@JackSkelley read and get back to me #KeepArtElite RT @LAWeekly Hammer Museum's experiment in art-world democracy http://t.co/cA88Bbdm
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So he got up to show them how it's done — and lit his beard on fire. He smothered the flames. The crowd applauded.
The next morning Mohn called his new boss, MTV founder Robert Pittman, to apologize. "Are you kidding?" Pittman told him. "You're a god to these people."
Today Mohn is one of the Los Angeles' most important art collectors. He's attracted to abstract, minimalist works, yet his sensibility is far from rarefied. When he reads art magazines, the impenetrable language drives him nuts. At the bottom of his emails, his iPhone apology reads: "Plz xcuzz da typos, gramma and sintax. MayB da content 2!!!"
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Although the structure of the Hammer's contest wasn't his idea, funding a controversial art prize decided by popular vote is eerily fitting with his career as an executive. He's shown a knack for finding out what the public wants, facing institutional resistance at every turn.
"I get nervous about seeing myself as a populist," he says in an interview at his home in the Mandeville Canyon area of Brentwood. "I think I'm reasonably good at what's going to resonate with the core audience."
He was, until recently, known by his catchier disc jockey name, Lee Masters. As a teenager, he convinced the manager at WBUX-AM in Doylestown, Pa., to let him on the air. "I sounded like Minnie Mouse," he says. He jumped from station to station, moving up to management, and finally was hired at MTV Networks, rising to vice president and general manager of MTV and VH1.
Charred facial hair aside, the company was a tough culture to fit into. Mohn battled a line of naysayers as he tried to combat sagging ratings by moving the channel away from videos and toward half-hour shows.
A young associate producer named Ted Demme used to come into Mohn's office and demand that MTV embrace hip-hop. Mohn told him to do a special. The ratings exploded. Yo! MTV Raps started airing daily. (Demme would go on to direct movies, including Blow.)
Mohn also proposed a game show. "That was like rolling a grenade into the room," he says. The marketing department thought he was killing the brand. Focus groups said they didn't want an MTV game show, but Mohn told them to go back and ask what an MTV game should look like. Out came the hit Remote Control.
It was a blessing in disguise, as Mohn was quickly hired to turn around a struggling cable channel called Movietime, which aired mainly film trailers. When picking a name, young people liked ETV. But when the graphic designers came in to present the logo, it was just E with an exclamation point at the end. Mohn trusted their choice — and with that, E! Entertainment Television was born.
While programming E!'s first slate of shows, Mohn found himself thinking about the time a white supremacist broke Geraldo Rivera's nose by punching him in the face and hitting him with a folding chair. Mohn came up with the idea for a show that would make fun of talk shows' outrageous moments — leading to E!'s first hit, Talk Soup with Greg Kinnear. Mohn hired Howard Stern to do a talk show, bringing the channel more male viewers, despite protests from women's groups.
Today, Mohn concentrates on his own investments in tech companies. He also helps out USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and Pasadena public radio station KPCC, serving on their boards.
One day while getting off a plane in Oakland, he was on the phone with KPCC president Bill Davis, who was trying to think of a slogan for the station's nonpartisan political coverage. As Mohn walked down to the baggage claim, he said he'd think about it, and almost hung up. Then he stopped. "It just popped into my head," he told Davis. " 'No Rant, No Slant.' " It's now on mugs and billboards.
Mohn's father was a literature professor who wrote poetry about artists like Paul Klee. But Mohn didn't get serious about art until his wife, Pamela, suggested they get some for their walls. The first art Mohn bought was not what she expected — two Larry Clark photos, one of a pregnant woman shooting up and another of a baby in a coffin. He found them disturbing but beautiful. "I show them to my wife, she says, 'There's no fucking way these are going up in this house,' " he recalls.
He wanted his collection to be unique, to stand for something. But he didn't realize how until 10 years later, when he was in a New York gallery and spotted a John McCracken sculpture called Triton — a tall, stainless steel, mirrored column whose horizontal cross-section is a triangle.
It's now in his backyard, between the house and a green hedge. If you look at it from the house, it reflects the hedge in such a way that it almost disappears. From one angle, it seems like a rectangle instead of a triangle. From another, up close, it's a two-dimensional sheet.