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Nicolas Berggruen explains why he intends to give art to LACMA

The businessman, working with museum director Michael Govan, is acquiring work by artists including Chris Burden and Ed Ruscha that he says he intends to donate.

March 18, 2012|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen next to Metropolis II, a massive raceway/city installation by Chris Burden that Berggruen has loaned to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen next to Metropolis II, a massive raceway/city… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

Nicolas Berggruen travels more in three months than most people do in a lifetime. Dubbed "the homeless billionaire" because he prefers living out of five-star hotels to owning any homes, his business and nonprofit ventures this winter alone have taken him to Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, New Delhi and Zurich, with a side trip to Antarctica.

So it's not entirely surprising to learn that Berggruen, who owns a Gulfstream IV, is not big on cars. "I can drive," said the energetic, boyish-looking 50-year-old. "Let's just say you don't want to be in the passenger seat," he added, flashing the hint of a smile.

The talk about driving was inspired by a visit to LACMA, where a major art work owned by Berggruen that basically looks like a kid's overgrown racetrack, with hundreds of cars zipping by at top speeds, has recently gone on view. Chris Burden's "Metropolis II" is at the museum on a 10-year loan, but it just might become the first of many permanent donations to the museum. For Berggruen has over the last year quietly spent tens of millions of dollars buying museum-quality works by 12 leading contemporary artists, which he says he intends to donate to the museum — if some general conditions are met.

In a city where it often appears there are more museums than top-level patrons to fully support them, he seems almost made to order to fill a major role on the cultural scene.

He's the son of the great Jewish-German art dealer-collector Heinz Berggruen, who donated more than 100 works by Picasso and 60 by Klee to the Berlin museum system. He's glamorous, with enough Hollywood connections to throw a popular annual pre-Oscars party at the Chateau Marmont. And he's serious about world events, to the point where he would much rather talk about his participation in this year's meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, than any swanky party.

Oh, and he's worth about $2.3 billion, according to Forbes, and plans to give it all away.

"Other people might have family — three kids or five houses. In my case, that doesn't exist," said Berggruen, who has never married. "I'm going to give everything away. Everything has been transferred to charitable trusts. There is no question about that. The question is where, not if."

California, where he lives just a few months a year, stands a good chance of being a leading beneficiary on two fronts. The German-American citizen has already announced that he will spend at least $20 million in support of Think Long, a bipartisan think tank that he founded with such high-profile members as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Condoleezza Rice and Eli Broad, to help repair what he calls California's "broken political framework." (Next step: getting proposals like a reform of the state income tax and a new tax of 5% on services such as hair stylists and lawyers before voters in the form of propositions.)

And, what few people realize, he is also ramping up his plans for cultural philanthropy. In his most extensive interview on the subject, he said he has been working closely with LACMA director Michael Govan on acquisitions intended for the museum, from sitting down together to refine a wish list of artists to reviewing works under consideration.

"I've been doing this very cooperatively with LACMA, so the artists are artists that Michael likes and the works are ones he likes," said Berggruen, who became a museum trustee in 2008 with encouragement from friends like Broad and video game mogul Bobby Kotick. "I want to give this all to LACMA."

The list consists of Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Charles Ray, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Martin Kippenberger and Thomas Schütte. Apart from Nauman, who now lives in New Mexico, all are either Californian or German; most are on the edgier end of the contemporary art spectrum. Five are represented by the Gagosian Gallery.

That none are women doesn't trouble Berggruen. "They were picked one by one, not picked because they are old or young, have a beard or no beard," he explained.

"What I love about his idea is that here he is, a citizen of the world, with no residence — call him and he's in Africa, South America, Asia, and he's zoomed in on these artists from Los Angeles," said Govan, who has focused on building up LACMA's contemporary holdings. Asked about his contribution to the acquisition list, Govan described it a bit differently than Berggruen did. "Just to be clear, this is not my list of artists, it's Nicolas' list," he said. "It's very much his personal sensibility."

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