When Wendy Kaplan became curator of decorative arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art seven years ago, she knew that part of her job was to work with Max Palevsky. Museum staff members routinely advise and assist potential art donors, but Palevsky was a special case -- a major supporter who was building a collection of Arts and Crafts furniture and decorative arts for LACMA.
Kaplan was expected to grab the baton from her predecessor, Leslie Greene Bowman, and maintain what had become an unusually close relationship. And it didn't take long for the new curator to discover that Palevsky, who made a fortune in computer electronics, could be generous in surprising ways.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 16, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Max Palevsky: In Sunday's Arts & Books, a caption with an article about Max Palevsky said the photo showed the art collector beside the work "West Southwest" by Al Held. The artwork was "East End" by Valerie Jaudon.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 21, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Max Palevsky: A photo caption last Sunday accompanying an article about art collector Max Palevsky said he was standing beside the work "West Southwest" by Al Held. The artwork pictured with Palevsky was "East End" by Valerie Jaudon.
"My first task was to do an exhibition and book along the lines of 'Virtue in Design,' which was pretty much a catalog of his collection," she says of a 1990 show organized by Bowman. "I said to Max, 'OK, we could do 'Virtue in Design Part 2.' That would be about your collection and the gifts you have made and promised to the museum. Or we could do a big think-y loan show about the international Arts and Crafts movement. It has never been done, it would not be about you and it would cost you at least twice as much money to support.' He said, without a flicker of hesitation, 'Let's do the big think-y show.' Most people would say, 'Let's have the show about me.' "
As the project evolved into "The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America, 1880-1920: Design for the Modern World," a traveling exhibition that opened at LACMA in 2004, Palevsky acknowledged that the international sweep of the show had broadened his perceptions of the movement.
Some results of that eye-opening experience can be seen in LACMA's new exhibition, "The Arts and Crafts Movement: Masterworks From the Max Palevsky and Jodie Evans Collection." It's a relatively small display of 18 objects -- including a Tiffany table lamp, a copper urn and stained-glass window by Frank Lloyd Wright, and armchairs by Josef Hoffmann and Gustav Stickley -- installed near the entrance of the Ahmanson Building. But it's the tip of an Arts and Crafts iceberg at LACMA. The works on view, from England, Scotland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, France and the U.S., are among 45 pieces recently promised to the museum by Palevsky and his wife, a community, social and political organizer. And the gift will join 382 Arts and Crafts pieces and about 100 other works previously donated or promised by the Palevskys.
At 84, Max Palevsky still has a lot on his mind. Although he's convalescing from a recent bout of pneumonia, he agreed to talk about his collection. In the course of the conversation, he offers a glimpse into the passions, pleasures and quirks of one of Los Angeles' major collector-donors.
Making his fortune
Palevsky's poor-boy-made-good resume reads like a classical American success story: He is the son of immigrants, a Russian father and Polish mother who eked out a living in Chicago. Palevsky made his way through public schools, served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and, with the help of the GI Bill, studied math and philosophy at the University of Chicago, UC Berkeley and UCLA.
In a life-changing experience that he calls "a happenstance," he attended a lecture at Caltech that inspired him to go into the computer electronics industry. In 1962, he and a group of associates founded Scientific Data Systems, which introduced a variety of computers, including Sigma 7, a groundbreaking machine capable of processing data for both business and science. Seven years later the company was sold to Xerox for nearly $1 billion, leaving Palevsky with $100 million.
What he did in the next 40 years is harder to track as he followed his passions into venture capitalism, politics, philanthropy and the arts. While pursuing business interests, he rescued Rolling Stone magazine from financial ruin; supported Democratic candidates in national, state and local elections; gave the University of Chicago $20 million to build dormitories; produced a batch of Hollywood films, including "Endurance" and "Fun With Dick and Jane"; and built a collection of Arts and Crafts furnishings, Japanese prints and Pop art.
Palevsky has a passion for music as well as art. But he claims to have no interest in the technology that made him wealthy. "I don't own a computer," he says. "I don't own a cellphone, I don't own any electronics. I do own a radio."
He keeps up with news and politics, though. He's thrilled about the election of Barack Obama, "a University of Chicago guy," but deeply concerned about the economic disaster awaiting the new president.
"Oh, boy," he says, pondering the challenges of the growing recession.