Whether they knew it or not, the producers of Mad Men lifted their opening-credit graphics—the silhouette of a man in a tie and white dress shirt—right from the work of Idelle Weber. Weber had been painting such men, isolated in square offices, since the early 1960s, curator Ilene Susan Fort told me over breakfast Saturday morning at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fort, the senior curator of American Art at LACMA, came across Weber’s once-obscure work recently. “Hollis Taggart Gallery resurrected her about five years ago,” Fort said. As we talked, Weber’s sculpture Jump Rope (1967–68), a Plexiglas silhouette of a woman jumping a neon rope, hung a few yards away on a wall in the museum’s Resnick Pavilion, surrounded by seven other artworks the museum’s curators were hoping to acquire before the weekend was over.
In a few minutes, Fort would present the piece to the museum’s Collectors Committee, 79 individuals who pay between $15,000 and $60,000 for membership. Their membership fees go into the pool for this annual weekend affair, where curators pitch and the committee members vote on what to purchase with their collective funds.
There’s some strategy to choosing what to present, and the committee’s interests shift. “Right now, it’s very contemporary,” Fort said. She’s had luck in previous editions with work by under-recognized women—two leather-bound heads by Nancy Grossman in 2014, and a soft sculpture by Dorothea Tanning in 2013. “I figured, well, I did well with those two,” she said.
The Collectors Committee was founded in 1986, in part because the young museum, established in 1965, had no acquisitions endowment. Funds from the committee account for about 20 percent of the museum’s acquisitions budget and, while other museums have big-ticket committees that help with purchases, few engage in such a performative process. The pageantry has only increased since Michael Govan took over as LACMA’s director in 2006 and Ann Colgin, of Napa Valley winery Colgin Cellars, became the committee’s energetic chair in 2009.
Now in its 30th year, the event begins on a Friday evening, with dinner hosted at the homes of trustees and catered by well-known chefs (hometown heroes Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who created the restaurant Animal, helmed one dinner this year). Breakfast and a pitching session follow on Saturday morning, and the whole effort culminates with a multi-course dinner on Saturday night, where a benefit auction grows the pool of money before voting occurs. Usually, before dinner, certain donors have purchased works for the museum themselves, and some have made spontaneous donations. The committee skipped last year to focus on the museum’s 50th anniversary celebrations and fundraisers, but when it last convened, in 2014, it set a new record for the weekend, raising $4.1 million to buy nine artworks.
“This is how we buy art,” Govan said, standing at a podium in front of a large screen, preparing to introduce his museum’s curators. “This ritual, this spring ritual, this frenzy of buying.”
Ann Colgin had already beseeched the audience to pay close attention, because they didn’t know when “a light might go off,” and they might find themselves caring about artwork they hadn’t particularly liked moments before.
“Now for the fun,” Govan said, before stepping aside for Rita Gonzalez, the acting head of LACMA’s contemporary art department. Gonzalez wanted 150 videos from Electronic Arts Intermix, together priced at $350,000. The collection includes the first “conceptual dog art” by William Wegman, and, Gonzalez argued, could help the museum “rival the great film and video collections of the world,” especially when considered with the Academy of Motion Pictures Museum, which is set to open in 2018 in a nearby building leased from LACMA. These videos represented a chance to “revise and replay history”—pun intended—“in what would be a collection-transforming acquisition,” she said.
This was a common approach: explaining a work’s significance and emphasizing how its acquisition would increase the museum’s international prominence while sprinkling in a few jokes. (Later, when pitching Delacroix’s Still Life of Dahlias, Zinnias and Plums on a Table, Leah Lehmbeck, curator of European painting and sculpture, showed a photo of the artist’s head on a “Mount Rushmore of Modern Art.”)
Rob Singer, head of Japanese Art, has pitched the Committee 25 times, almost always successfully. He showed a photo of the export license he had spent two years securing so he could bring two 18th-century paintings by Soga Shohaku into the country. “They really want to stay here,” Singer told the committee. “They like Los Angeles.”
Stephanie Barron, who joined LACMA’s modern art department in 1976, presented a soft sculpture by Claes Oldenburg of a typewriter eraser. The artist has owned it himself for over 40 years. “It is striking in its unexpected elegance,” said Barron, who argued that it was a steal at $450,000, given that two examples from Oldenburg’s eraser series have gone for $2.2 million and $1 million since 2014.
Britt Salvesen, who heads the photography and prints and drawings departments, presented the Mike Kaplan Collection of 880 movie posters and quoted directly from them to make her point: “What Price Hollywood?,” “Only a Fistful of Dollars,” and “You Can’t Take It With You.”
The poster collection had been purchased even before the pitching sessions had ended. Producer Riza Aziz, who had already donated $1.1 million toward the works, had meant to be in town to hustle his fellow committee members for the rest. Instead, he’d gotten stuck overseas, and decided to purchase the piece in full. (Others had already made donations, too). Chicago-based committee members Richard and Kitzia Goodman bought Islamic Art curator Linda Komaroff’s proposed artwork for the museum before pitching ended, as well. Komaroff has been steadily building LACMA’s collection of contemporary Islamic art, and this series of staged photographs by Siamak Filizadeh darkly recasts the 1896 assassination of Naser al-Din, Shah of Iran.
By the time dinner began Saturday evening, museum IT staffers, all wearing black, were lined up along the back wall with headphones on, ready to count and record the bids in the auction, tracking the pool as it grew.
Former auctioneer and actress Viveca Paulin-Ferrell, a museum trustee who collects art with her husband, actor Will Ferrell, headed the sale. Smoothly, she sold three private, catered parties in the Rain Room, which is currently on view at LACMA, even though only one party had been on offer. “Is that okay, Michael?” she asked Govan, hardly waiting for a reply. A private concert with Lionel Richie, introduced to the auction line-up late, went for $260,000.
Somewhere around the third course, Ann Colgin returned to the stage with Ryan Seacrest, who would help her helm the acquisition voting. They announced the pool had risen from $1 million to nearly $1.7 million and then explained the complicated buzzer and voting systems. Committee members at the benefactor level had four voting devices to manage. The top two artworks from each round would go head-to-head in a run-off. “I’ve been preparing for this for 15 years,” said Seacrest, whose longtime gig, American Idol, just finished its final, 15th season.
The Oldenburg sculpture went first, followed by Rob Singer’s Oxen and Shepherds. Then went Idelle Weber’s Jump Rope, and the selection of videos from the Electronic Arts Intermix. Antonio de Torres’s Elevation of the Cross came next, funded in part by trustee Kelvin Davis. Then the cash ran out. “There’s no money in the pool and the Delacroix has not been bought,” said Colgin hopefully, but no one came to the French Romantic’s rescue.
However, by then, the group had spent a grand total of $6.4 million, a new record.