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Jewish Journal

The Art of Giving

by Rob Eshman

January 2, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Call me short-sighted and atavistic, but I believe one of the most encouraging bits of news I heard last week was the decision by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to suspend its renovation.

The bad news is Los Angeles will have to wait indefinitely to have a splashier namesake art museum, a Getty-by-the-Tar Pits. The good news is the major donors, many of whom are Jewish, now might be swayed to move some of that museum money over into other communal needs.

Just over one year ago, the museum unveiled a bold plan to overhaul and expand the Wilshire Boulevard institution, according to an architectural design by Rem Koolhaas of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The renovation, which would have involved a downstairs plaza and redesigned upstairs galleries under a tent-like roof, was expected to cost upwards of $400 million.

This is not to take joy in LACMA's disappointment. I am all in favor of visionary new buildings -- that's one of the benefits of living in a great city -- and I am very much pro-LACMA. I've spent many hours there, meandering through the galleries, attending special programs, concerts and screenings.

Not long ago, I wandered off through an upstairs gallery and came face to face with Magritte's "Le Trahaison des Images," the renowned image of a pipe with, "Ceci n'est pas un pipe," (This is not a pipe) inscribed below. Anywhere else, I would have fought crowds for a glance at the landmark work. At LACMA, there it was, with no hoopla, no line, just great art.

That has always been my experience at the museum, so I was among those who questioned why donors, along with L.A. taxpayers through last November's ballot Measure A, needed to cough up close to a half-billion dollars to renew buildings that were, at most, 37 years old.

Evidently, I wasn't alone. As the economy wended its way south, people smarter and far, far wealthier than myself came to the same conclusion. I am speaking of the people in a position to make a lead gift to the museum project of $5 million-$50 million. It wasn't that their portfolios dipped below the poverty line, just that they came to the assessment that the crowd of donors behind them had shrunk, along with the Dow.

But if LACMA's big plans have disappeared for now, much of the money that was eager to back it hasn't. And the fact is, many of LACMA's potential lead donors are Jewish. That's hardly surprising. The art world in Los Angeles has been funded by Jewish Angelenos out of all proportion to their numbers in this city.

Jewish artists escaping Nazi persecution invigorated the postwar art scene. Jewish donors, looking to take a place among the non-Jewish elite and committed to creating a cultural center, contributed large sums to everything from the UCLA Hammer Museum to the Norton Simon to MOCA to the Music Center to the new Disney Concert Hall.

And LACMA.

But with the Koolhaas expansion on hold, is it right to hope that the millions of Jewish donor dollars ready to fund that project could now flow elsewhere? Are our Jewish leaders scanning the list of LACMA donors and preparing their appeals? I hope so.

I hope so, because I can think of several areas where millions would make a big difference in our part of the L.A. community.

Take health and human services. Facing state and federal budget cuts, agencies that reach out to elderly or indigent Jews and non-Jews will need significant increases in private donations over the coming year. Otherwise, the people who suffer most in a weak economy will suffer even more.

Then there's Jewish Community Centers. As Marc Ballon reported last week, the system that serves as a gateway for so many into Jewish life is in dire need of fixing. The Westside JCC, which serves a middle-class and immigrant community, could rebuild and flourish with a lot less than $300 million. JCC services in less populated Jewish areas and new campuses in growing areas can ensure a steady flow of new families and new energy into L.A. Jewish life for decades to come.

Jewish camps, religious schools and day schools are other effective ways of promoting meaningful values and traditions for the next generation, but these institutions are becoming unaffordable to an increasing number of families. Other cities have far-reaching scholarship programs for Jewish schools and camps, often started by just one donor. We need it, too.

These are just a few examples of places where the Jewish community could greatly benefit from the kind of largesse slated for LACMA. Smart money goes where it's most needed. If a half-billion dollar, tent-covered museum were a pressing necessity, it would be under construction this very moment. Now it's time for advocates to make their pitch that, while a museum's expansion can be put on indefinite hold, Jewish communal needs can't be.

All of us, big and small donors alike, speak of the importance of Jewish community. But unless we give -- give as much as possible -- what we end up with is, like Magritte's pipe, not real community, but only its unreal image.

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