Spurning LACMA, Ahmanson Foundation Goes Shopping for the National Gallery

John Outterbridge, Plus Tax: Shopping Bag Society (Rag Man series, 1971). National Gallery of Art, Washington
The Ahmanson Foundation had a messy breakup with LACMA, but it's moving on. Last year the Ahmanson purchased John Outterbridge's Plus Tax: Shopping Bag Society (1971) for the National Gallery of Art. It becomes the East Coast institution's first work by Outterbridge, a pivotal figure in West Coast Assemblage. 

Circa 2019 the Ahmanson Foundation halted its decades-long program of buying European art for LACMA. Foundation president William Ahmanson said he feared that too much art would be kept in storage, given Michael Govan's plan to display the permanent collection in thematic rotations in Peter Zumthor's relatively petite space. 

The Ahmanson Foundation website reports $58 million in grants for 2020, of which $6.9 million were for cultural institutions, mostly in greater L.A. The National Gallery gift (valued at $50,000) is the only one for an art acquisition. 

The Ahmanson routinely paid multi-million-dollar sums for LACMA acquisitions such as the late Bernini portrait bust added in 2015. The National Gallery donation will fuel speculation about the Ahmanson's intentions going forward. In Feb. 2020 William Ahmanson told Christopher Knight that "we may need to find a beneficiary other than the Los Angeles County Museum of Art."

For sixty years the Ahmanson Foundation brought European art history to Los Angeles, once considered to be an upstart on the fringes of museum culture. The Ahmanson had little evident interest in contemporary art. The National Gallery gift seems to invert that premise, bringing an African-American L.A. artist to an Old Master-skewed East Coast institution.

It's reported that Ahmanson rebuffed Govan's suggestion that the foundation start funding purchases of Latin American art. Though bold, that request made institutional sense: more opportunity at less cost, a better shot at securing a department's national and global reputation, and a pathway to engaging the (ahem) core brown audience of the nation's most diverse metropolis. Ahmanson passed.  

Where the Ahmanson Foundation goes from here is anybody's guess. 


Anonymous said…
Thanks a lot, Michael. You're better than Covid-19 is in giving a nice touch to a place.

Meanwhile, isn't there some part of the East Coast, Europe, the Bahamas, Hawaii, New Zealand, etc, you'd be interested in relocating to?

Researchers say there's a big quake in LA's future, so you really do need to start planning ASAP. Think of your loved ones. Get out when the going is good.

Thanks again.
Anonymous said…

And where did the Ahmanson Foundation purchased de La Tour “Magdalene” go for an indefinite length of time? Why to the unstable Chinese region of Macau of course! Why Macau? Well there is a Wynn resort there and there is Elaine Wynn on the LACMA board. But no worry, if that painting somehow gets lost we can always visit the, critically weaker, version at the Louvre.
Anonymous said…
^^^ Did Q tell you that?
Anonymous said…
The Ahmanson Foundation is a hoot.

Why did it change its mind? I thought old masters was its speciality. It scoffed at LACMA's request to diversify its donations.

Here’s my theory:

… Because it would cost too much money to buy an "old master” that would merit display at the National Gallery. The core collection of old masters there is just too good.

As always, the objective seems to be brand recognition at the lowest price. At LACMA, that could be achieved on the cheap by buying quality paintings by secondary artists or second-tier works by primary artists.

LACMA needs better patrons. Thankfully, it’s found some in Geffen, Wynn, and Perenchio.

On the other hand, the National Gallery doesn’t need the Ahmanson as a patron. It’s had much better patrons.

Indeed, if one wants to get a sense of how bereft the Ahmanson’s are when it comes to cultural capital, compare the philanthropic legacy of the Mellon family (patrons of the National Gallery) to the Ahmanson family, specifically Paul Mellon to Howard Ahmanson. The two were born a year apart. Ahmanson donated a second-tier Rembrandt to LACMA and $2 million which gave him the ultimate say as to who designed the original LACMA buildings. On the other hand, Paul donated thousands of Impressionist and Post-impressionist works to the National Gallery, supplementing the core collection of old masters donated by his father (Andrew Mellon). He also gave Yale the largest and most esteemed collection of British Art (outside the UK) and the money to build a museum to house that art. That museum was designed by Louis Kahn. The other buildings whose construction Paul funded were designed by IM Pei (National Gallery East Wing) and Eero Saarinen (Yale Residential Colleges). LACMA has never had a patron like Paul Mellon.
Anonymous said…
While beggars can't be choosers, I really wish the Ahmanson Foundation went with Michael Govan's idea and purchase Latin American art. LACMA already has a pretty good collection and considering LA's proximity to Latin America, it would make more sense to have our own identity rather than focus on Western European art like the East Coast.
Anonymous said…
Actually, the level of acquisitions of artworks for LACMA should be lowered and even discouraged. The debacle of Govan/Zumthor is going to result in less square footage and less wall space to exhibit both new and existing canvases and objects in the museum's collection.

Then, too, the museum's budget in the upcoming years is going to be full of red ink. So more and more dollars will need to be directed to keeping the lights on versus doing things like buying paintings and knick-knacks for the collection.

Thanks, Michael.

Oh, plus, white supremacy. Grrr.
Anonymous said…
As if on cue, the Andrew Mellon Foundation has donated $5 million to complete Judy Baca’s The History of California.

Here's a description of the project which began in 1974:

The $5 million grant will pay for the mural to be extended (to the present) and for a bridge over the channel to allow for closer viewing.

As if the Ahmanson Foundation didn’t look small and petty already.

The Andrew Mellon Foundation was formed by Paul Mellon and his sister (Alisa) to honor their father.

More on the news here: https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/great-wall-of-los-angeles-judith-f-baca-mellon-grant-expansion-1234584587/
Anonymous said…
Asking to support Latin American art or decreasing wall space white supremacy? Mate, you’ve lost your senses. Michael Govan has been promoting African American art and curators before it became fashionable.
Anonymous said…
There's a myth that Latin American immigrants will be attracted to LACMA to see latin American art. I don't get it. Most everyone, no matter what ethnicity, wants to see the Titians and the Rembrandts when they go to a major museum, and if not that then antiquities. It makes sense that LACMA has at least one donor dedicated to that space. And the Ahmansons seemed to be the only ones willing to collect that for LACMA.