Berggruen began spending more time in L.A. just to get away from it all. "L.A. is very special to me, so far away from my world on the East Coast, Europe, Asia. It's a bit of an island for me — less intense, less busy; because of time difference and location, it has a calming effect," he said. "At least it used to be all that," he added, glancing at yet another message on his Blackberry. (One was an offer of a 1945 Picasso painting, which he was considering buying for the Berlin museum system — the other arts institution that he actively supports.)

"I find L.A. super vibrant. The city is not always considered a serious place, but it has a lot of serious creativity," he added. "Notwithstanding its problems, California is the idea center of America. If you take away Hollywood and Silicon Valley for the last 20 years, you would have a different world. If you erased New York, I hate to say it, if you erased Frankfurt, even London, the world would not have changed."

These days, L.A. is one home of many or of none. About a decade ago, he decided to shed most of his material possessions in a process he calls "lightening up." He sold an island estate in Miami, an apartment in Manhattan and a collection of paintings, "mainly Andy Warhol." (He now regrets selling the paintings instead of donating them.)

As for his current, fast-growing collection, it has been so much under wraps that even his older brother John Berggruen doesn't know all the details. He says he does not play a substantial role in his brother's collecting. "He's very, very independent and does things privately."

But the gallerist is not surprised by his interest in arts philanthropy. "It's in the tradition of our family — our father was generous not only with the Berlin museums but the National Gallery in London, the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He set a very high standard, but I think Nicolas is heading in that direction a bit."

LACMA trustee Bobby Kotick, the president of Activision, is even more emphatic in the comparison. "I think that Nicolas' collection will have the same type of significance as his father's did for the 20th century," he said.

So does he think Berggruen will make good on his plans for donating the works? "I think he is one of the most well-intentioned people I know," Kotick said. "We are so fortunate to have his involvement. And I think it's inspiring a lot of other trustees."

jori.finkel@latimes.com

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