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Opening of LACMA's Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion brings L.A.-area art patrons and their collection to light

The owners of POM juice drink and Fiji Water have been little known up till now, but are entering the ranks of a small group of L.A. philanthropists making their mark on a cultural institution.

September 25, 2010|Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times

Would Lynda Resnick have been able to save Marie Antoinette from the guillotine? It's difficult not to wonder as much when the marketing dynamo, known as the POM Queen for the pomegranate-juice empire she runs with husband Stewart, starts discussing the French queen's public relations problems.

Wearing a flesh-colored Dior dress with Louboutin shoes, Resnick was standing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in front of a painting she owns: a luminescent portrait of a young Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée. A later version hangs at Versailles.

"A great deal of her bad press was manufactured by her enemies," Resnick says. "She needed a better publicist. And she certainly needed a stronger husband."

Resnick knows something about both. Over the last 30 years, she and Stewart have built their fortune with a string of companies, from Teleflora and the Franklin Mint to POM Wonderful and Fiji Water, for which she steered the marketing campaigns. The Los Angeles Business Journal estimated their net worth this year at $1.79 billion.

Now, with the opening of a new Renzo Piano-designed building on the LACMA campus that bears their names after a $45-million gift, the Resnicks are entering the ranks of the city's leading arts patrons. The Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, a highly flexible building designed for temporary exhibitions, opens to the public on Oct. 2.

The pavilion's opening marks the first time a substantial part of their collection will go on public display.

And the gift makes them L.A.'s biggest arts donors whom you've probably never heard of. Without being household names like the Broads or the Annenbergs, they have joined a small group of philanthropists with the means and commitment to transform a cultural institution.

"Fifty years from now, we will see the Resnicks as part of the great cultural history of Los Angeles that includes Henry Huntington, Norton Simon and Edward Carter," says Scott Schaefer, the paintings curator at the Getty who helped shape their collection early on, dating back to his own days at LACMA.

L.A. County Museum of Art director Michael Govan says their $45-million donation to LACMA, accompanied by a pledge to donate artwork worth $10 million, represents "the second-largest single gift in the museum's history." The largest, $50 million plus $10 million in art, came from Eli and Edythe Broad.

What makes the Resnicks' gift so "extraordinary," Govan adds, is that they have made it with "no strings attached."

"At the beginning, when the pavilion was in drawing form, they asked a lot of questions — Stewart is a very tough thinker financially," says Govan. "then basically they came to visit two or three times during construction. It was an amazing vote of confidence."

This represents a dramatic contrast, board members say, to Eli Broad's involvement throughout construction of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA, also by Renzo Piano.

Resnick herself, a LACMA trustee since 1992, acknowledges the difference. "We see no need to micromanage; we have seen the negative effects of it," she says.

She declined to discuss Broad in any more detail but was happy to talk about other patrons who inspire her, including Ronald Lauder and David Geffen. "David has been very generous in his gifts and gives with no strings attached — I love that about him," she says.

Geffen also comes up in an example she offers of just how unfashionable her French 18th century tastes can seem in L.A., where "everyone buys contemporary art. People just don't understand why we collect Old Masters."

For years the couple's friends, such as Geffen, Barbra Streisand, Jared Diamond and Walter Isaacson, could see the Resnicks' art collection at their 25,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts home on Sunset Boulevard, which in its décor and general grandeur has been compared to Versailles. But this month the couple threw a party at the Sunset house after the Old Masters pictures were removed for their LACMA installation.

"David called me the next day, at 6:30 a.m. because that's how he strikes," she says. "He called to say that Nora Ephron likes the house better without those pictures. And she's not the only one."

Her own interest in Old Masters, Resnick says, comes from her childhood experience with her hometown museum: the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "That's where I learned to love painting," she says. "My father carried me around in his arms there."

She even considered art school — "I had a nice hand, that's all," Resnick says now, noting that she was accepted at Chouinard in Los Angeles. But she says her father wouldn't pay for it. So she took courses at Santa Monica City College ("it was like high school with ashtrays") before starting her first advertising agency at age 19.

She married Stewart in 1972, after trying to land his firm as one of her advertising clients. She never got the account "but sure got the business," as she likes to say.

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