To Be Generous & Selfless: Once Upon A Time It Was Possible

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To Be Generous and Selfless, Once Upon a Time It Was Possible

About ten years ago the National Gallery of Art in Washington received a remarkable gift of two thousand works of contemporary art from Dorothy and Herbert Vogel. The size and quality of this gift is especially impressive considering their modest way of living--she's a librarian and he is a postal worker. By all accounts, they live in a tiny New York apartment where every square inch of space is occupied by art. Starting in the early 60's, the Vogels began buying art by young, then mostly unknown artists, acquiring their works for a modest amount of money---a few hundred dollars at most---often paid in installments. They got to know artists and developed a deep knowledge of contemporary art. Even by conservative estimation, the value of their collection today is worth tens of millions of dollars. They gave this collection to the National Gallery for next to nothing---in exchange for a very modest annuity. To my best knowledge, this generous gift came without strings attached.

In the 1930s, Andrew Mellon, the formidable Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, donated to the nation his remarkable collection of European art. His gift included priceless masterpieces from the Hermitage Museum, purchased in a secret deal with the desperate for cash Bolshevik government. In addition, he provided $10 million to build what is known today as the National Gallery of Art. And what's most surprising, he refused to put his name on the fa-ade, rightfully assuming that other collectors would be more inclined to give their art to a National Gallery versus a gallery bearing his name. In the ensuing decades, hundreds of Americans have bequeathed their collections to the museum, thus full filling Andrew Mellon's dream of turning the National Gallery into a world class museum.

Here in L.A. we don't have a good history of such unselfish generosity. Every big collector seemingly demands that his name be chiseled onto the museum's walls. Norton Simon took over the Pasadena Museum of Contemporary Art, then and replaced its existing collection with his own. Armand Hammer broke the promise to donate his collection to LACMA, where it had been on display for many years, and moved it to a museum bearing his own name. Needless to say, neither museum has inspired other collectors to donate their art to these institutions that are monuments to the vanity of their founders.

Do you see where I'm going with this? The generosity of Eli Broad, who has given LACMA $60 million to construct a new building to house his own collection, well deserves our praise. But the fact that Mr. Broad demands that this new pavilion will be named the Broad Museum, makes for some confusion, as it becomes virtually a private museum within our public museum. And considering that he didn't even donate his collection but only promised to display it there for the next ten years, our sense of gratitude to him is getting somewhat diminished. Does Mr. Broad know about the enlightened generosity of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel or about the classy gift that Andrew Mellon bestowed on his nation? Wouldn't he prefer to be remembered as a visionary collector and an enlightened patron of art rather than one in a crowded field of super-rich who build museums as mausoleums to their egos?

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