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Museum Donors Exhibit the Art of Giving


Philip and Beatrice Gersh collect art for an old-fashioned reason: They love the stuff. And they deal with their most valuable possessions in an old-fashioned way: They give them away.

As owner of a long-established talent agency and a collector for 35 years, Philip Gersh has had calls from studio executives seeking advice on how to invest in art. His answer: "We don't buy that way. You have to buy because you love the art. If you are concerned about liquidity and investment, forget it."

He and and his wife, who is a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art, are dismayed by wealthy collectors who cash in on their art at auction. "They don't need the money," Philip Gersh scoffed. "You hear that certain pieces have become too valuable to keep in private collections. If the art is so valuable, it should be given to museums. The more valuable it is, the more reason that a museum should have it."

A few years ago, before the art market zoomed into the stratosphere and before the 1986 income-tax law reduced art donors' deductions to the purchase price of an artwork, instead of the appreciated price, the Gershes' attitude toward their collection was relatively commonplace. But the new tax law has reduced gifts of art to museums by 63%, a study by the Assn. of Art Museum Directors shows. At the same time, rising prices have shut museums out of the market. With paintings going for $20 million, $30 million, $40 million or even $50 million a pop at auction, generosity seems to be an idea whose time has passed.

"Is the ethic of philanthropy an archaic notion? I'm afraid that's about 90% accurate," Philip Gersh said. That fear is part of the reason for a current show of the Gersh collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition at MOCA (to March 11) includes eight works that the Gershes have given or promised to the museum.

Prime among them is "Cubi III," an 8-foot-tall aluminum sculpture by David Smith, whose works have brought as much as $1.3 million at auction. When the show opened, the 1961 sculpture was promised to the museum, but the couple have subsequently made a "partial gift" of the valuable work and have agreed to give the piece entirely to MOCA soon.

The towering sculpture--which is one of two "Cubi" pieces still in private hands--is essential to a contemporary art museum's collection, MOCA director Richard Koshalek said.

Another "partial gift" from the Gershes is "Number 3," a small 1948 drip painting by Jackson Pollock, whose auction record is $10.5 million. The other Gersh gifts are less pricey but highly desirable acquisitions for the museum: a mixed-media collage by Alexis Smith, a photograph by Boyd Webb and paintings by Ed Ruscha, Susan Rothenberg, Neil Jenney and Tom Wudl.

The Gershes hope that MOCA's show of their collection will encourage others to give. Their example has already produced at least two followers: their sons Robert and David Gersh who collect contemporary art and support the museum.

"Collecting has enriched our lives," Beatrice Gersh said. "Art is not a commodity. It's something that gives great pleasure because of its quiet beauty, which can take many different forms. We feel strongly that the works we have should live together in our home and we've spent many years refining the collection."

Every work that has become part of their collection has a life story. Wandering around the show and marveling at how different the art looks in a museum setting, the Gershes recounted tales of artworks bought in a fit of passion and others purchased after long periods of deliberation, dusty artworks rescued from storage bins and fresh ones snapped off delivery trucks.

There are also stories about artworks lost and gained. One dealer reneged on the sale of a Jean Dubuffet collage when a more valued client wanted it, but then came through with a better piece. Beatrice Gersh once missed a Francis Bacon painting because her husband found it too disturbing, she said. Years later, when she saw Bacon's "Portrait of a Man With Glasses" in a London show, she announced that she wouldn't leave the gallery until they bought it. The small 1963 portrait is on view at MOCA in an intimate display of works by 20th-Century masters.

"In the early years Bea was way ahead of me, but now our eyes have adjusted to the point that we often go for exactly the same thing," Philip Gersh said.

"If I was ahead it's only because I devoted more time to it," Beatrice Gersh said. "One problem with many collectors starting out now is that they don't have any idea of the past and how it relates to the art of our time. You have to put in a lot of time, going to galleries and museums, looking and getting trained."

The Gershes have never employed a curator or an adviser to tell them what to buy. Instead, they have taken their own education in hand, traveling widely to see exhibitions and continually working to keep up with the changing scene.

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