The Oscars, Hollywood and Art

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This morning, when the Academy announced the Oscar nominations, all other front-page news – the stock prices plunging, the gas prices rising – seemed less important to me. Hey, after all, I live in LA, in close proximity to the gods and goddesses of Hollywood who, for almost a hundred years, have kept us enthralled in dark theaters across the world. They are the objects of our worship, inspiration, gossip, and ridicule. I can't resist quoting Frank Sinatra: "Call me irresponsible... tell me I'm impractical... throw in undependable too..." But today, I feel it would be appropriate to mention their less celebrated role as patrons of art who in the past have generously donated numerous artworks to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

at080122a.jpg Last week at its Beverly Hills headquarters, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveiled an exhibition by acclaimed Hollywood photographer Douglas Kirkland, whose 125 color and black-and-white images of the "who's who" of world cinema are lining the walls of the Grand Lobby: Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier. A large crowd gathered for the opening of the exhibition, and the mood was festive and slightly nostalgic. Many photographs capture the glory of old Hollywood. I found one image particularly enchanting –- a 1970 photograph of French director Jean Renoir sitting in his Beverly Hills house surrounded by students. To the right you can see a large portrait of him as a young boy, painted by his famous father, Auguste Renoir. To the left is a sculptural portrait of his mother, also produced by Papa Renoir. After the death of Jean Renoir in 1979, both of these portraits were bequeathed to LACMA. If you have visited the museum in years since, you have probably seen the painting, but that's not the case with the bust of Madame Renoir, which has been hidden in museum storage and has never been shown publicly. It's easy to criticize Los Angeles collectors for not having enough civic pride to donate generously to the city's museums, but looking at the recent history of LACMA, I can't help thinking that maybe the museum could be more gracious in the way it conducts relationships with collectors and could do more to honor their contributions.

at080122b.jpg The same evening I saw Douglas Kirkland's photographs at the Academy, I returned to LACMA to have another look at the recently installed exhibition of masterpieces of 20th century art generously donated to the museum by Los Angeles collectors Janice and Henri Lazarof. Reading the wall labels, I guessed that in order to acquire this collection, the museum gave to the Lazarofs an undisclosed sum of money. In all probability, the money came from the controversial sale a couple of years ago of almost 50 artworks from the museum's permanent collection, including those donated to the museum by Hollywood celebrities. It was reported that the sale of these works earned LACMA $13 million, money that, according to the rules, can only be used for acquiring art. I'm guessing that's why the wall labels for the Lazarof collection list many illustrious Hollywood names, indicating that their gifts to the museum were sold, and the proceeds were used in the acquisition of this collection.

One definitely can lament the fact that the generosity of Eli Broad toward LACMA goes only so far. But in hindsight, one can also see that LACMA, being a public museum, has not been particularly forthcoming about many important decisions, like the aforementioned sale of works by Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Giacometti and others. And that could negatively influence collectors' decisions whether or not to donate their art to the museum.

Freeze Frame: 5 Decades of Photographs by Douglas Kirkland is on view at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences through April 20
8949 Wilshire Boulevard
Beverly Hills, California 90211; 310-247-3000
The Academy's Grand Lobby is open Tuesday through Friday from 10am to 5pm and weekends from noon to 6pm. Admission is free.

Composite banner image: Ingmar Bergman, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, by Douglas Kirkland