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At El Segundo Museum of Art, couple opens collection to public

Collectors Brian and Eva Sweeney aim to use their 2,000-square-foot space to bring visual art to the city and help schools at the same time.

February 05, 2013|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Brian and Eva Sweeney at the El Segundo Museum of Art.
Brian and Eva Sweeney at the El Segundo Museum of Art. (Christina House / For The…)

When a small but powerful 1826 painting by Corot of a craggy rock formation came up for auction three years ago at Sotheby's in New York, Getty curator Scott Schaefer was working with a museum trustee who wanted to buy it.

When the trustee was outbid, Schaefer tracked down the winning bidders and was "absolutely shocked," he said, to find that they lived so close: Brian and Eva Sweeney, a Manhattan Beach couple who were quickly and quietly building a serious art collection. "It could have gone anywhere in the world," Schaefer said.

In May, Corot's "Civita Castellana" will be loaned to the Getty Museum and hang in its 19th century galleries. But until then, it has pride of place at a new nonprofit art space founded by the Sweeneys: the El Segundo Museum of Art, which opened to the public last week.

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It is a tiny museum, with about 2,000 square feet of exhibition space, no permanent collection and only one person on staff full time (with two part time — all in education). Curator Bernhard Zuenkeler, who lives in Berlin and makes frequent trips to L.A., is Eva Sweeney's older brother.

But the small space has big ambitions to bring visual art to a town better known for its Chevron refinery and its proximity to Los Angeles International Airport. The first show, drawn primarily from the Sweeneys' collection, features 19th century greats like Corot and Gustave Courbet mixed with more recent work by Christo, Andreas Gursky and young German artists.

The plan for the nonprofit space — the Sweeneys call it a "laboratory" — is to invite local teachers to use the exhibitions as they see fit during the week, and to keep public hours Friday through Sunday.

The couple originally planned to convert an alley along a property on Main Street in El Segundo into storage for their growing collection. But former mayor Eric Busch encouraged them to open it up to the public.

With three children younger than 7 at the time, the Sweeneys started thinking about arts education.

"Our kids went to public school in Manhattan Beach and the arts program was reduced there," said Eva, 43. "We know that getting access to art is a struggle for schools sometimes, so this is a way for them to see real art instead of reproductions or slides."

And the schools don't even need to rent a bus. As Brian, 51, pointed out, El Segundo has four public schools — one high school, one middle and two elementary, all within walking distance. "It's our objective to have all kids in the school system come through our space. They can just walk over," he said.

This project also draws on the Sweeneys' professional strengths. Before they were married in 2002, Eva was the co-founder of the Los Angeles architecture firm Bau10, having left her native Germany to do graduate studies at Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Brian is a real estate developer famous (some would say notorious) for buying up huge expanses of coastal land and selling it at a profit to parties seeking to protect it from big development. At one point he owned 3,000 acres in Malibu. The two met when he hired her firm to design dozens of high-end homes there.

PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures by The Times

Brian was the one who saw the potential of a 15-foot alley just north of the El Segundo post office to become a building. He bought the full property, post office and alley, in 2010. When the post office downsized soon afterward, he used some of its space to turn the alley into a 25-foot legal lot. (The post office has since closed, and he is now trying to lease the space to a restaurant.)

Eva designed the museum space with an emphasis on both sustainability and beauty, using burnished concrete blocks for the walls and solar tubes as lights. She also created an airy "education lounge" that overlooks the gallery, while the rest of the second floor has a sleek apartment for an artist in residence to use.

The Sweeneys plan to show artwork from various owners, but the first exhibition draws heavily on their own collection, which they have been rapidly building over the last five years.

They started with contemporary, and Eva remembers their first major purchase, a Peter Doig painting at Art Basel. "We were hooked," she said. They soon branched into historical works, all the way back to the 15th century in the case of one engraving of witches by Dürer.

Their main areas of focus tend to be landscapes, work with architectural imagery, and nudes, with an emphasis on paintings and drawings. They now own about 400 works, serious enough to attract Getty attention.

Zuenkeler, who has advised them on their purchases, said Eva tends to favor the cleaner, more architectural imagery — Apollonian to Brian's Dionysian streak. And Brian often makes the first move.

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