Thanks to Medicis Like Norton Simon and Armand Hammer, a Gilded Dilly of An Art Scene Flowers in L.A.

updated 03/28/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1988 01:00AM

It wasn't so long ago that the only artistic principle that mattered in moneyed Los Angeles was the kind that earned extravagant interest. Now the celluloid capital's masters of acquisition have discovered canvas and a whole new constellation of billable stars: Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Warhol, Hockney.

During the past few years corporate moguls and box office giants have thrown their might and money into buying paintings and sculpture. And since they need somewhere to stash the goods, they have built a network of exhibition spaces unrivaled anywhere in the U.S. outside New York. In 1986 the $23 million Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) opened in L.A. with financial support from Steven Spielberg and Steve Martin, among others, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) sprouted a new $35 million wing. Occidental Petroleum boss Armand Hammer, 89, announced plans last January to build a museum on the site of a Westwood parking garage to house his $250 million collection, and by 1994 the J. Paul Getty trust will use part of its $2.8 billion—the largest art fund in the U.S.—to operate the country's biggest art-education center, located in Brentwood. Attracted by the fancy new digs, artists, scholars and curators have begun moving to get in on the action. "Art flourishes in the center of power," says L.A. Herald Examiner critic Christopher Knight, "and the money is here."

To meet the demand of such deep-pocketed collectors as Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson and that nouveau-est of the nouveau, Sly Stallone, galleries are crowding into Santa Monica. Still a long way from matching New York, which boasts more than 800 galleries, greater L.A. now supports about 150—roughly a fivefold increase in the past 20 years. "It's not easy to collect as a hobby anymore," laments Doug Cramer, co-executive producer of Hotel arid Dynasty and owner of a modern art collection that would make even Alexis Carrington green with envy. "You need to have passion and energy because of the competition. Someone once said to me, 'It's one thing to try to make a movie deal and find that [agent] Michael Ovitz got there first. It's another thing to go to a gallery on the weekend and find that Ovitz also got there first. It gets under your craw.' "

Having replaced San Francisco as the West Coast's financial center in the '80s, L.A. has spawned a monied elite who seek to affirm their culture as well as their clout by giving gifts to museums. In addition, old-line multimillionaire art lovers have taken to creating "boutique" museums to house their private collections. Armand Hammer, who was rich before many of the arrivistes were born, has already given LACMA several major paintings and $3 million in cash. He had offered to throw in his entire collection, including a $6 million da Vinci manuscript and paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne and Rembrandt. But he changed his mind, partly because LACMA would have displayed some of his gifts in rooms named for other patrons. The new wing already bears the name of Robert O. Anderson, the former ARCO chief executive who oversaw his company's $3.5 million contribution to LACMA.

Generous donations, it seems, like designer clothes, tend to come with personal labels attached. Last year, banners outside LACMA touted "the Wolper Picassos," a show of works from the collection of producer David Wolper. Such is the yearning to link names with the immortals that industrialist Norton Simon, 81, stalled the negotiations over the bequest of his $750 million collection to the Getty Museum when doubts arose about how prominently his name would be displayed.

"It's sad that the ego takes over and pushes logic out of the way," says LACMA trustee Franklin Murphy, 72, former chief executive officer of the Times Mirror publishing conglomerate. "People want to attach their name to something and live on forever. Some probably don't give thought to how the collection is going to be taken care of generations down the road. They don't realize that it's preferable to have better and fewer museums."

Even in the Hollywood ego empire there are a few art patrons who don't advertise themselves. LACMA trustee Steve Martin, 42, allowed his name to appear on a plaque that honors his gift of approximately $250,000 but otherwise keeps a low profile. "I don't think there's any great virtue in collecting art," Martin has said; his home overflows with 20th-century works by Willem de Kooning, Georgia O'Keeffe and his friends Jennifer Bartlett and Roy Lichtenstein. "It doesn't make you a smart person or an intellectual. Art is a visceral pleasure."

These days even viewers who can't buy their own art may share such pleasures all over L.A. With 50,000 square feet of new exhibition space, LACMA now sponsors impressive shows, such as the current David Hockney retrospective. MOCA, with 75,000 square feet of exhibition space in its new building and a nearby renovated warehouse, ventures beyond exhibits of masterworks to sponsor such offbeat programs as a sci-fi film festival and a national radio show that has featured Frank Zappa discussing censorship.

Meanwhile, L.A. artists themselves tend to be the quietest players in the current round of power games. Unlike Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel and other New York art stars who count publicity as part of their job, many L.A. artists live where they do just to escape the hype. "In Manhattan, styles become big and artists are forced to respond if they want to make money," says painter Mike Kelley, 33. "Here I can choose to ignore [the trends]." British painter Hockney, 51, who settled in L.A. 24 years ago, lured primarily by the bright sunlight that illuminates his paintings of lush green lawns and sparkling aqua swimming pools, tends to agree. Says Hockney: "There's more freedom artistically because there is less sense of tradition."

Even though other top artists—Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis and Ed Ruscha among them—also chose L.A. in the '60s, collectors such as Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster shopped for art elsewhere. The local art climate hadn't improved much since the '50s, when LACMA's stodgy trustees felt constrained to buy the art of Jackson Pollock but refused to display it. In 1967, Artforum, L.A.'s lone highbrow art publication, decamped for Manhattan, and in 1974 the Contemporary Art Museum in Pasadena (now reborn as the Norton Simon Museum) went under. "There was no reason to take a trip to Los Angeles for culture or art," says Diebenkorn, 65. "It was Lotus-land. People came here for the weather, to get a tan or to misbehave. Outside of that, it was a desert."

For many artists that desert has shown signs of blooming. L.A.'s Alexis Smith—not the actress—whose mixed-media works parody romantic clichés, has sold pieces to MOCA and to New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. Mike Kelley's quirky paintings and collages now sell for up to $20,000 apiece. The growing subculture of local painters and sculptors enjoys the benefits of a genuine, if limited, Los Angeles art scene. The Cocola restaurant in downtown L.A. has become a chic meeting place for those who have made it, and white wine flows by the gallon at gallery openings. Still, Los Angeles has a way to go before it can compete with Manhattan. With no major local art journal and limited auction action, even up-and-comers such as Kelley feel there's a ceiling on their professional progress. "It's difficult to get critical attention here," he says. "You are treated like a freak. People ask me, 'What's the matter? Why don't you live [in New York] where the action is?' "

The responsibility for making sure that L.A. doesn't backslide has fallen to a great extent on the shoulders of LACMA director Earl "Rusty" Powell III and Richard Koshalek, director of MOCA. While fund raising comes easy in a city so eager for culture, Powell and Koshalek must satisfy patrons who are used to seeing film sets go up in a day and expect museums to do the same. New York's Metropolitan Museum collected 9,000 works before opening a modern art wing in 1986; LACMA owns only 800 20th-century artworks, and MOCA has only 600. While New York's Museum of Modern Art owns 60 or so paintings by Picasso and 36 by Matisse, as well as 11 Warhols, LACMA owns only five Picassos and seven Matisses. MOCA has five Warhols.

No aspect of the L.A. art boom has aroused more controversy than the museum buildings themselves. Designed by Tokyo-based architect Arata Isozaki, MOCA went through 25 plans before one was approved. No sooner did that happen than industrialist Max Palevsky, unhappy with the sandstone pyramids and geometric shapes that adorn the place, sued to get his $500,000 donation back. To some critics, however, MOCA, with its four-level striped facade, is the epitome of taste compared with LACMA. Peter Plangens of New York-based Art in America has sniped at LACMA's "clashing, bashing" architecture, dubbing the style "Buick Roadmaster bombast."

Still, East Coast condescension hasn't dampened L.A.'s enthusiasm. Last year 1.3 million people wandered through LACMA, and as many as 5,000 have visited MOCA in a day—big box office by any standard. "Los Angeles is growing up culturally," says Powell, with upstart bravado. "We don't rival New York now. But by the end of the century, who knows?"

—By Michael Small, with Jacqueline Savaiano in Los Angeles

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