American museums are built and depend on the generosity of private collectors. If not for the noblesse oblige of patrician families like the Mellons and the Rockefellers, we wouldn't have the National Gallery in Washington or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Last week the New York Times broke the news of MOMA receiving the gift of 174 artworks from Los Angeles collector and real estate developer Edward Broida. What's remarkable about this collection is the discipline with which Mr. Broida conducted his activities, concentrating on acquiring the works of just a few artists with whom he felt a special affinity. The core of the collection is a remarkable group of thirty-six works by Philip Guston, including 12 paintings, which, combined with the works of the artist's that the museum already owns, makes MOMA the repository of the largest collection of Gustons in the world. I've always liked his works, but after seeing the traveling retrospective of his work in San Francisco a few years ago, I simply fell in love with his art.
While the New York Times understandably placed the article announcing this gift on the front page of its Art section along with four illustrations, there was only a brief mention of it in the LA Times. I think it's a regrettable omission on the part of our paper not to give more attention to this story. The fact that this L.A.-based collector didn't consider any Los Angeles museums worthy of his generosity raises a flag. Of MOCA, he said, "Their art eyes are so different from mine, the collection didn't fit." Of LACMA he added, "They're totally wrapped up with another large collection," in clear reference to Eli Broad's collection, which will be just displayed---but not donated to the museum---in a specially built pavilion.
Unfortunately for Los Angeles, this is not the first time when a major L.A. collector gave his art to somewhere else. When the City of Beverly Hills turned down the offer from Joseph Hirshhorn, he moved his museum to Washington. When LACMA officials bungled the negotiation with Arthur Gilbert, he moved his extremely valuable collection of mosaics and silver to London.
It goes without saying that the prestige of MOMA can be a siren song impossible for many collectors to resist. But are L.A. museums doing their best to assure that our major collectors would want to donate their art to them? Unlike their European counterparts, American museum directors and curators are obliged to court and befriend private collectors: guiding them in their art acquisitions, traveling with them to various art fairs and biennales, wining and dining them along the way. Sadly, I've heard plenty of stories from disgruntled donors complaining of LACMA's cavalier attitude toward them. Still, early this year the museum was the lucky recipient of a large donation of modern and contemporary art from its long-time trustee Robert Halff, who died at the age of 96. However, no announcement has been made as to when his collection will be shown in a special exhibition. Such a lackadaisical attitude toward the donor and his legacy hardly encourages other collectors to donate to LACMA. In contrast, when earlier this year MOCA received a large donation from its trustee Blake Byrne, the museum immediately organized an exhibition of his collection. MOCA would do even better by not only organizing first rate special exhibitions, but by also finding enough energy and space to permanently display the core of its formidable collection of contemporary art. As it is, even with its three locations, the museum chooses most of the time to keep its collections in storage. If you were a collector, would you consider giving your art to a museum that would most likely hide it away?