LA Art Show: “The Joys of Collecting Art” Panel with Blake Byrne and the Einsteins

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The fabulous art collections of Los Angelenos Blake Byrne and Clifford and Mandy Einstein were featured in the “Joys of Collecting Art” panel moderated by Bruce Helander at the L A Art Show (1/27). The Einsteins and Blake Byrne are deeply involved with MOCA and have donated substantial amounts of art to our city’s contemporary art museum.

Although the panelists didn’t express it directly, the key ingredient for assembling a collection of blue chip American and European art is obviously lots of money; however, we know that collecting is collecting, it is a passion and is not limited to fine art. Most of us come to collecting as children with bottle caps or key rings and these innocent pleasures can lead to bigger things, like cars, wine, or art.

For Blake Byrne, a retired television executive, a trip to Europe to attend the Basil Art Fair in Switzerland was his toe-in; he looked at the art, made a list of what he liked, then he looked at art again, advised by New York art dealer Jack Tilton. He said he considered his budget, and then bought six artworks, including artworks by James Turrell, Marlene Dumas and Juan Munoz. Byrne, chair of the collection committee at MOCA, said he doesn’t buy “bargains” that he doesn’t like and that won’t fit into his collection. He now is a full-time philanthropist running his  Skylark Foundation whose current mission is to tour works from his own collection around the United States. Byrne gave 123 artworks by 78 artists to MOCA in 2004, the largest ever gift of art to the institution.

The Einsteins’ early days as collectors followed an  investment in the 1980s in a furniture company; they came to collecting through a love for design (as in the legendary design movement started by the Memphis group), then migrated to mainly blue chip fine art displayed in their modern home enhanced with added art gallery space. Clifford Einstein, the panelist and advertising executive, repeated several tips he has for collecting that elaborated upon his advice to readers in a Time magazine profile in 2007. His irreverent rules for collecting include “never meet the artist before you meet the work,” and “don’t buy what you like” to avoid the love-at-first-sight booby trap. He suggested avoiding the familiar, and the ability to sense a curiosity about what bothers one about an artwork. Einstein also pointed out that one can learn a lot by seeing other collections (back to the museum). He cautioned against the concern about “getting it right” as a bad goal. We disagreed on his point that “all art enters the culture as fashion” because we believe in “from the ground-up” idea of trends, although things may be different at the 1% income level.

Einstein then presented a wonderful virtual visit to his home projected in color slides; we could see the installation and juxtaposition of  artworks by such art-stars as Kehinde Wiley, Elizabeth Peyton, John Chamberlin, and Juan Munoz as well as wonderful examples of Memphis furniture acquired in their early days as collectors. He revealed a recent purchase, an enigmatic portrait composed with ashes as medium by artist Zhang Huan. He also possesses earlier works by Naim June Paik (an iconic bank of television sets) and Mark di Suvero. The Einstein home is a deliberate stage-setting for the world-class collection of modern and contemporary art. The Einsteins added on to their home as their collection grows as they prefer to see everything in the collection, and to not store artworks. Einstein is chairman emeritus of MOCA, and the couple has donated numerous artworks to MOCA.

Both collectors commented on the importance of art conservation and indicated that it is a continuing expense of the discipline.  Some pieces require more money to maintain than the original purchase price may have been.

We happily anticipate seeing a completely different approach to collecting with Herb and Dorothy Vogel’s California gifts (in 2008, 2500 pieces from their collection were dispersed by giving 50 artworks to each of the 50 states); California’s portion goes on exhibition at MOCA in Los Angeles on February 10.


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