It was not your usual scene from "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." In a crimson gown by Georges Hobeika, Kim Kardashian was touring the new Renzo Piano-designed Resnick Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. After posing on the red carpet, she tweeted, "I'm at the most magnificent masquerade ball at the LACMA Museum!" to some 5 million followers.
Welcome to gala season in the art world, the time when L.A.'s leading museums roll out red carpets and stage black-tie parties to raise money — and their public profiles. Last month LACMA grossed nearly $5 million with an event that drew Kardashian, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Teri Hatcher and Christina Aguilera, who also performed. This month the Hammer Museum raised $1.3 million with a festive dinner (minus the red carpet) co-chaired by Will Ferrell, where Jane Fonda introduced honoree Alice Waters. And the Museum of Contemporary Art takes the stage Nov. 13, with artist Doug Aitken choreographing the activities and actresses Chloë Sevigny and Sandra Oh expected to attend.
For years, museum leaders here would commiserate with one another, if not publicly, about the lack of philanthropy coming from Hollywood. The industry has its share of contemporary art collectors, and filmmakers are visual artists in their own right, the thinking goes, so why aren't they supporting the visual arts in their own backyard?
Today, the picture looks brighter, with Kardashian and others smiling for the paparazzi in front of museum logos. And galas have proved a crucial fundraising tool. But once the red carpets are rolled up and returned, how deep does Hollywood's support for local museums really go?
Elizabeth Currid, a USC urban planning professor who studies the cultural economy, says that industry members generally do not make arts philanthropy a priority. "They tend to go for big causes: developing countries, geopolitical issues or research for the cure of a disease," she says. "Being in a creative industry themselves, they don't necessarily see museums as a philanthropic cause."
Dean Valentine, a TV executive turned media entrepreneur who sits on the board at the Hammer Museum, says he has bumped into more industry types at art fairs and events over the last decade, as contemporary art has become more fashionable. But "there is a big gap between an agent buying art and becoming involved with a museum in a meaningful way," he says.
Museum leaders have been working to close that gap. "Considering its size and the money it generates, it's surprising how few people from the industry support the museums of this city. But we have begun to see that change," says Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum. "And frankly it's a relief."
Maria Bell, a producer and head writer of the CBS soap opera "The Young and the Restless" and co-chair of the MOCA board, believes that making the contemporary art museum "less elitist and intimidating" helps. She helped bring the populist-minded Jeffrey Deitch on as director of MOCA, and is the driving force behind the museum's increasingly star-studded galas — including last year's Lady Gaga showcase, where Brad and Angelina (Pitt and Jolie) made a cameo and Gwen and Gavin (Stefani and Rossdale) stayed for dinner.
She also credits Philbin at the Hammer and Michael Govan at LACMA (where her husband, Bill Bell Jr., and sister-in-law Colleen Bell are both trustees) with making inroads.
"One thing that Michael especially has done is made it cool to be on museum boards," she says. "He's made it stylish to be a board member — not all drudgery but something you aspire to socially."
Board membership is one of the few concrete ways to measure philanthropy in the museum world. LACMA costs $100,000 to join, with annual dues in the same amount. MOCA requires a minimum contribution of $150,000 or $250,000 upfront (international trustees get the discount) and $75,000 annually. The Hammer does not disclose its numbers. (Neither do major New York museums, where it reportedly takes a seven-figure commitment just to sit at the table.)
And the trustee ranks have been swelling with more recognizable names, if not core industry players. LACMA currently has 50 active board members; 30 of them have joined since 2006, the year of Govan's arrival, including Barbra Streisand, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, designer Dasha Zhukova, TV journalist Willow Bay (whose husband is Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger), producer Brian Grazer, Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton and former Warner Brothers executive Terry Semel.
Govan doesn't take full credit. "It's not like I came here and everything changed — a lot of these people were brought in by trustees like Casey Wasserman and Bobby Kotick, the same group who pursued me. It's all part of a larger push to take the museum in a new direction."