Money, Power and Picasso’s Bathroom: The Industry’s Most Important Art Collectors

[This article originally ran in V Life in Feb/Mar 2004.]

It was meant only as a joke, but when asked if the entertainment biz had any artistic credibility, Candice Bergen allegedly laughed and said: “Hollywood and art? Hollywood is like Picasso’s bathroom.”

Let’s face it, the ties between high art and the creation of motion pictures are about as thin as Barry Diller’s hair. Granted, those on the creative side, the directors, actors, writers and composers, are undoubtedly artists — or at least frustrated artists — in their own right, but few would dispute that the majority of industryites tend to be, shall we say, art-challenged.

Take the incident that occured at the premiere of 1956’s “Lust for Life.” That’s when Charles Laughton, a big art buff, supposedly cornered producer Billy Goetz and enthusiastically mused over what the film would do for Vincent van Gogh. Without missing a beat, Goetz’s wife stepped in and reputedly said, “Yes, everyone in America will be running out to buy one.”

Then there’s the one about Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian starlet of the 1940s who dropped by Irving Blum’s L.A. gallery one afternoon to see some watercolors by Philip Guston. As Blum tells it, she fell in love with the work and asked for two canvases. He smiled, loaded two of the best into her car, and she left.

“She never paid for those,” remembers Blum, one of the primary gallerists of the ’50s and ’60s. “Everyone knew that she was a big klepto except me. I tried and tried to get that money, but it was no use. And that’s what a lot of these celebrities are like. They feel that they can get anything they want for free. So anytime another celebrity came into the gallery post that event, I was always more than a little suspicious.”

Strange bedfellows to be sure, but in truth art and Hollywood have been getting along quite famously for some time now. Ask any of L.A.’s top dealers — Larry Gagosian, Shaun Caley Regan, Marc Foxx, Blum + Poe, Karyn Lovegrove — just how many of their clients are in the industry, and they’re likely to report anywhere from 30 % to 50%. Many of those same clients are active board members at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art.

“It’s like independent film going mainstream,” says Sarah Watson, director of the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. (Owner Larry Gagosian formerly worked for William Morris.) “I think general culture is becoming more open to artistic ideas, and we’re starting to see more people who normally wouldn’t go into a gallery, not just in the industry but everywhere, looking at art as something a little more inclusive rather than exclusive or elitist.”

Perhaps that’s why there are at least two dozen important, multimillion-dollar art collections in the biz at the moment, 10 of which, including those of New Line’s Michael Lynne and Lightstorm’s Jon Landau, have landed on ARTnews’ annual list of the top 200 collectors in the world.

“There are a lot of people who are very low-key about their collections,” says agent Phil Gersh. “Like (producer) Ivan Reitman. He has a terrific art collection. And believe me when I tell you that there are a lot of Ivan Reitmans out there.”

And why not? Industryites are nothing if not insatiable when it comes to The Image, and working in a business where images are both essential and ephemeral, you can bet it leaves many longing for something a little more tangible. At least that’s how a psychiatrist friend once explained “L.A. Confidential” producer David Wolper’s attraction to fine art.

“When you spend your life creating something you can’t touch up on the screen,” he told him, “you want something that you can touch when you get home.”

Yet that’s only part of the draw according to those interviewed for this story. Aside from the emotional, intellectual or spiritual kick they get from having serious art on their walls, many believe it can be a springboard for cinematic ideas.

“To give you an example,” explains Ally Brecker-Shearmur, exec VP of production at Universal, “Paul Weitz is in the process of defining the look of his next movie, ‘Synergy.’ This is our third movie together, and since we both collect art it gave us a language to talk about aesthetic concerns without referring to other films — like the lighting in a Philip-Lorca diCorcia or the staging in a Gregory Crewdson. And that’s exciting.”

Others — like former UPN honcho Dean Valentine — enjoy seeing art as an antidote to the sometimes narrow purview of the industry. “Hollywood is so screwed up right now,” says Valentine. “Instead of being concerned with making things for the masses, it would do well to take a page from art’s book and promote something with an individual voice to it. People respond to that.”

Just because someone buys art — even major art — it doesn’t mean they’re connoisseurs argues Barbara Guggenheim, a consultant with significant industry ties. “A lot of people buy art to decorate their homes and stop once the walls are covered,” she says. “They don’t follow the art world all that carefully either because they don’t care or because it takes too much time.”