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.