Is Ahmanson Largesse Up for Grabs?

Allesandro Algardi, Baptism of Christ, model 1646. LACMA
Christopher Knight reports that the Ahmanson Foundation has ended its program of buying art for LACMA, citing dissatisfaction with Michael Govan's plans for rotating displays of the permanent collection in the Zumthor building. The last Ahmanson gift was the Algardi bronze given in honor of departing curator J. Patrice Marandel in 2017.

Knight's L.A. Times article quotes an e-mail from Foundation president William Ahmanson: "If we are to continue in this space, then we may need to find a beneficiary other than the Los Angeles County Museum of Art."

The Ahmanson Foundation's interests go far beyond art. But it has spent a lot of money on local museum construction projects and on art for LACMA ($130 million worth over six decades). The Ahmanson website says it serves organizations "that are based in and serving Los Angeles County." That would seem to rule out the National Gallery of Art, a traditional Plan B of aggrieved L.A. art patrons. There is a very short list of local museums that collect the sort of European art the Ahmanson has favored and have ample permanent galleries to show them. The Getty, the Norton Simon, and Huntington are pretty much it.

I'd guess the Getty is too rich to be a likely candidate for Ahmanson's charity. But who knows? In 2011 the Ahmanson gave the Getty Trust $100,000 for promoting the first Pacific Standard Time.

The Ahmanson has given the Norton Simon two grants of a mere $5000 each for "general support." That's not much of a commitment by Ahmanson standards. (It's given the Petersen Automotive Museum 13 grants totalling $3.4 million.)

The Simon's blue-chip set of Old Masters is closely aligned with the Ahmanson tastes. But the NSM is not today an actively collecting institution. At LACMA it was Marandel and his predecessors who beat the bushes for worthy acquisitions and pitched them to Ahmanson trustees.

Of the three institutions, the Ahmanson has had by far the closest association with the Huntington. In the past decade the Ahmanson Foundation has made 40 gifts to the Huntington, totaling $7.8 million. These gifts were not for art but rather for building projects (the Chinese Garden, expansion of the Erburu Gallery, the new visitor center), exhibitions, and general support.

The Huntington is mainly known for British and American art, two schools not represented in the LACMA gifts. But it has a great van der Weyden and Houdin's Diana.

Would the Ahmanson be interesting in supporting American art? Arguably that would make more impact on local collections than European art, given the Getty's active buying. Knight says Govan floated the idea of Latin American art to William Ahmanson, and it didn't go well. But for what it's worth the Ahmanson Foundation was one of a group of patrons who kicked in to buy LACMA's great John Copley portrait.
John Copley, Portrait of a Lady, 1771. LACMA
UPDATE. This Art Newspaper piece has comments from Govan and Ahmanson. Govan: "We are very hopeful that when the misunderstandings subside and the museum emerges, that there will be a lot of confidence, and yes, the fervent hope is that they will be excited to continue to support us."

William Ahmanson: "I like Michael Govan as a person, but we're having a major difference when it comes to this… Once that wrecking ball starts to hit the buildings, there's no turning back and we're stuck."


Anonymous said…
I was hoping the article in the LA Review of Books had gotten the Ahmanson Foundation angle down wrong. That the writer of the analysis had somehow oversimplified the plans of the foundation towards LACMA.

Michael Govan needs to be kicked out of LA. On his ass.
Anonymous said…
Someone should kick the Ahmanson foundation in the ass. Trying to dictate the terms of display? The arrogance!!! The Ahmanson did NOT donate anything on the order of the Annenberg Collection to LACMA. $130 million over six decades bought two to three, first-tier paintings and a bunch of "student" paintings.

That $130 million over six decades doesn't even match David Geffen's pledge of $150 million in one year.

One would think that Chris Knight would have taken note of this. But when you are pressed to find fault with something, these things happen. You ignore the Eurocentrism of the Ahmanson foundation, their disregard for Latin American Art, their belief that they should be able to dictate to a museum the terms of display, and their delusion in thinking that $130 million over six decades should buy them more clout than David Geffen and his $150 million in 2020.

Clearly, Mr. Knight wrote the article to shame Mr. Govan, but paradoxically there is more shame for Mr. Knight in ignoring all of the above and in revealing that even over six decades the Ahmanson has NOT donated as much as Mr. Perenchio and Mr. Geffen donated in a single year.
Anonymous said…
^ That's the best you can do?

Weak rationalizations and lame excuse-making to the max.

Are you Michael Govan's mother?

Doesn't matter. Govan needs his ass kicked.
Anonymous said…
Quick. Someone buy Stegasaurus Geffen a memberhip in the LARB and cross our fingers that he spends his time reading Giovannini's three-parter. Govan's Boomerang just might hit his own head, if not his derierre.
Anonymous said…
The LARB piece did get it wrong. All wrong. Not only was it overlong and shrill, but it said that the Ahmanson Foundation was out for good which is not true. That screed, which relied on gossip and third hand information, could’ve used an editor, which apparently the LARB doesn’t have, as well as a fact checker. Matters of this importance should be left to the cogent professionals, like Knight, and not silly frustrated architects.

Anonymous said…
Actually, Joseph Giovanni's article was the first time that information had been publicly revealed about the Ahmanson Foundation severing ties with LACMA.

Because the LA Times hadn't indicated as much, I wondered if the writer of the assessment in the LA Review of Books had gotten some garbled feedback. But as with other aspects of the Govan-Zumthor debacle, Giovanni has instead either shown or verified that LACMA's director is more irresponsible and unethical than believed.

Govan is single handedly destroying a major public institution in Los Angeles. He's like a cultural version of the helicopter that Kobe Bryant, his daughter and friends were flying in several weeks ago.
Anonymous said…
This guy doesn't even mention the situation with the Ahmanson Foundation and LACMA:

Michael Govan is doing to LA's cultural dynamics what the Covid-19 Virus is doing to China and other places.
Zack said…
I’m rather surprised that the Ahmanson Foundation made this decision and it is unfortunate considering that most of the best pieces in LACMA’s European collection are gifts from the foundation. It seems like the leadership of the museum and of the foundation should make it a priority to ensure that this relationship is repaired.
Anonymous said…
The "pearl clutching" is hilarious. On Twitter, Chris Knight called the move "breathtaking".

Apparently, Chris has not read the profile on Eli Broad in the New Yorker. Eli tried this stuff too (to dictate the terms of display). When Govan didn't give him what he wanted, Eli packed his things and left.

Did LACMA collapse after that? Hardly and not $650 million later.

In any case, I seriously doubt the Ahmanson's departure is going to change the mind of anyone who matters. LACMA's been through this before. Having dealt with Eli first hand, the County is well aware of how manipulative some patrons can be. As for Geffen, he's not going to pull out over something like this --- not his style. So if the Save-LACMA yahoos think they scored any points with this, think again. On the contrary, they look even more ridiculous for not knowing the rules and history of the game.

Here a case study on the subject:
Anonymous said…
^ Weak.

Stop tap dancing for LACMA's lousy, irresponsible director.

Sorry, but Govan is both a fool and idiot.

Just as the tragic premature death of icon Kobe Bryant ended a chapter in the history of local sports-popular culture (Kobe did go on to win an Oscar), the ongoing destruction of LACMA spells the end in a chapter of the history of local philanthropic-arts culture.
Anonymous said…

That LARB Giovaninni hit job was factually incorrect on so many levels (who are his sources, TMZ’s rejects?!?) it’s no wonder it couldn’t be published anywhere else. The Ahmanson Foundation is not severing ties with LACMA, it’s just suspended them for now. Clearly the much more responsible and ethical, and award winning, journalist Christopher Knight was able to report on this correctly because he actually spoke with the leader of the Ahmanson Foundation who, doubtless, wouldn’t give Giovaninny the time of day.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that harridan Citizen Joe wrote that entirely distasteful comment above about Kobe Bryant because he’s 1,000 times more irresponsible and unethical than Michael Govan could ever aspire to be.
Anonymous said…
LOL. You must be Govan's mother, wife or PR spokeshole.
Anonymous said…
Why yes, I am Mikey’s mommy and Mikey is in big trouble! He’s grounded all weekend and will have to stay in his room with little Joey and listen to him cry and rant and rage.
Anonymous said…
While you're at it, can you please slap Mikey in the head and scold him for being such a philistine and idiot. Then give him a one-way ticket to the museum in China that recently signed a working agreement with LACMA.
Anonymous said…
We are flipping a coin: boarding school in China or Saudi Arabia. Both believe in corporal punishment for maladjusted spoiled brats and he’s already made his beds in both countries.
Anonymous said…
The ending of the Ahmanson Foundation's support for the purchase of European art is disastrous. This means the European collection will stop growing and will be frozen in time, like the Norton Simon or the Frick Collection. There are no major Southern California collectors of old master paintings to fill this gap. Besides, what collector, whether it is of old masters, modern, contemporary, Asian art, etc, will want to donate to LACMA if their donation will most likely stay in storage? The poster above who denigrated the Ahamanson Foundation gifts as being unsubstantial and mostly works by "students" belies his or her ignorance of old master paintings. Thanks to the Ahmanson Foundation, LACMA has established a significant collection of old master paintings- Jacques Louis David, Rembrandt, Pietro da Cortona, Frans Hals, Michel Sweerts, Hendrick Goltzius, Cima da Conegliano, Georges de la Tour, etc. The list could go on and on. Each of these works, if they were available on the art market today, would sell for several million dollars each. This type of art patronage cannot be replaced.
Anonymous said…
Not just the Ahmanson Foundation and its founder but also the many other benefactors of LACMA through the decades who are getting a big "FU" from Michael Govan.

I read a quote of his in a recent article about the ongoing trashing of the museum. He said he didn't know if the word "masterpiece" could be even applied to certain artworks in today's world.

The guy is a philistine and Hollywood-loving suck-up. Get rid of him. Please.
Anonymous said…
I suspect none of you collect art or have ever donated a work to a museum. Because the truth is that most gifts that are not a bonafide masterpiece (e.g., Starry Night or Red Studio) are not guaranteed a spot on the wall.

As a collector of contemporary art, I have thought of donating my collection to various museums, including LACMA. I am under no delusion that the museum that gets the most valuable works in my collection will hang them immediately next to Van Gogh's Night Cafe. And I don't care. True collectors donate to expand the public archive, whether all of it is on display or not.

Also, to the poster who thinks the Ahmanson bought first-tier works for LACMA, think again. The Getty has a first-tier portrait by David (Bonaparte Sisters). By comparison, The LACMA work is one-dimensional, colorless, and otherwise unappealing. If it were available on the art market today, it would not set any records for the artist or the market. Second-tier works like this often do not even meet their low estimate at auction because collectors at auction are often looking for masterpieces or visually-appealing works. The Ahmanson David is neither. Some of you reveal your ignorance by pretending that you know things about a class of objects you have never attempted to buy yourselves.
Anonymous said…
You point out (or allude to) just one portion of the Govan/Zumthor idiocy and irresponsibility. It's not like the Ahmanson Foundation and its gifts through the decades are the only thing on the line. It's but one of many aspects of what Govan is trying to do LACMA that deserves disgust and contempt.

By sidestepping the entire mess he's creating and focusing on the Ahmanson family and Foundation's involvement alone - whether they've given great gifts or so-so gifts through the decades - you might just as well ask, and other than THAT, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Anonymous said…
I think if you ask any curator of European art at any major museum, they would agree that the Ahmanson gifts were of a very high level, and any museum that collects old master paintings and sculpture would love to have them in their collection. Just because someone collects contemporary art does not make one an expert in old master paintings. One should be careful about accusing others of ignorance when one obviously displays little knowledge of the subject at hand.
Anonymous said…
Interesting comments from Govan regarding the design process for the "Geffen Galleries."
Anonymous said…
Govan is so idiotic that I could barely get through the article in the neighborhood throwaway that was largely a suck-up to him.
Anonymous said…
Govan came across as especially, even strangely, idiotic and grandiose in the Larchmont article.
Anonymous said…
All of this springs from Govan's fundamentalist insistence that all the collection should be on one level. The size of LACMA's collection requires a multi-level building. If he is so concerned about eurocentrism, then put non-western art on the ground level and relegate the European collection to the top level. But would that then imply that western, European art is somehow "above" non-western art? As ridiculous as that sounds, that is exactly the case he is making for his insistence on a single level- that distance from the main entrance has implications for the importance and worth of the art being displayed.

Beyond the issue of the Ahmanson Foundation cutting its ties to LACMA, the real tragedy of all this is that art objects accrue deeper meaning by being part of a collection. A single Rembrandt might be a masterpiece, but it gains from being regularly displayed within a larger collection of Dutch 17th century art. The same is true of Islamic art, Asian art, etc. Connections between objects will be lost with out a permanent display of the collection. The Board of Trustees are negligent in their duties by allowing the director to make such a permanent, and drastic change to the institution, one that will be difficult, if not impossible, to ever correct.
Anonymous said…
I noticed another series of letters to the editor about LACMA is in today's LA Times. As with the previous time they fielded a group of comments about Govan/Zumthor, most people seem to understand what a lousy plan LACMA's director is perpetrating upon Los Angeles and the public.

Whether European art is on a top or lower level, whether it's modern or pre-1700's, whether non-European art is emphasized or de-emphasized, Govan was quoted in a recent article that even using the word "masterpiece" to describe an artwork may no longer be fitting or appropriate.

This is the guy who's in charge of LA's major public institution devoted to the visual arts.

I've been saying for awhile with a lot more sarcasm and ridicule than seriousness that he needs to be booted out of LACMA and LA. I now perceive his tenure at the museum (without flippancy) as doing to LA's cultural scene what the Coronavirus is doing to the community (and beyond) in general.

What are people like the Resnicks, Broads, Boones (assuming they're still alive), etc, etc, doing or not doing about this travesty? Asleep at the switch? Co-conspirators?

I know people like Howard Ahmanson and Anna Bing Arnold are spinning in their grave.

Anonymous said…
I have noticed Govan's comments about the concept of a "masterpiece" as being no longer relevant. He is totally immersed in post-modernist thinking. This line of thought finds the idea of ranking, making value judgments, and discernment to be abhorrent. I strongly disagree with his position. Since the topic at hand is the Ahmanson Foundation cutting ties with LACMA, let me use one example from the museum's old masters collection: George de la Tour "Magdalene with the Smoking Flame" compared to Jean Lemaire "Achilles Discovered Among the Daughters of Lycomedes" Both are 17th century French paintings. If you think, like Michael Govan does, that the idea of "masterpiece" has no relevant meaning, then the two paintings cannot be compared or ranked according to merit, originality, beauty, skill, emotional appeal, transcendence, etc. They are just two 17th century French paintings. Anyone who has seen both paintings in person, and who knows anything about Baroque art, would find this absurd. I actually like the Lemaire painting very much, and always enjoyed seeing it on my visits to the museum. But it pales in comparison to the La Tour. I live in Portland now, and the Portland Art Museum recently borrowed the La Tour for its "Masterpiece in Focus" exhibit. The painting was by itself in a small, darkened gallery, with explanatory text. It was stunning. This single painting had a presence, a power, an emotional appeal, that the Lemaire could never have. It is a masterpiece. For Govan, who heads a major art museum, to denigrate the idea of masterpieces is being derelict in his duties.
Anonymous said…
Michael Govan and his lousy plans involving Peter Zumthor are just the tip of the iceberg. Although reduced exhibit and operational space is bad enough, when it comes to other aspects of LACMA, Govan remains a reckless, foolhardy, irresponsible director.

Why more insiders and also various outsiders aren't outraged by what he is doing to the museum is due to what? His smiley-friendly personality? His pleasant phone calls and emails to LACMA staffers and others?

If so, I give him credit for being a variation of an effective used-car salesman. Or a guy who gets people to fork over for the Brooklyn Bridge or some swampland in Florida.

Incidentally, philanthropists of LA, other institutions like the Music Center or Colburn School of Music are in way more need of donations than Govan and his harebrained "Motel 6 overpass" are.
Anonymous said…
Oh dear me. Look at this, we have stumbled upon another comments section and little Ms. Empress Josephine Giovannini has pissed all over this. I count eleven noxious feline sprays by Madame. Pray tell someone, anyone, what did the dashing Mr. Govan do to her, leave her at the Urban Lights altar? Do tell. The public is just DYING to know. Until then, we will just have absolutely nothing to do but wait with bated breath for yet another one of her self important, one dimensional and absolutely hysterical high pierced shrieks to appear.
Anonymous said…
Mikey Govan, come out of hiding and quit picking your nose. While you're at it, please get the hell out of LA. I hear Wuhan, China is lovely this time of year.
Anonymous said…