Star Spangled

Left: Ed Ruscha and Drew Barrymore. Right: LACMA director Michael Govan with Julian Schnabel.

“AT LEAST 50 PERCENT of the people here are on Prozac.”

Or at least they were according to artist Friedrich Kunath. We were having cocktails in the tented courtyard–cum–hotel lounge at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art+Film Gala last Saturday night. Behind us, a fourteen-piece orchestra played Ennio Morricone film scores; just then they struck up the theme from Amarcord. An artist was conducting a poll: If forced to choose, which male movie star would you sleep with? He chose George Clooney. His friend, standing by, chose Brad Pitt. Neither of these celebrities was on hand at the gala, but plenty of others were. So many that we made a game of spotting individual stars and then making wry, probably stupid commentary about them. Mickey Rourke was the only celebrity we could all agree had serious star power, but maybe it was just that he looked like a human train wreck. Whatever the reason for his magnetism, I ended up following him out of the cocktail tent and up the ramp to the temporary building LACMA had erected for the five-thousand-dollar-a-seat dinner.

One of the chestnuts of LA museum lore is that the art world has more or less failed to capture Hollywood’s attention. Celebrities are often spotted slumming around Chelsea; Culver City less so (though Blum & Poe manages to corral a few; Gagosian too, but that’s Beverly Hills, and, well, that’s Gagosian). Underfunded, sometimes on the brink of bankruptcy, dragging diminutive endowments, the museums could fill their empty coffers—the common wisdom runs—if they could just get Hollywood to pay attention. With rare exceptions of patronage (the Nimoys are awesome supporters) and the occasional red-carpet cameo, this grand project hasn’t gone so well. But LACMA director Michael Govan appears to have cracked the code, less by having the movie industry pay attention to art than by having it pay attention to itself as art.

Left: Collector Eileen Norton with artist Mark Bradford. Right: Artist Barbara Kruger (left) with MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel (right).

Hollywood seems to find this an agreeable scenario. “He is a true artist,” Leonardo DiCaprio announced just before a series of clips featuring honoree Clint Eastwood. This statement recalled Govan’s opening speech, in which he announced that, “We intend to recognize motion pictures as one of the greatest art forms not only of our time but of all time.” The two large tables from Warner Bros. roundly approved both statements with voluminous clapping.

I did see Drew Barrymore gushing over a smiling Ed Ruscha, which felt like a rare triumph. I was lucky enough to sit at a table populated mostly by visual artists of the non-Hollywood variety (with the exceptions of Ruscha and Baldessari, the two grandfathers of LA art––and fixtures at every local gala); the unusual suspects included Mark Bradford, Barbara Kruger (“I read you,” she said, which I found genuinely shocking), and Joe Sola. Sola humored me throughout the night on all my attempts in almost but not quite hitting on celebrities, and even offered to play my wingman at one point for a famous actress whose cigarette I lit and then nervously chatted with.

Left: Artist Catherine Opie (left). Right: Jack Black with artist Chuck Close.

In between the various speeches (Govan, Eva Chow, Govan, DiCaprio, Eastwood), an army of Nehru-collared waiters would swoop out of the wings in near Busby Berkeley perfection. Between them and the stars breaking for the bar, there was a lot to navigate en route to the smoking section. (I bumped into Cameron Diaz busing four drinks to Kate Hudson and friends.) There are many pictures I regret not taking in life; one of them is the tuxedoed and gowned celebrities chain-smoking in line outside the Porta Potties. The chemical effluvia bummed out Balthazar Getty, who tucked into an out-of-the-way service entry to smoke and muttered to me about the smell, as well as the utter uselessness of art critics.

Back inside, it was time for Stevie Wonder. The musician gave a speech, addressing the peculiarity of himself, a blind performer, playing at a benefit for visual art and movies. The band filed in behind him and they began their set with “Higher Ground,” followed by a string of greatest hits including “My Cherie Amour” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” The whole situation was so fantastically surreal (or just LA) that if one squinted, it could almost seem a wedding serenaded by a Stevie Wonder cover band. As Wonder launched into “Superstition,” people began to leave their seats and shuffle around the party; only one or two unselfconscious souls actually appeared to be dancing. Looking especially elegant in a ruffled bronze dress, LACMA photo curator Britt Salvesen joined our table and told us stories of her brushes with celebrity that evening. “I don’t think anything in grad school,” she said, “prepared me for sitting at a table with Jon Hamm.”

Left: Leonardo DiCaprio, John Baldessari, Clint Eastwood, Eva Chow, and Michael Govan. (Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images) Right: Jon Hamm. (Charley Gallay/Getty Images)