Collectors get in on thriving local scene

Buoyed by a burgeoning L.A. scene, high art and Hollywood are intersecting more intensely than ever. A perfect illustration: the recent Museum of Contemporary Art party for its blockbuster Andy Warhol exhibition.

The shindig — chaired by cable tycoon Marc Nathanson’s wife Jane — drew the likes of Scott Sassa, Steve Tisch, Anjelica Huston, Steve Martin, Charlize Theron, Marisa Tomei and Lisa Kudrow to honor Dennis Hopper, himself an avid collector and artist.

They were joined by museum trustees Dean Valentine; Ivan Reitman; Leonard Nimoy’s wife, Susan; Gersh Agency matriarch Bea Gersh; and Jake Bloom’s wife, Ruth. No wonder MOCA director Jeremy Strick says Hollywood has more art fans than before.

“What I’ve seen is a significantly increasing involvement in Hollywood in collecting,” Strick says. “It’s partly a response to so much great work being created in Los Angeles.”

Valentine, a voracious collector of cutting-edge contempo art, agrees: “It’s becoming more active. When I began collecting, I was going to galleries and the wind was whistling through them.”

Not everyone believes Hollywood’s art appetite has improved, however.

“One thing artists bemoan is there are not more contemporary art collectors in Hollywood,” says attorney Alan Hergott, a big collector. “It’s surprisingly and somewhat disappointingly small.”

Shoshana Blank, co-owner of Shoshana Wayne Gallery, says it may be a clash of creative egos, something Hollywood knows a bit about.

“My thought on it is it’s basically about a competition,” Blank says. “Wall Street needs to get culture, so they collect art. Hollywood thinks art is competition.”

That attitude may be easing, however, thanks to a stronger economy and a fabulous Angeleno art scene. And if nothing else, there is a long, if modest, tradition of art lovers in Hollywood.

Edward G. Robinson built a second great collection after divorce broke up his first one. His efforts in collection No. 1 benefitted director George Sidney, who married Robinson’s ex and got the art too.

Other noted collectors included Robert Montgomery, Charles Laughton and Vincent Price. Billy Wilder once boasted that he made more money auctioning off the art he’d picked up over the years than he ever did from his movies.

The city’s biggest recent collectors, such as home-building billionaire Eli Broad and software king Peter Norton (now decamped to New York), have few Hollywood connections.

But entertainment can claim a number of notable art fans, largely behind-the-camera people such as David Geffen, who owns works from Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Roy Lichtenstein.

Geffen also gave MOCA $5 million to create an auxiliary gallery from its former temporary home in Little Tokyo.

“Mainly when you look at Hollywood, it’s the execs who are collectors,” says consultant Cardiff Dugan Loy, who previously administered the collections of Valentine and Michael Ovitz. “They look at scripts, talent, movie projects all the time. Looking at a piece of art is not all that different.”

Stars such as Hopper, Martin and Jeff Goldblum are also noted for their art enthusiasms.

In Hollywood, it seems the dealmakers’ ability to pick good art is a carryover from their day jobs.

“Most of them are very sophisticated and know what they’re doing,” says gallery owner Susanne Vielmetter. “They are collecting in a wide range that most people could never hope to do.”

Phil and Bea Gersh have been collecting works by Picasso, Fernand Leger, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Johns and Kelly for four decades.

“We had no money when we started,” Phil Gersh says. “We bought Warhol before he was Warhol, you know?”

Now, works they bought years ago for $800 get offers for $2 million, he says.

The collecting bug has rubbed off on sons David and Bobby. And Bea and Phil regularly bequeath their five grandchildren important pieces — such as a Johns painting and a Henry Moore sculpture –then buy something else to fill the vacated space.

CAA long has had a primo collection, so much so that when Ovitz left, he and the firm signed a four-year transition agreement on the art’s disposition.

CAA then began buying works from young California artists and their teachers, though the firm’s airy atrium still includes a vast Lichtenstein and a John Baldessari. Works by Ed Ruscha, Edward Kienholz and Ed Moses decorate other walls.

“It’s very much part of the culture of the new company,” says general counsel Mike Rubel, a passionate collector.

CAA agent Beth Swofford has been building a formidable collection studded with work by Ruscha, Gerhard Richter and Matthew Barney.

The bug bit the former UPN prexy Valentine in 1994, when he bought a piece in N.Y.

“I kind of started looking at art as a way of communicating ideas, not just as a decorative object,” Valentine says. “It’s become one of the great pleasures of my life in recent years. Every Saturday, from 2 to 5 p.m., I hit the galleries. I like to know what’s new.”

Though some — such as Ovitz, Bloom and Valentine — need full-time staffers to manage their collections, others rely on the occasional advice of consultants such as Loy and Barbara Guggenheim, wife of attorney Bert Fields.

A consultant may be the only way many Hollywood types can hope to choose where to spend their art money, whether it’s for a piece costing $1,000 or $1 million.

Guggenheim has advised Sony and Coca-Cola, and individuals such as producer Ray Stark, who after amassing a notable collection, decided to change what he collected.

She says many in showbiz collect other kinds of art than post-war contemporary.

Warner Bros. prexy Alan Horn has an extensive Western art collection, ICM agent Ron Bernstein a world-class collection of furniture and textiles, and Norman Kurland acquires Chinese antiquities.

Brad Pitt and Joel Silver love architecture — Silver buys Frank Lloyd Wright houses — and Kelly Lynch bankrolled a MOCA exhibition on architect R.M. Schindler. Kathleen Kennedy is one of many Hollywood fans of Social Realist art.

Photography is hot, led by collectors such as Ovitz’s AMG, Jan de Bont and Village Roadshow’s Bruce Berman.

Younger execs and agents gravitate to photography because it’s relatively cheap, generally narrative and representational and technologically close to the moving images they know.

Their interest is further fed by the creative conceits of artists such as James Casebere, who builds miniature models, photographs them, then destroys the models. The photos sell so well in Hollywood that they have inspired copycats.

Despite this roster of art fans, Marc Selwyn of Grant Selwyn Fine Art is skeptical about whether Hollywood really is more avid about art than other local industries, such as finance or real estate.

As a vet of Sotheby’s auction house and mega-gallery Pace Wildenstein’s Los Angeles operation, he’s been in the art scene for years.

“The idea of Hollywood art collectors, that has been exaggerated,” Selwyn says. “There’s a certain number of people with money, a certain number with the collecting gene, and a certain number with an aesthetic. When you have all three, you have a collector. But there are very few actors who collect art. My experience is that it’s just another industry where money has been made.”

Selwyn and others can point to plenty of know-nothing Hollywood dabblers who just want to buy something that looks nice over the couch in their Bel Air or Malibu estate.

There are occasional risks in art collecting, too, as the case of former Tyco CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski demonstrates. He has just been indicted on charges of evading $1 million in sales taxes on Renoir and Monet paintings he bought through a private dealer, Alexander Apsis, whose previous clients include Madonna.

And then there are those ego-puffed performers who believe their interest alone can make an artist hot.

“Some of them say, ‘Doesn’t the fact that I collect it make it more valuable?'” says Vielmetter.

That kind of hubris makes a serious collector, or seller, cringe.

And the answer to that self-absorbed question is no.

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