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Trustee's Donation a Milestone for MOCA

Retired TV exec E. Blake Byrne's gift of 123 works is the museum's largest from a private collector.

December 17, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has received a gift of 123 works by 78 artists from E. Blake Byrne, a MOCA trustee and retired television executive. The bonanza of paintings, sculptures, drawings, videos and photographs is the largest group of artworks donated by a private collector in the museum's 25-year history.

The record gift deepens holdings of works by such prominent artists as John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol, and adds new names to the collection. The young institution is considered to be in the very top tier of contemporary art museums, with one of the world's finest collections of post-World War II art.

"This is a milestone for MOCA," said Jeremy Strick, director of the museum. "Blake's contribution makes a tremendous impact on our collection by enhancing our existing holdings of American and European art -- both building on strengths and filling gaps -- while augmenting our ongoing efforts to acquire video, sculpture and other works by emerging artists."

Particularly strong in European work, Byrne's eclectic and adventurous collection, Strick said, is also "a document of one man's enormous range of interests, his passions and his engagement with artists."

Los Angeles art dealer Shaun Caley Regen called Byrne's collection "very, very good," describing it also as "strong," with important examples of influential artists' work. "He has a tremendous eye," she said. "He really understands philanthropy and collects not just for himself but for the greater good. This is fantastic for MOCA."

Byrne, whose name has appeared on ARTnews magazine's annual list of the world's top 200 collectors, said that his donation had not yet been appraised and that he didn't know its current market value. Art market experts estimated the value at $5 million to $10 million.

But the donation isn't about money, said chief curator Paul Schimmel. It's about expanding the collection's geographical and stylistic reach and keeping up with an ever-changing field. Part of MOCA's mission is to identify rising stars whose work will accrue critical acclaim and financial value, as well as to amass superior pieces by well-known figures.

The Byrne collection encompasses concentrations of works by artists from California, New York, Latin America and Asia, as well as Europe. It also provides the museum with its first pieces by German sculptor Stephen Balkenhol, New York-based video artist Steve McQueen, French conceptual artist Annette Messager and British sculptor Tony Cragg, all internationally recognized figures whose works appear in major museums around the world.

Seminal pieces by the late American conceptualist Gordon Matta-Clark, known for making art of dismantled buildings, are rare on the market, but the museum has one in the Byrne gift: a rough chunk of parquet flooring excised from an office in Antwerp, Belgium, accompanied by a photograph.

The addition of an untitled sculpture by Robert Gober, composed of two handmade doors constructed in an X shape and folded into a corner, strengthens an already strong holding, giving MOCA one of the world's best collections of the highly regarded New York-based artist's work. Marlene Dumas, a South African who lives in Amsterdam and has soared to fame in the last year, is represented by five Expressionist drawings in ink, watercolor, oil and collage.

The museum, founded in 1979, has weathered a financial downturn and regained its stability while amassing nearly 5,000 works in what Strick calls "a collection of collections." MOCA failed to win the collection of Eli Broad, who has shifted his allegiance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but it has landed major holdings from many collectors, including Italians Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza di Biumo.

The public will get its first look at the Byrne gift in an extensive exhibition opening July 3, the day after the donor's 70th birthday. The 10,000-square-foot display at the Grand Avenue facility will include a group of carved wood figures in graduated heights by Balkenhol; a 16-foot-tall photographic work by Baldessari, who is based in Los Angeles; collages by French artist Jacques Villegle; and paintings by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

"I can't think of anything more fun than to celebrate my birthday at MOCA by making a gift to the museum," said Byrne, who moved here in 1989 as president and general manager of KCAL-TV Channel 9 and became a partner of Argyle Television.

"I have lived in 10 states and traveled all over the world," he said. "I love this city, and I want to say thanks for making my life so wonderful. I also hope that sharing something that is important and intimate to me will create a desire for others to do the same."

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