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“We didn’t get a commission,” she said. “We got nothing.”
But just for whom Ovitz was trying to save money wasn’t clear. In fact, exactly which pieces belonged to the agency and which to the building that Ovitz still co-owns became muddied in many minds. Several agents would hear Ovitz describe the same piece as his personally and then, days later, as belonging to the agency. As Ovitz’s art buying became an obsession, it became anobject of awe and even ridicule at the agency. Every time agents made a million-dollar deal with a client, they’d say, “I just bought another Lichtenstein for Mike’s dining room,” or, “I just bought Mike another Schnabel.”
By 1990, fulfilling the NY Post’s worst fears, the agent did indeed begin representing the artists themselves. The New York art world had become as bewitched by Hollywood as the rest of the nation. Jasper Johns, John Baldessari and James Rosenquist turned up regularly at Hollywood-heavy parties with stars like Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper and Martin Scorsese. Eventually, even Schnabel made a movie about the life of art star Jean-Michel Basquiat.
That year Glimcher was so busy with his film work that he needed someone to run Pace for him so he could devote himself full-time to the movie business. The dealer wanted an expert who could lend a scholarly patina to the gallery. Ovitz had the perfect candidate: Richard Koshalek, the world-class art historian and scholar who headed MOCA and whose hiring was considered a coup for the entire city. Ovitz began secretly wooing Koshalek for the job of running Pace. According to Koshalek, no terms were ever discussed, but Ovitz was said to be offering a deal at Pace that would pay the museum head $300,000 a year, plus such perks as an apartment in New York, a car and driver and a liberal expense account. Koshalek passed and instead signed a new five-year deal with MOCA. (Glimcher ended up stealing Paula Cooper’s gallery head Doug Baxter, who took Shapiro with him to Pace.)
Even without the completed deal, Ovitz’s wooing of Koshalek seemed to pay off when the MOCA chief delivered a much-coveted recommendation of Ovitz to the Museum of Modern Art’s prestigious board in New York. With the backing of Koshalek and others, Ovitz was invited to serve on a MoMA side board as one of Rockefeller’s special Chairman’s Council members, composed of about two-dozen other influential businessmen.
In May 1991, Ovitz personally hosted a major fund-raiser at CAA for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s preview of new Richard Artschwager artwork. The event was perfectly timed so that mention of it, and a photograph, could be included in a Los Angeles Times Calendar cover story headlined “The Art of Hollywood’s Other Deals.” In it, Ovitz and his wife, Judy, were pictured standing stiffly with Koshalek and Artschwager beneath the CAA lobby’s Lichtenstein mural. Another photograph of Ovitz and Koshalek was printed in MOCA’s in-house newsletter. But in that same edition, Ovitz and his wife were listed as surprisingly stingy benefactors of MOCA’s exhibitions and programs.
By 1992, Ovitz was finally elected to MoMA’s board of trustees, the only Californian on the panel. He had achieved the highest recognition in the contemporary art world. But the truth was MoMA did not bring in Ovitz because of his invaluable art expertise. Attendance at MoMA’s all-important fund-raisers and film programming had been steadily dwindling. The museum needed Ovitz’s Hollywood movies and stars to draw crowds.
As his first delivery, Ovitz gave MoMA the premiere of Barry Levinson’s Christmas release, Toys. The museum made money. But the movie was such a disaster that many MoMA partiers walked out of the theater in the middle of the screening.
It was inevitable that, eventually, Ovitz’s art collection would impact his CAA business. All the time, Ovitz would huddle in his home with stars and directors he wanted to sign, but not before showing off his art to the likes of Tim Burton and Tom Hanks.
Just how far would Ovitz let art rule his life or his agency?
The answer came when Ovitz talked one of his signature clients, Sean Connery, into starring in the 1995 movie Just Cause, directed by Glimcher. The shoot was troubled from the beginning and got even worse when Connery saw the final scenes and pitched a fit. He demanded that the ending be redone. Glimcher refused. Things reached such an impasse that Connery threatened not to do any pre-release publicity for the movie. Studio boss Terry Semel called Ovitz and read him the riot act: “It is very important that you support Sean because he believes that all you care about is your fucking art dealer.”
Connery prevailed. As the press materials were being readied and the media junket was about to kick off, the movie went back into the editing room for weeks of furious recutting. “This caused an extraordinary breach between me and Mike,” Connery confided soon after. “I have done something that is not in keeping with who I am. I have kept my mouth shut. I have not said a word to any member of the press. I have behaved myself. If you knew me better, you would know just how hard that is.”
Ovitz almost lost a big client — all for the sake of his art.
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