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Jewish Journal

From Russia With Love

by Adam Wills

May 5, 2005 | 8:00 pm

Between the stars for Shari Lewis and Sidney Sheldon on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, three middle-aged Russian Jews and a 30-something Arizona native are hoping a controversial artist will help establish them as players in Southern California's museum culture. The owners of The Erotic Museum recently debuted "A History of Sex," the West Coast premier of Andres Serrano, the photographer Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) put at the center of the 1980s public arts funding debate, when he tore up one of his photos on the floor of Congress.

However, the story of the museum itself is a fascinating tale of an American dream fulfilled: Two lifelong friends who grew up in Stalin-era Moscow, unable to even discuss their faith outside of the synagogue, have created a thoughtful exploration of a topic many in the United States would prefer to censor.

Sherman Oaks-based ad executives Mark Volper and Boris and Marina Smorodinsky had been considering a new line of work after Sept. 11, 2001, because corporate advertising budgets had dropped substantially. Inspiration hit when the Smorodinskys were in Paris on vacation. They happened upon The Museum of Eroticism and realized there was nothing like it in the United States at the time.

"Suddenly we were playing with this idea," Volper said. "We wanted to be the first [in America], but New York beat us to the punch by 15 months."

The L.A. museum opened Jan. 16, 2004, across from the Egyptian Theatre. Its first inductee was Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, whose trademark pajamas, slippers and pipe now adorn the Stairway to Hefner. Other permanent museum features include art from Pablo Picasso, an exhibit on Marilyn Monroe and an Erotic Hall of Fame, with portraits of such pioneers as birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and sex advice guru Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

According to co-owner Eric Singley, the Serrano exhibit recently inspired a call from a Los Angeles County Museum of Art archivist, and the Erotic Museum has also arranged ticket trades with the L.A. County Natural History Museum. "We're being included ... little bits here and there," he said.

Boris Smorodinsky said that while their ambition is to "educate, entertain and inspire," they sometimes have trouble getting people in the door.

"People are shy. We see a husband and wife unsure whether to come in or not," he said. "Maybe we're not as oversexed [as a society] as the media wants us to believe."

The Andres Serrano photo exhibit runs until Aug. 1. For more information, visit theeroticmuseum.com, or call (323) 463-7684.

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