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Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Institutions such as the Israel Museum in Jerusalem count on support from donors from Los Angeles and around the U.S.

April 26, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

For denizens of Los Angeles' high-culture scene, the benefit lunch April 7 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire was a familiar affair. Shortly before noon, 380 people--all well-dressed and mostly female--pulled into the posh hotel's stone-paved driveway, entrusted their cars to valets and entered the lobby. The guests picked up name cards with their table assignments, greeted the hosts and chatted with their friends while sipping white wine, mineral water or iced tea.

Then the guests filed into the dining room, found their designated places and watched a video presentation on the museum they had come to support. After a meal of veggies en crou^te, followed by sorbet, fresh fruit and gooey white cake, the museum director thanked patrons of the $175-a-ticket event.

"It takes my breath away to see so much support for a museum that's 10,000 miles away," the director, James Snyder, said.

Ten thousand miles away?

Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of what might have been a rather ordinary fund-raiser is that the beneficiary is not located in Los Angeles or even in the United States. It's the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Founded in 1965 as Israel's national museum, it has an encyclopedic collection of art, antiquities and Judaica displayed in 400,000 square feet of galleries and a five-acre sculpture garden.

The luncheon's keynote speaker, Paris-based journalist Hector Feliciano, surely helped entice the crowd to this year's event. Author of "The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art," he is a celebrated activist in the international effort to return artworks stolen during World War II to families of the victims. In his lecture, "Whose Art Is It Anyway?," Feliciano addressed current issues of repatriation, a hot topic in the Jewish community and international museum circles.

But attendance at the annual lunches--sponsored by the West Coast branch of the New York-based American Friends of the Israel Museum--has grown steadily during the past eight years, regardless of the featured speaker. The first benefit lunch, in 1985, drew 70 people and netted $15,000; this year's event netted $170,000. And that's a mere fraction of the $1 million raised in L.A. each year for the Israel Museum. Nationwide, the museum's American Friends contribute about $10 million annually to the institution, which operates on an annual budget of about $25 million.

Why do people give so much money to a museum that's halfway around the globe from their homes?

"People who have an affinity for history like to feel connected, especially to places," says Catherine Benkaim, who established the West Coast chapter of AFIM 15 years ago. Although relationships with institutions are often formed through personal associations, "people like to ally themselves with something they like," she says.

The American Friends of the Israel Museum is not unique. Several nationally funded museums in other countries have American support groups that raise money across the United States.

London's British Museum--which derives about two-thirds of its $100-million annual operating budget from the British government--established a New York-based American fund-raising arm in 1989. Last year the American Friends of the British Museum donated about $3.5 million to the venerable institution. The group made a big splash in Southern California in 1996 with a dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel in honor of Princess Margaret, as part of a $165-million museum development program. Publishing magnate and philanthropist Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore, who had launched the campaign with a $9.2-million gift, underwrote the dinner.

Other museums that attract large numbers of American tourists--including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg--have American support groups. "The Invisible Made Visible: Angels From the Vatican," a traveling exhibition that opened in February at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum and opens May 9 at the St. Louis Art Museum, is part of an effort to attract new members to the 13 American chapters of Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.

Taking a different approach, the Friends of French Art raises money for the conservation of France's cultural heritage at large, rather than devoting itself to a single museum. Founded in 1978 by Elin Vanderlip of Portuguese Bend, who continues to lead the organization, the Southern California group raises about $250,000 a year--matched by the French Department of Historic Monuments--to restore historic buildings and artworks in France.

Still, the Israel Museum is a special case, and by far the most successful of all the American "friends" groups.

"There's a large group of Jewish people in America who want to help Israel be superior. The museum gives them a chance to play a role in that," Benkaim says.

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