Now He Loves LA! David Geffen's Topsy Turvy Bicoastal Giving

the LACMA. photo: Alex Millauer/shutterstock

the LACMA. photo: Alex Millauer/shutterstock

Earlier this year, I examined the Los Angeles County Museums of Art's massive $600 million capital campaign.

To say the project was risky would be an understatement. The city is flooded with museums right now, and the past few years have provided many examples of high-profile capital projects gone wrong from around the nation. 

In January, the campaign needed $150 million by year's end to proceed. Director Michael Govan exuded nervous optimism, noting, "There’s this strong sense with them that this is likely to happen." Then he amended that last sentence: “I will tell you just that it is going to happen."

Well, it happened. With three months to spare, the museum netted—you guessed it—a $150 million gift from David Geffen.

The announcement came around the same time the Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic scrapped its gut renovation of David Geffen Hall, compelling Geffen to rip affluent New Yorkers' "shameful" record of failing to sufficiently fund the renovation.

The dust has settled in the intervening month and revealed two institutions—and arguably cities—going in opposite directions. We've already addressed the uncertain fate of the Lincoln Center. On the heels of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor's newly released plans for the LACMA's renovation, let's take a closer look at bright future of that institution, starting with the backstory around Geffen's gift.

A "City Fight" Escalates

Geffen began ramping up his giving to LA-based nonprofits in earnest back in 2013. Since then, we've been pushing the idea of a friendly "city fight" between Geffen's hometown of New York and his adopted West Coast home. It made good copy and better yet, there was truth to it. 

Geffen has toggled between both cities in tantalizing fashion. Grants of $25 million to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and $100 million to UCLA were balanced with a $100 million gift to the Lincoln Center and $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art.

And while Geffen's giving resembled a cross-continental see-saw, the failure of his cherished Lincoln Center project may mark an inflection point. His shots at New York's stingy elites oozed with grievance and frustration. "That a city that has as many wealthy individuals who’ve made a fortune in New York—that they couldn’t show up and support the most important cultural institution in New York, I think is too bad and shameful," he said.

By giving $150 million to the LACMA, Geffen seemed to be saying, "You New Yorkers don't wanna chip in and support the city's institutions? Fine. I'm taking my millions elsewhere."

A Tale of Two Cities

Also consider the larger inter-city context at play. It's fun to hyperbolically contrast New York's calcified past to LA's vibrant and sunny future, but recent developments suggest there's truth to this narrative as well.

Early last year, while looking at New York City's arts institutions' collective project price tag of $3.47 billion, I asked if the gamble would actually pay off. Close two years later, the prognosis is far from encouraging.

Earlier this year, before the Lincoln Center scrapped its $500-800 million renovation plan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it would delay plans for a $600 million southwest wing dedicated to modern and contemporary art.

Capital projects are always hard, but they're getting even more difficult in an environment where "legacy" institutions struggle to remain relevant. Donors want to remedy inequality and promote social justice; building a new wing doesn't tangibly advance these causes all that much. This challenge is further magnified in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio warned legacy institutions that his administration plans to dole out public dollars towards smaller organizations located in the city's outer boroughs.

Even the city's success stories come with caveats. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg's $250 million island park and cultural center is back on track, but thanks only to 11th-hour intervention by Governor Cuomo. And the one museum on an impressive fundraising tear isn't a legacy institution created during the Hoover administration, but a new cultural center, the Michael Bloomberg-supported Shed, whose nascent program offerings include a free, citywide program that explores "social justice issues through dance." 

Contrast the Big Apple's current museum landscape with that of Los Angeles.

When Guess co-founder, collector, and Museum of Contemporary Art co-chairman Maurice Marciano announced the opening of his Marciano Art Foundation late last year, I wondered if Los Angeles really needed another museum. Turns out the answer, at least so far, is "Sure, why not?"

Marciano's museum opened to generally positive reviews. According to W Magazine, for example, a "group of LA art insiders less-than-privately murmured among each other about how much, well, more the museum was than the Broad, both in terms of space and accessibility, and friendliness to artists."

But there's more.

Earlier this year, George Lucas announced his $1 billion Museum of Narrative Art would set up shop in Los Angeles. Last month, Cheryl and Haim Saban gave $50 million towards the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' $388 million capital campaign. (Previous supporters include Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg, and, quite naturally, Geffen.)

And the "LA art insiders" jab at the Broad notwithstanding, visitors to the Broad during its first year were three times higher than what it had projected.

Then there's the LACMA. In early November, it held its annual fundraising gala. Still basking in a Geffen-induced afterglow, the party hosted George Lucas, honored artist Mark Bradford, and netted $4.5 million in the process. The gala's theme? Using the arts to promote social justice. Naturally.

Marc Spiegler, Global Director of Art Basel, summed up the city's ascent best, noting, "LA is a place you just have to go. You can't ignore it now."

Nor, it seems, could Geffen.

"The City of the Future"

Lost in the "city fight" dynamic of Geffen's gift is its historic nature.

While museums like the Broad and the Marciano Art Foundation represent the surge in single-donor private donor museums, Geffen's gift was a throw-back to the Old World model. As Los Angeles magazine notes, "the last time anyone other than Geffen wrote a check like this was Andrew Mellon back in 1937, when he donated millions to construct the National Gallery of Art."

Geffen’s pledge raised LACMA's fundraising total to $450 million of the $650 million needed to break ground. In honor of his gift, the new building will be officially known as the David Geffen Galleries (not to be confused, as Los Angeles magazine noted, with The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.)

"This historic commitment by David Geffen will help LACMA affirm its place among the world’s greatest museums, allowing us to better serve a broad, diverse public," LACMA director Michael Govan said. (His sense of relief jumps off the screen, doesn't it?)

Cash notwithstanding, Geffen said it's also possible he will leave a portion of his impressive personal art collection to LACMA, adding that he hasn’t given it much thought yet. "Hopefully I’m not going to die for a long time," he said.

At this point, my journalistic instincts tell me to loop back to the ongoing "city fight" and argue that in the wake of the Lincoln Center's troubles, a vindictive Geffen turned to Los Angeles to needle his ungrateful hometown. That would be inaccurate. Gifts of this nature are years in the making, so the retaliatory angle doesn't hold any water. 

Indeed, Geffen dismissed as "nonsense" any suggestion that he is playing favorites when it comes to coasts. He has supported both cities for years, and I have no doubt that New York City institutions will again be the recipients of his future largess. He clearly has no intention of dialing back his giving anytime soon. 

Why would he? He has a net worth of over $8 billion and no heirs. As for where the bulk of that money will go, who knows. But given his comments regarding the LACMA gift, it isn't hard to see where his heart lies right at this moment.

"I think you find more young artists living in Los Angeles today who decades ago would have been in New York," he said. "Los Angeles is the city of the future, and with the involvement of those who support art and architecture here, the creation of this building is a very important event."