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The recent acquisitions honor the legacy of Greg Escalante while also breaking barriers for a genre that’s often ignored by established institutions.

Beloved gallerist, publisher, collector, patron, friend and surfer Greg Escalante died tragically almost exactly two years ago, and there are hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who miss him still. On a clear Saturday at the end of June of this year, 2,000 of those people showed up at LACMA for a special two-day viewing of selections from a unique, heartfelt and overdue new permanent collection project — fine works of the lowbrow and pop surrealist art that Escalante loved so much, acquired in his memory.

The project is shepherded by LACMA curator and Escalante’s beloved partner in life Britt Salvesen, who recalls that shortly after Escalante’s death, a friend suggested that acquiring art for LACMA in his honor could be the perfect way to acknowledge his legacy. The Greg Escalante Memorial Collection is now comprised of works that came to LACMA in a couple of ways. As Salvesen anticipated, some works came as donations from artists and collectors in memory of their friend, while others have been purchased with funds donated for that purpose.

“I proposed the plan and a short list of artists to LACMA’s director, development department, and fellow curators in the modern and contemporary departments,” Salvesen tells the Weekly. “All were in favor and they gave me leeway to approach potential funders and select specific artworks. All potential acquisitions then went through our normal review process: first I presented them to the director, then to the Board of Trustees, and with those approvals, the acquisitions were made.”

Moira Hahn, Hell Scroll II: Drought, 2015, watercolor on paper (LACMA purchase in honor of Greg Escalante)

The first contributions of funds came as early as November 2017 and Salvesen has built up the budget and potential for donations gradually from there. She then did some groundwork and had preliminary discussions with collectors and artists. “I got a lot of support and advice from those involved with Gregorio Escalante Gallery (Heidi Johnson and Wendy Sherman especially), and from the Escalante family,” Salvesen notes. “And the artists have all been extremely supportive and generous as well. I expect the collection to continue to grow now that these selected acquisitions have been put on display.”

Thus far, works by about a dozen artists are included in this capsule collection, most of them not previously represented at LACMA. “The Fear of Green” by lowbrow kingpin and lifelong Escalante brother in arms Robert Williams, comes to LACMA as a gift of Ed and Danna Ruscha. A brilliant work ironically depicting the MOCA facade by F. Scott Hess, once rejected by that institution is represented in etching form (a gift of Alice and Neil Ovsey) and in finished oil painting (gift of Clara and Jason Stevens). Work by Laurie Lipton, Shag, C. R. Stecyk III, Shepard Fairey, Jeff Gillette, Moira Hahn, Mark Ryden, Marion Peck, Sandow Birk, Gomez Bueno, and Jason Salavon will doubtless soon be joined by more.

Mark Ryden, Wood Lincoln, 2012, 14-color screenprint on wood, custom frame (Gift of the artist to LACMA)

While all of this is deeply heartwarming from the point of view of the community Escalante nurtured, from a more detached art historical perspective, the representation of these artists in the permanent collection of their own hometown county museum is a cultural imperative, and had been at something of a lack until this initiative took hold — a situation which also speaks to Salvesen in her dual role as friend and institutional professional.

“When presenting the works for approval, I made the case that LACMA, as an encyclopedic museum with a particular focus on art made in and about Southern California, should have some representation of this art in the collection,” says Salvesen. “Yes, it can be critical of the artworld and of the museum itself, but this type of critique is part of the avant-garde impulse generally and is important for us to acknowledge. It is also the case that many of these artists have been positively inspired by LACMA and our encyclopedic collections throughout their lives. So in a way, it has been a dialogue all along, which the museum is now joining more explicitly,” she says. “Social media has generated a strong community around this art, but there is a still a magic to seeing real objects. That’s what a museum can make possible.”

LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire; unframed.lacma.org.

Jeff Gillette, Disneyland Castle Slum, 2019, watercolor wash, graphite, prismacolor pencil, pen and ink, collage (LACMA purchase in honor of Greg Escalante)

Robert Williams, The Fear of Green, 2001, oil on canvas (Gift to LACMA of Ed and Danna Ruscha in honor of Greg Escalante)