Why a reclusive billionaire decided to give $500 million in art to L.A. museum
As a junior talent agent at MCA a half-century ago, Jerry Perenchio was assigned to accompany British actor Charles Laughton as he toured the U.S. giving staged theatrical readings.
In his off-hours, Laughton wanted to visit art museums, and Perenchio went along with him. A lifelong fascination with art had begun, and as Perenchio rose in the entertainment industry — ultimately becoming chairman of Univision Communications — he used his wealth to amass some of the world’s greatest art.
At his Bel-Air home Wednesday, the 83-year-old Perenchio said that he will be giving almost all of it — at least 47 works valued at $500 million — to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“L.A. is my home, and I wanted to leave it to a museum here,” he said.
The bequest, which would go into effect after his death, comes with one big string attached: The museum must first complete construction of its new building, which is planned for 2023. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday approved in concept a plan that would provide public financing and $125 million toward the $600-million project, although key hurdles remain before construction can begin.
Times art critic Christopher Knight said Perenchio’s bequest of works from the 19th and 20th centuries would be a significant addition to the museum’s holdings.
“The terrific paintings by Monet, Leger and Magritte, for example, will add important dimensions to canvases by those artists already in LACMA’s collection,” Knight said. “Several of the numerous works on paper are especially intriguing — the Manet portrait, a very unique mixed-media Degas. LACMA’s collection has been rather weak in Cubist art, which was critical to the whole 20th century, so early Picasso drawings like the ‘Head of Fernande’ ... are a very welcome addition.”
The donation was also seen as a victory for the home team: Los Angeles. LACMA has acquired dozens of collections over the years, through gifts and purchases. But it has a loudly lamented history of losing significant art holdings that it was expected to get, including world-class collections built by Walter and Louise Arensberg and Norton Simon.
“It’s a coup for the public of Los Angeles,” said Michael Govan, the museum’s CEO and director. “LACMA could never afford to buy works of art like this. It’s an unthinkable thing at this point.”
The grandson of Italian immigrants, Perenchio grew up in Fresno and graduated from UCLA. He began his career in show business as an agent at Lew Wasserman’s MCA and later started his own talent agency.
He quickly gained a reputation as one of the smartest businessmen in town. In 1981, Perenchio and TV producer Norman Lear bought Avco Embassy Picture Corp. for $25 million. Four years later, they sold it to Coca-Cola for $485 million.
He hit the big time with Spanish-language TV network Univision. Perenchio and two partners bought Univision from Hallmark for $550 million in 1992. Their timing could not have been better; advertisers were looking for a way to reach millions of Latino consumers, and Univision was the pipeline into their homes.
In 2007, Perenchio and his partners closed the sale of Univision to an investment group led by Los Angeles billionaire Haim Saban for $12.3 billion. Perenchio collected $1.3 billion for his stake in the company.
Throughout his career, Perenchio was known as someone who rarely talked to reporters — and once fired a subordinate executive who did. His collection of business aphorisms, or Rules of the Road, began with this one: “Steer clear of the press. No interviews, no speeches, no panels. ... Stay out of the spotlight. It fades your suit.”
In the interview at his home, where the walls are adorned with many of the works he will be donating, Perenchio said he was now changing course because he wants to focus attention on LACMA’s campaign to build a new museum to replace four deteroriating structures built in the 1960s and 1980s.
Most of his donations over the years, he added, were done anonymously.
“I never put my name on anything,” he said. “In this case, I’ve decided that it’s worth a temporary step into the spotlight and to encourage other collectors to give to LACMA and support the fundraising.”
LACMA is the largest art museum in the West, but its collection would be even richer were it not for some high-profile defections over the years.
In the late 1930s, Walter and Louise Arensberg offered to give the museum’s predecessor in Exposition Park their immensely valuable trove of modern, pre-Columbian and ethnic art, including an unparalleled holding of iconoclastic works by Marcel Duchamp. The proposal fell on deaf ears, so they negotiated with other institutions and ultimately donated the collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Norton Simon, a founding trustee of LACMA, lent much of his extraordinary collection of European art to the museum for its opening in 1965. But he resigned from the board after years of power struggles and opened his own museum in Pasadena in 1975. His departure was followed by that of Katherine White, whose gift-purchase offer of a superlative collection of African art was refused by fellow trustees, leading her to make a deal with the Seattle Art Museum.
Armand Hammer, also a LACMA trustee, had promised the museum his paintings and works by French satirist Honoré Daumier. Instead, he built his his own showcase in Westwood. The split occurred after the museum resisted Hammer’s escalating demands, including the return of previously donated paintings and the removal of other donors’ names from galleries where his art was displayed.
Among other notable losses, Nathan and Marian Smooke’s modern art collection was shown at the museum in the hope that it would be donated, but it went to auction in 2001, after their death.
And then there is the Walter Annenberg collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, which LACMA courted energetically, including staging the rare exhibition of a private collection in 1990 hopes of winning it.
Annenberg had announced he would decide between The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and LACMA and a lively competition between the institutions ensued. He ended up giving it to New York’s Met.
The Perenchio collection is significant because works of similar pedigree are so hard to acquire these days, according to Leah Lehmbeck, a LACMA curator in the European painting and sculpture department.
“Many aren’t on the market anymore,” she said.
The French Impressionist works being donated by Perenchio will add breadth and depth to the museum’s relatively weak holdings in a popular — and largely unaffordable — area. They include “Le Jardin de l’artist á Vétheuil” (The Artist’s Garden at Vethéuil), a painting of a sunflower-lined walkway in dazzling sunlight by Claude Monet, a variation of Impressionist jewels at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Each version is a slightly different interpretation of an intimate encounter with natural beauty.
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (Dangerous Liaisons), a painting by Belgian Surrealist Réné Magritte, will provide a striking counterpoint to one of LACMA’s masterpieces, Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe).” The painting of a pipe that informs viewers, in French, that the image is not the real thing draws its strength from surprisingly matter-of-fact humor. The new addition, depicting a female nude holding a mirror image of her torso over her body, exemplifies the side of Magritte’s art that plays with sexuality and illusionistic double-takes.
Similarly, the massive, mechanistic figure painted by French modernist Fernand Léger in “Femme au Bouquet” (Woman With a Bouquet) will offer a strong contrast to a mainstay of LACMA’s collection — “The Disks,” Léger’s colorful, intricately faceted abstraction of men at work.
On Wednesday, as he gave a tour of some of the paintings in his home, it was clear that the love of art, first awakened during that U.S. tour with Laughton so many years ago, was still strong.
Perenchio noted that he almost never sold one of his works of art.
“Next to my family and friends,” he said, “they are the most important things to me.”
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