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At the LACMA Collectors Committee, Art Acquisitions Become a Battle Royale

The object of Robert T. Singer's affections: Fudo Myoo: The Indomitable Foe of Evil
Courtesy of LACMA

Robert T. Singer stands in a LACMA gallery holding an envelope with a list of words scrawled on the back, in a combination of English and Japanese: "condition, value, function, age, male, female..." Each talking point helps express his love for the 12th-century, $550,000 wooden Buddha several steps away, which he first spotted in a Kyoto gallery.

Singer, LACMA's head curator of Japanese art, is about to give a speech at the museum's annual Collectors Committee event. Ten curators have each picked an artwork they want the museum to buy, and have shipped it here for the occasion. On this April morning, they'll present it to donors, who vote that evening on which works will be purchased — after paying at least $15,000 for the privilege.

Begun in 1986, Collectors Committee is an atypical tradition, modeled after a similar event at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It's especially important for LACMA, a relatively young museum where most departments don't have an endowment for acquisitions.

LACMA director Michael Govan calls Singer the event's Ty Cobb, who holds baseball's best-ever batting average. In 22 presentations, he's been successful 21 times. The one time he lost, he picked a set of screens depicting flower carts. "I was too clever by half," he says. "I was thinking, 'This will appeal to the group.' No, it has to appeal to me." He later learned that in sophisticated New York circles, where many of the donors grew up, homes often had copies of similar screens. To them, he says, "It was a cliché."

Singer spots a 60-foot Robert Rauschenberg print — his biggest competition. Many attendees are contemporary collectors. Plus, doesn't the fact that it dramatically fills the wall bias people toward it? "If that's your thing," he says.

Stephen Little, head of Chinese and Korean art, is looking over his notes on a scroll he calls the Mona Lisa of Chinese calligraphy. The trick is to make his speech accessible; teaching at colleges was good training. "I'm used to talking to people who are hung over."

After breakfast, each curator speaks for five minutes. Among the 80 or so donors in the audience are Diane Keaton and Will Ferrell (with his wife, Viveca Paulin-Ferrell, who is on the board).

Each curator has a subtle method of persuasion. Naoko Takahatake seizes on the nagging need for completion — Saint Jerome in his Study, she argues, would complete LACMA's set of three Albrecht Dürer prints known as the master engravings. Wendy Kaplan's pitch for a Louis Sullivan elevator ironwork from the Chicago Stock Exchange argues for coherence, as the gate would fit in nicely with LACMA's frieze from the same building. Carol S. Eliel presents Bruce Conner's three-screen video work by saying it influenced both Dennis Hopper's editing of Easy Rider and Christian Marclay, whose video work The Clock was purchased at the Collectors Committee last year.

Singer is last. He's an amiable chatterbox, and the crowd loves him. The big reveal is that while the sculpture is male in front, it's female in back — the fierce and gentle, yin and yang. For the rest of the event, it is referred to as the transgendered Buddha.

Dinner begins that night with $1.1 million in the pot, from the entrance fees. An auction raises another $384,000. Then the voting begins, via calculatorlike devices, with each purchase eating up part of the pot.

It's not as straightforward as it may seem. Some donors will simply buy outright a work they like, as a gift for the museum. The large Rauschenberg is voted in first — with a boost from funds pitched in by a donor, another frequent complication. Then the Louis Sullivan. A group buys the Conner video.

Singer grows worried. But a donor pledges $150,000 for his work, and another gives $200,000. Once they are announced at the podium, the museum is sure to raise the rest somehow, or it will be voted in — which it is. "I was speechless, which is rare for me," he says later.

Seven of the 10 pieces are bought, including the Dürer. The Chinese calligraphy is not. "It was a little esoteric," Little says. It's a copy (the original is buried in a tomb). It's writing in a foreign language.

"We don't look at somebody's handwriting and say he should be a judge or president," like they do in China, Little says. "We don't even write anymore." —Zachary Pincus-Roth


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