Is This 500-Year-Old African Sculpture Worth $1 Million? LACMA's Collectors Committee Gets to Decide
Photo by Stefanie Keenan LACMA Director Michael Govan and members of the Collectors Committee look at Mother and Child Figure, a sculpture from Mali that's around 500 years old
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The Resnick Pavilion, the newest building and the only single-story one on the Los Angeles County Museum's campus, was closed to the public this weekend. But if you looked in the window, you would have seen 30 gray monuments, some thigh-high, some as tall as two people, all roughly obelisk-shaped like the Washington monument. They were arranged in straight lines and striking. People kept trying to go in, even though a sign outside the Resnick told them they couldn't.
Artist Sam Durant made these gray obelisks as part of his 2005 project, Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington D.C., basing his shapes on those of actual monuments scattered across the U.S., marking spots where Native Americans and white settlers died as the result of bloody battles and massacres from the time of colonization onward. Durant proposes moving these to the National Mall, and has built a balsa wood model showing what that might look like.
The reason you couldn't walk in and around Durant's monuments was that LACMA did not own them yet. The Collectors Committee, a group of 77 dues-paying members, had not yet decided whether they would foot the bill.
Each year since 1986, when Life Trustee Julian Ganz Jr. started it, the committee has convened, listening to curator pitches and then decided which acquisitions to fund. Initially the idea was to focus on one department per year. The first year, the committee focused on modern and contemporary, then on decorative arts and then on East Asian. In 1989, it expanded to include all departments, so that each year, the committee would have an encyclopedic range of art to choose from.
Photo by Stefanie Keenan Govan speaking to the Collectors Committee
This is perhaps what makes the Collectors Committee weekend most interesting: history feels leveled out and the huge span of the museum is represented by flash points of desire.
If you had entered the Resnick and walked past Durant's work and through the galleries, you would have seen eight other artworks, ranging in price from $64,000 to $1,000,000. The oldest, a cast iron Korean Buddha, was made in the 10th century. The newest, a photograph by L.A.-based German photographer Thomas Demand, was made in 2011 in response to the nuclear disaster Japan's Fukishima earthquake unleashed that year.
"Everybody stands on everybody else's shoulders," said curator Linda Komaroff, head of the Islamic Art Department, referring to the relationship between the museum's departments. Even though the scope of her department spans centuries, she has lately made a push for acquiring contemporary art by Middle Eastern artists. The photograph she wanted to acquire, made in 1997 by German-Egyptian artist Susan Hefuna, showed a woman behind a mashrabiya, a screen common in Cairo in the Ottoman era that allowed women to see out but not be seen. You can't tell where the woman's face is, or whether she's behind or in front of the screen. "I like the not knowing," Komaroff said.
When she made her pitch to the committee Saturday morning, she showed photographs of women protesting during the Arab Spring, and emphasized the role contemporary artists like Hefuna could play in contextualizing Islamic art and showing it as something still very much alive. "It didn't die. It's not over," Komaroff said later.
The committee seemed responsive to her approach, though she says she's learned you can't overthink or expect too much from this weekend.
Ever since Ann Colgin, founder of Colgin Cellars wines, became committee chair four years ago, the weekend has started a Friday night with dinners hosted at members' homes and prepared by chefs like Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of Animal and Son of a Gun, and Yi Jia Qian from Mr. Chow (Michael Chow, who founded the restaurant, is on the committee). "Once wine was introduced it became a whole new thing," said Acquisitions Chair Lynda Resnick, who preceded Colgin, and after whom the pavilion is named.
Photo by Stefanie Keenan Curator Stephen Little presents to the Collectors Committee
On Saturday, members come see the art in the morning, then listen to each curator give a presentation that's supposed to last five minutes but usually lasts closer to ten. A few months before, curators pitched the work they would like to acquire for their department to LACMA Director Michael Govan and the board of trustees. Around nine works usually make the cut.
"This is such a competitive event," noted Stephen Little, curator of Korean Art, during a break in the presentations. "You're up against so much talent."
This year, the most excitement surrounded a wood sculpture from the Republic of Mali, carbon dated back to approximately the 15th-17th century, partly because it felt symbolic and momentous: in the vision of newly hired curator Polly Nooter Roberts, the sculpture of mother and child would welcome viewers into the African art galleries soon to open.
Photo by Stefanie Keenan Polly Nooter Roberts with Mother and Child Figure
"For long complicated reasons, LACMA has not had a curator of African art," said Michael Govan, when he introduced Roberts.
"Of course, a figure of this age would sustain some losses," Roberts said as she presented the sculpture, referred to as Mother and Child Figure for the Gwan Association because it would have been presented at the Day of Gwan, an annual celebration to greet the agricultural season. It still has a rich, almost glossy sheen, even though the woman's braids have fallen off and she sits on a stool that now has three instead of four legs. The child has lost its head, too, but these omissions leave "us with fragments of the sublime," as Roberts put it.
She and Nancy Thomas, the museum's deputy director of curatorial affairs, decided to work to acquire the sculpture after seeing it in the collection of dealer Jim Willis, who wanted to sell it to a museum. The price was initially closer to $1.6 million, but Willis agreed to come down to $1 million, low for a work like this but high for the committee. By Saturday morning, it already looked like there would be enough enthusiasm to raise the whole million.
"This is not an audience of African art collectors," said Roberts, "but I think it's the universal messages that resonate."
The committee ended up acquiring $3.2 million worth of art and did fund the mother and child figure, along with cast iron Korean Buddha figure presented by Little, the Thomas Demand photograph presented by contemporary art curator Britt Salvesen, the Susan Hefuna photograph presented by Komaroff, and a fantastic perception-shifting sculpture by Argentinian artist Julio Le Parc.
They also funded, as they almost always do, the work Japanese curator Rob Singer presented -- this year it was the aggressive sculpture of the Mountain Avatar from the year 1180. "We had a conversation, me and the avatar," Singer said, and the avatar pleaded, "Please, please let me stay in Los Angeles."
They did not fund the Durant monuments, pitched by curator Franklin Sirmans. Were they too political? Not as compelling to that audience as other works? It's not clear, and as Komaroff said, there's no point in over-thinking it.