So it was with the once-unstoppable Michael Ovitz, who started acquiring art as he began attaining mogul status. Today he is one of the world’s top 200 collectors, along with six other Angelenos who made ARTnews magazine’s 15th-annual list this summer. True, David Geffen’s and Doug Cramer’s collections far surpass Ovitz’s, but his is better than Terry Semel’s and Jake Bloom’s. And that’s not even counting the giant Roy Lichtenstein in the lobby of the I.M. Pei–designed CAA building that Ovitz co-owns with ex-partners Ron Meyer and Bill Haber. (The famed Beverly Hills space, including the painting, will be put up for rent when CAA moves out next summer, more than ten years after Ovitz left the agency.) Ovitz was also the first Angeleno to be named to the coveted board of trustees at New York’s Museum of Modern Art after passing muster with legendary art collector David Rockefeller.
These feats usually take a lifetime to accomplish, or at least a billion-dollar net worth. Yet Ovitz did it in record time with only a hundred million to his name. But how? To date, no one has gone behind his collection to describe what he did to amass it early on. It’s a tale of ambition, greed and ego not only on his part but also on the part of those who did business with him. In the process, Ovitz helped change the art world for the worse by bringing the same ruthless tactics to SoHo and 57th Street that he’d used to rule Hollywood.
This story includes recollections from two dozen interview subjects, one of whom, famed gallery owner Leo Castelli, has since passed away. On Monday, I spoke with Ovitz, who would not go on the record to dispute any of the details contained here. He did indicate he’d forgotten about these and other incidents with some of the art world’s most famous names because they represented merely a few of the many transactions he conducted on a routine basis early on. He dealt with about three dozen art dealers and galleries in both Los Angeles and New York City while amassing his 1,000-plus collection of art and antiquities. He also emphasized that art wasn’t his business, but his hobby, and that one of the reasons he’d sought solace in it was to try to escape the pressure cooker of Hollywood and put himself into a different environment that was antithetical to his agency business. Besides, he pointed out to me, if he’d been such a jerk, would all those people have done business with him?
Probably. Because these were heady days in the art market. Like Hollywood at that time, supply was limited, demand was huge, and the dealers/agents were controlling the stars. To paint the picture with a broad brush, it wasn’t so much the art of the deal as it was the deal of the art. And Ovitz manipulated the two.
Let’s start at the beginning: In his early years as an agent, Ovitz, who came from a tract-home development in the San Fernando Valley, had little knowledge of art. He educated himself by hanging around people who grew up rich. Whatever art his more sophisticated pals indicated was good, Ovitz would try to buy. One friend even started looking for the worst thing in the gallery and then breathlessly declaring, “Now, that’s terrific!” Invariably, Ovitz purchased it.
At first, Ovitz was interested only in contemporary art, because it was the only art he could afford. His first real exposure came from an unlikely source: a former mailroom clerk at the William Morris Agency.
Barry Lowen rose from WMA to become vice president for creative affairs at Aaron Spelling Productions, but he was, as the Los Angeles Times once described him, a key “center of influence” in the art world. He’s best remembered as a founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles and the short-lived Entertainment Alliance of the Modern and Contemporary Council, a support group for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (After he died of complications from AIDS in 1985, Lowen left his multimillion-dollar collection to MOCA and named Ovitz as one of his estate’s three executors.) Lowen was a passionate collector: Even when he could only afford the equivalent of lawn furniture, Lowen had paintings that were museum quality. He Sheetrocked over every window in his Hollywood Hills home to have more wall space to hang his art. Lowen happened to be best friends with agent Bill Haber, who introduced him to Ovitz. In Lowen, Ovitz found a valuable contact inside the rarefied and cliquish New York gallery scene, which was all but closed to him then.