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Corralling the collectors

L.A.'s galleries are filled with masterworks. Then there are the great ones that got away.

November 27, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

IT isn't easy to build a significant art collection. But -- when the time comes -- it may be just as hard to figure out what to do with it. As thoughts of mortality lead to estate planning and troves of artworks outgrow their homes, serious collectors face tough choices.

First, there's the question of whether to give the art away and take a tax deduction, consign it to a dealer or cash in at auction. If the decision is to find a place for it at a museum, the next question is: Where? Should the collection go to one institution or several? A big museum or a small one? An art-rich establishment or a needy upstart? Should the collector exemplify hometown loyalty or national vision? Stick with a longtime relationship or plunge into a new love affair?

In Southern California -- which can't shake its reputation for losing great collections despite its abundance of art resources -- such questions are particularly pointed.

"There's no simple answer," said Eli Broad, 72, a Los Angeles philanthropist whose 1,200-piece collection of contemporary art is highly coveted. He has funded a new building for contemporary works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, scheduled to open in late 2007 with an exhibition of about 200 pieces from his collection. Although Broad, a LACMA trustee, has repeatedly declared his intention to donate his collection to one or more institutions, he's in no hurry to part with it. But he has given the matter plenty of thought.

"The first thing collectors want to know is that the director and curatorial staff of the museum appreciate the quality of the work and the amount of energy and effort involved in putting the collection together," he said. "A collection is a legacy. Collectors want their collections to be appreciated and honored. They also want to know that their collections will be exhibited, to help educate a broad public and advance scholarship in an institution that gets a fair amount of traffic.

"When it comes to my collection," Broad said, "I've got to feel comfortable with the financial condition of the institution, the governance and management, the director and curatorial staff. They have to be first-rate. I'm speaking for myself. Others may have other things in mind."

They do.

"Strength goes to strength," the late publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg said in 1991, explaining why he gave his collection of Impressionist and Postimpressionist art to the contender that needed it least, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Robert Halff, a longtime LACMA trustee who died in 2004, had a different idea. "These are things the museum should have bought but didn't have the foresight or the money to buy," he said in 1994, when he announced his intention to donate a big chunk of his modern and contemporary art collection to LACMA.

E. Blake Byrne, a trustee at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, made his landmark gift of 123 works to MOCA part of his 70th birthday celebration. "I love this city, and I want to say thanks for making my life so wonderful," he said late last year, when the gift was announced. "I hope that sharing something that is important and intimate to me will create a desire for others to do the same."

Major donors such as these are essential to museums that are actively building their art holdings. To collect collections or large parts of them, museums must collect collectors.

"The fundamental fact of American museums is that most of their collections are acquired by gift," said MOCA director Jeremy Strick. "Ninety percent is a typical figure." When it comes to gifts of collections, he said, "they usually result from long and close relationships between collectors and the institutions, supporters and staff."

That's true all across the country.

"You need to know who you are dealing with, how people feel about their collections," said Earl A. Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and former director of LACMA. "It comes down to relationships."

Late to the starting line

BUT Southern California's art museums got a late start and still have to buck stiff competition.

"Nearly all the museums in Los Angeles were created in the last 40 years of the 20th century," said Robert C. Ritchie, director of research at one of the notable exceptions, the 86-year-old Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. "During the great wave of collecting, from 1880 to 1930, when Europe was ailing financially, Americans used their wealth to buy up almost everything in sight. Whether it was porcelain or carpets or paintings or sculpture, it poured into America in an unprecedented way. In Southern California, we missed out on that. The collectors here are mostly creatures of the late 20th century. By that time, collecting in a lot of areas, particularly Old Masters, was getting very difficult."

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