So who are the real collectors? In the early days it was only the mega-wealthy, meaning top stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. And that continued through the 1930s and ’40s, as the prestige of owning masterpieces rubbed off on studio heads, producers and directors. Jack Warner, Harry Cohn, Josef von Sternberg, Sam Jaffe, Charles Laughton, George Cukor and Billy Wilder were all devoted art collectors, well versed in both classic and modern. (The two most sophisticated collectors were Vincent Price, who ran a gallery in Beverly Hills, and Edward G. Robinson, who not only built an extraordinary collection of modern masterpieces, but installed a gallery in his backyard for twice-weekly visitations.)
By the 1960s there were so many collectors in Hollywood that the now-defunct Municipal Art Gallery was formed with the intention of displaying Hollywood collections exclusively. That’s when industryites such as Lew Wasserman, the WB’s Alan Shayne, MCA’s Taft Schreiber, Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Billy Goetz, William Wyler, Gregory Peck, Ray Stark, Scott Spiegel, Fred Weisman and a young Dennis Hopper built collections that were — and in some cases, still are — worth tens of millions of dollars.
Hollywood’s wealthiest players are still buying art by the gross, including David Geffen, Michael Ovitz, Ted Turner, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Aaron Spelling, Kathleen Kennedy, James Burrows, Arthur Cohen, Keith Barish and Daniel Melnick.(Steve Martin, who’s famous for his extensive modern art collection, has been selling more than buying lately.) But with the rise of contemporary art — the rock ’n’ roll of the art world — a number of up-and-coming mogul/execs are jumping into the game, including Alisa Tager (who’s married to art critic David Pagel), Tony Ganz, Ori Marmur, Sofia Coppola,Thom Mount, Mark Carliner, and Donald De Line.
New Line’s Michael Lynne is said to have “a terrific eye” for edgy work including Damien Hirst and Richard Prince. And Leonard Nimoy has become deeply involved with contemporary art, not only buying pieces by the likes of Kiki Smith and Yoshitomo Nara, but co-funding shows at MOCA.
Yet it’s the agents, in particular, who seem to be succumbing to art’s allure most heavily. The Gersh Agency, for instance, has long-time collector Phil Gersh and his two sons, David and Bob, who are both considered world-class collectors. UTA has Jeremy Zimmer and Peter Benedek; William Morris has George Freeman; Handprint has Dannielle Thomas; Gorfaine/Schwartz has Samuel Schwartz; and there are so many pieces of significant art at the Wilshire-Beverly Building where The Firm is located that they’re hanging in the parking area. (Guess’ Georges Marciano, the collection’s owner, may be the only art buff to have a curated garage.)
CAA meanwhile, recently established a scholarship program for local high school kids to attend some of SoCal’s most prestigious art schools. More to the point, the current regime also works with art critic David Pagel, curator Bruce Guentherand and CAA’s own chief counsel, Michael Rubel, to cherry-pick early works from up-and-coming artists at those very same schools. (Leave it to an agency to come up with that idea.) Today you can’t walk through the agency’s I.M. Pei-designed office without bumping into a painting or installation. They’re literally everywhere, some great and some, well, not so great.
Former CAA head Michael Ovitz filled the same space with prints nearly a decade ago, and that undoubtedly inspired a generation of agent collectors in the 1990s. (Ovitz’s personal collection, which has landed him on ARTnews’ list of top 200 collectors, is said to be vast, but less impressive in the contemporary department.) Today, CAA’s Beth Swofford and Sally Wilcox — and to a lesser extent, Bryan Lourd — are inspiring the next generation with their own aggressive approach.
“Agents enjoy being deeply involved with their clients’ projects,” explains Rubel, a major photo collector in his own right. “Yet since they tend to be one step further away from the process, they take the opportunity that art affords them to be more involved with the creative side.”
That’s what it means to be an art collector: It tells people you have creativity, passion, power and status. “Look at Stallone,” says one industry insider. “He wanted everyone to think he was intelligent so he started buying art like crazy in the 1980s. And he’s probably not alone in that respect.”
True enough, but as Cheech Marin, a serious aficionado himself, says: “If it helps [someone in the industry] get laid, so what? God bless’em. It worked for me.”
Getting props from your peers doesn’t come cheaply though. A painting by critical darling John Currin, for instance, generally runs north of $500,000. Yet none of the 30 or so collectors interviewed for this story said they buy Currins, or anybody else for that matter, for the purpose of making money (despite what they tell their business managers).
“I’ve never bought anything for profit,” claims producer Bud Yorkin, echoing the voice of many. “There are much better ways to make money. I collect because I love it, and it has become a very important part of my life.”
Smart investors know that’s not entirely true. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal claims that the art market has been steadily increasing for the last 10 years, and many of the same artists that pepper collections throughout Hollywood, including Ruscha, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons, are currently burning up the auction block.