Patronage in L.A. (Part 1 of 3): How Capricious Donors Stymie a Great Art Scene

This is the first of a three-part ARTINFO series on art patronage in Los Angeles.
by Yasmine Mohseni
Published: April 17, 2013

Courtesy the Hammer Museum
Gala in the Garden at the Hammer Museum (2011)
In recent years, Los Angeles has received increased international attention as an important new center for contemporary art. In fact, the idea that L.A. art is the next great frontier has been repeated so many times that today it’s almost a cliché. The real question should be, in the face of all this buzz, what still holds it back?

The city’s virtues are many and well known: Strong art schools, affordable housing and studios, large expanses of space, and good weather have all contributed to a flourishing scene. In contrast to over-structured art centers like London and New York, Los Angeles still offers a fresh and nimble arts landscape. This flexibility has helped to create an environment conducive to innovative programming in contemporary art, at venues ranging from grassroots artist-run spaces such as Control Room and Public Fiction, to prominent nonprofits like LACE and LAXART and world-renowned institutions LACMA and the Hammer. Across this varied landscape, however, what all these institutions have in common is one thing: a need for increased support from the L.A.’s powerful patrons.

MOCA’s well-chronicled financial crisis might serve as an opportunity to open up a discussion on the current state of institutional patronage in Los Angeles. How does the city’s still-pioneering attitude affect the sustainability of its art institutions? Does Los Angeles have a culture of serious patronage, and if not, why not? How are institutions setting out to groom new patrons in Los Angeles? And does Hollywood — perhaps LA’s most visible set of potential benefactors — really care about the visual arts? If the city’s long-promised arrival at centerstage is ever really to come, these are questions that will need to be answered.

Growing Pains?

In contrast to London and New York, L.A. institutions are relatively young: London’s National Gallery opened in Trafalgar Square in 1838, the Tate opened its doors in 1897, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1880, MoMA in 1929 and the Whitney in 1931. LACMA has been an art museum since 1961, the Getty since 1974, MOCA since 1979, and the Hammer since 1990.

“Los Angeles has seen this extraordinary flowering of museums since the 1960s,” says Bruce Robertson, art history professor and acting director at UC-Santa Barbara’s Art, Architecture and Design Museum, and previously deputy director of programs at LACMA. “So, 50 years is actually not a long time. Though conversely you could say that what MOCA has achieved in 30 years is pretty significant.”

One possible way to think about the issues facing the L.A. art community is that it seems still to be experiencing a period of turbulent adolescence: identities are being formed, programming and collections are morphing and growing, and the audience is learning how to value its non-profits and museums. Since Los Angeles is a younger metropolis than most East Coast and European cities, its cultural fabric is less developed and its collector class is still learning what it means to be a true art patron.

“Los Angeles is in a very different phase of its legacy building,” acknowledges Andrea Fiucyznski, president of Christie’s Los Angeles. “If you’re looking at the Vanderbilts, the Astors, and the Rockefellers, comparatively Los Angeles is at a much earlier phase — though that’s not to say that it doesn’t have comparable figures. I’ve certainly seen families, individuals, and corporate entities select and choose which institutions to support.”

L.A.’s famous cultural institutions do indeed carry the names of its major donors such as the Annenbergs, the Disneys, the Fowlers, and the Huntingtons. However, the wider cultural ideal of placing importance on being a civic-minded art patron has still to take root in Los Angeles. “Only in the past decade have institutions become strong, and philanthropy is just now starting to catch up,” says Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum. “There is not a deep culture of patronage in Los Angeles yet, but it’s coming along — it’s still young.”

Adds Robertson, “L.A. has a history of acts of philanthropy rather than a culture of philanthropy.”

Indeed, the reality that philanthropy here comes in fits and starts may help explain MOCA’s tumultuous history. As Philbin points out, “Acts of philanthropy founded [MOCA], but it wasn’t shored up enough for it to be sustained. Real philanthropy is not a short-term deal. Eli [Broad] isn’t our biggest problem. Our biggest problem is that we don’t have more Elis. We need more people to equalize his power, then he would be one among many heroes.”

Some institutions, of course, are in partnerships that help provide a safety net, notably the Hammer, which has been operated by UCLA since 1992, and LACMA, which has been under the aegis of Los Angeles County since its inception. But for those without the financial cushion of an endowment or partnership — and MOCA is only the most glaring and high-profile example — a patronage model based on sporadic giving makes it more difficult to reach long-term goals. This reality can damage the autonomy and integrity of programming.

Perhaps the problem is as much on the side of those asking for money as for those receiving it. Cesar Garcia, who plans to open the non-profit space the Mistake Room in early 2014, asserts that L.A. institutions aren’t engaging potential donors in a strategic way. “Often, you see patrons being handled on a project-by-project basis, meaning you’re not asking for an angel-based gift — which is huge to supporting an institution.”

When patrons are approached for one-off exhibitions, market trends can dictate institutional programming — it’s just easier to raise money for and draw attention to the artist du jour than for the lesser-known artist. By and large, this is the situation that L.A.’s art institutions find themselves in today. It’s a perspective that will likely have to change for the scene to grow deeper roots.


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