Museum Directors Step In
Given the mercurial nature of art support in L.A., how can patronage stabilize and develop into a culture of the long-term commitment? Many observers believe museum directors might play a key role in helping Los Angeles transition from a city of art supporters to a community of patrons.
An institution’s director sets the tone for its programming staff and also for its board of trustees, both delicate ecosystems. In today’s Los Angeles, almost everyone singles out LACMA director Michael Govan for reinvigorating the museum and creating a dynamic multi-generational board. Govan’s understanding of how to appeal to a broad audience has garnered him influential fans, from young Hollywood executives to Beverly Hills matrons.
The charismatic director took charge in 2006. It certainly helps that he and his wife — the fashion public relations executive Katherine Ross — are a glamorous couple, running in the rarefied social circles of socialites and movie stars. The appeal of belonging to an exclusive social group that comes with being on a museum board like LACMA’s is a key incentive for new patrons.
“I know for a fact that the LACMA board is comprised of people who have really bonded, and Michael is responsible for creating an atmosphere where that can happen,” says long-time art collector and Hammer Museum trustee Susan Bay Nimoy.
As head of one of the city’s largest institutions, Govan undoubtedly has access to a strong donor base. Still, it’s his dynamic vision for the museum — from orchestrating high-profile projects such as “Levitated Mass” and the Art + Film Gala to overseeing the museum’s brick-and-mortar expansion — that keeps patrons writing checks.
“Michael Govan is the most successful in terms of trying to capture and train a young generation of boards members and get them early,” Bruce Robertson, the acting director at UC-Santa Barbara’s art museum, acknowledges.
Robertson thinks that Govan’s stewardship of LACMA could have a larger impact on Los Angeles. “If that generational changeover is successful — and I think it will be — then L.A. institutions are in a good position,” he says. “This will mean that a culture of philanthropy will have been created, a generation will have been trained, and they’ll understand their role on boards and see the results of their work.”
Long-Term Art Lovers
A director’s vision may draw patrons to an institution, but institutions still need a cooperative audience. “What’s so frustrating is hearing people with money [who are] so busy, they just want you to tell them what to do or what to buy,” laments collector and art patron Joy Simmons. A true culture of patronage requires active participation from potential benefactors.
What would this look like? Collector and attorney Christopher Yin consciously made the rounds of the city’s institutions before at last finding his home at the contemporary arts non-profit spaceLAXART, clicking with director Lauri Firstenberg. “Lauri’s program shows a lot of the same artists we are interested in and collecting,” he explains. “About five years ago, she asked if I’d like to get involved. So I joined the board.”
For her part, Nimoy left the MOCA board for the Hammer because is felt like a better fit. “Truly it’s simple: If you care about the director’s vision and you have money, you’re going to give. What we’re excited about at the Hammer is Annie [Philbin's] vision for the museum and the program support,” she says. “[As a patron], everyone has to find where they’re most excited.”
As for Simmons, she has been a trustee at a number of institutions, including LAXART, theSanta Monica Museum of Art, the California African American Museum, and now the soon-to-open Mistake Room. For her, the decision is not just about a particular program or artist but a long-term dedication to an institution and an artist’s career.
“I’ve been blessed to have a very successful career as a physician,” Simmons explains. “If someone is going to pay me to do what I do, then I can support an artist to do what they do.” (She passed her enthusiasm and passion for contemporary art on to her daughter Naima Keith, who is now assistant curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem.)
A sense of active ownership and mentorship is essential in forming a strong culture of patronage, catalyzing both the art audience and other potential patrons. Simmons is in many ways a model: In addition to her activities as a board member, she is known to reach out to friends and contacts of all ages, encouraging them to participate in the arts, for instance pooling money together for educational outreach which facilitated bussing school children from across Los Angeles to the Hammer to view the 2011 exhibition “Now Dig This!”
“It’s [about] trying to get people – especially the young ones – [who are already] interested in collecting to see that it’s more than having the object, it’s about being a patron,” she explains.
Nimoy recalls the impact of having MOCA founding member Beatrice Gersh and her husband Philip as mentors. “Phil Gersh was my husband Leonard Nimoy’s agent in the late 1980s,” she remembers. “We were invited on many occasions to their house for dinner, and I had never seen a collection like this at a private home. I was invited to join the Acquisitions Committee at MOCA — and that’s where my education started.”
Joining the Party
For those who don’t have art mentors, the social dimension of museum fundraising is an attractive and (relatively) accessible point of entry — and one that seems especially important in Los Angeles.
“People like to ingest their culture in different ways. In L.A. they enjoy openings and receptions,” Hammer director Ann Philbin postulates. “People need to come together here because they’re all in their bubbles — in cars, offices, homes — so there is a real focus on cultural gatherings in the evenings.”
Yin agrees that social engagement is an easy way for institutions to draw in new donors. Ideally, such events will serve as a sort of amuse-bouche, leading into a more lasting bond around the organization’s programming. The social emphasis, however, does have a drawback for the L.A. art scene: Tapping into this energy can be tricky for smaller institutions without an events budget. For these more modest venues, distinguishing themselves in the city’s vast arts landscape remains difficult — a weakness that has a direct impact on their donor base.
Yet it’s not impossible. Since its inception in 2005, LAXART has attracted a young and trendy art crowd through its social events and accessible programming. In the past several years, this aspect of the institution’s activities has become more seriously considered. Yin attributes this to LAXART’s strategic collaborations with the Hammer (through the L.A. Biennial) and the Getty (with Pacific Standard Time).
“A lot of people suddenly realized ‘oh this is a really exciting organization,’” Yin said. “It maintains a scrappier grassroots type of engagement, and at the same time has a certain institutional gravitas that makes it attractive to potential patrons.” Perhaps that’s a winning blueprint for something larger for the city, an institutional culture that reflects L.A.’s low-to-the-ground flexibility, but takes advantage of the very real achievements that exist.