It Takes a Village to Raise Museum Funds

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For good, normal folks who might go to a museum only once in a while, museums present themselves in a stately, unhurried, dignified manner. But if you peer behind the curtain, 'calm' is the last word you would use to describe what's going on there.

at090512e.jpg Happy pandemonium, that's how I would describe the crowd mulling around the Santa Monica Museum of Art on a recent Saturday night, waiting to be allowed inside. Every few minutes, a group of 50 or 60 people would enter the museum and start to run laps around the exhibition space, where 650 small artworks lined the shelves. All works were 8 x 10 inches, all of them $300, and all of them were anonymous, which meant that people had to trust their own eye and instinct in grabbing a piece off the shelf – and doing all that in a hurry. Only when they paid for the piece was the name of the artist revealed. So, for a fraction of the actual cost, one could end up acquiring a work by John Baldessari or Ed Ruscha or any of the 500 other famous and lesser-known artists who donated their art for the auction. That night, more than 600 guests showed up for the annual fundraiser known as "Incognito," and it added to the museum coffers $235,000. That's one of the reasons I always think of the Santa Monica Museum as "the little engine that could."

at090512d.jpg A week later, across the city at the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo, MOCA held its biennial fundraiser, and as befitting a much larger institution with an international profile, the event attracted a large crowd - 1,100 people - and netted for the museum more than $650,000. In light of the financial troubles that consumed the museum in recent months, these numbers – definitely impressive – made everyone happy.

at090512b.jpg And that brings us to LACMA, which had its own share of good news a few weeks ago, when during the annual Collectors Committee weekend, each museum curator presented his or her choice of rare, highly desirable artworks in hopes that the Committee would agree to pay for it. In a very entertaining and informative article in last Sunday's New York Times, you can read about the ten curators who took turns pleading their case in front of donors. Not everyone was a winner; during the reception later that night, one curator, refusing to take no for an answer, was seen playfully dropping to his knees in front of a patron, still hoping to persuade him to get out his checkbook. His persistence, aided by an abundance of good food and wine, ultimately paid off. Altogether, the Committee contributed just over $1 million for the acquisition of various artworks, including a collection of rare African textiles.

at090512c.jpg All this good news brings to mind the silver lining of the tragic demise of the ancient city of Pompeii, which was buried during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79 and is now the subject of a blockbuster exhibition at LACMA. Last week on Politics of Culture, I interviewed Ken Lapatin, the exhibition curator; you can hear it on the KCRW website. A number of these amazingly well-preserved sculptures, frescoes, and glass vessels have never been seen outside of Italy, and you simply cannot allow yourself to miss the chance to see them.

at090512a.jpgIn the 250 years since its discovery, Pompeii has captured the imagination of numerous European artists, including the famous Russian painter Karl Brullov, whose gigantic "Last Day of Pompeii," completed in 1833, became an international sensation when it was shown in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century during the World's Fair. I wonder what it would take today to bring this huge (15 x 21') crowd-pleaser of a painting to our shores again...


Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples
On view at LACMA through October 4

Banner image: MOCA Fresh Silent Auction, May 2009