Monday, May 16, 2016

The Art Museum in Steve Tisch’s Backyard

Steve Tisch in his “shed,” a 4,500-square-foot mini-museum for his art collection on what had been his tennis complex. Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times
Steve Tisch and his girlfriend, Katia Francesconi, recently held a sit-down dinner for 30 at their hillside estate here. It was not in their neo-Georgian mansion, amid the Basquiats and Hockneys. Nor was it on the brick terrace, which has one of those postcard views of sparkling urban sprawl.
Rather, supper was served in the “shed.”
The dictionary defines that word as a “small, simple building used especially for storage.” And for a billionaire — Mr. Tisch is the chairman of the New York Giants of the N.F.L., a prolific movie producer and a stakeholder in his family’s Loews Corporation — the term is appropriate, even if it may strike a more ordinary crowd as a bit much.
The building, which rose over the last 18 months on what was previously Mr. Tisch’s tennis complex, is a two-story, 4,500-square-foot mini-museum. This was the dramatic reveal.
“It has just been finished; the paint is literally just dry,” Mr. Tisch told his guests, including Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who had pored through Mr. Tisch’s collection to select and organize the artworks on display. “For the Jews here, tonight is the bris.”
Everyone laughed. “That’s the Tush!” J. Ben Bourgeois, a longtime friend, said with admiring gusto, using his cheeky nickname for Mr. Tisch.
This is what keeping up with the Joneses looks like these days for megawatt art collectors. People with tremendous wealth have long converted residential areas into showcases for their trophies, whether Ming dynasty furniture or Impressionist landscapes or medieval manuscripts. But space has become an increasingly common problem as buyers like Mr. Tisch have amassed contemporary art, which can be monumental in scale: Stuff no longer fits, even on mansion-size walls.
Faced with putting paintings in storage or donating artworks to museums, which rarely exhibit them, a solution — especially for collectors in cities like Los Angeles, land of rolling lawns — has become the backyard museum, complete with high-tech lighting, humidity controls and 25-foot ceilings.
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“There are more of these than you think,” said Leslie Wright, who runs the Los Angeles division of Bonhams, the art auctioneer. “Among a certain set, there is not a tennis court that’s safe.”
Most collectors, Ms. Wright noted, want to keep their private galleries off the public radar, perhaps because of security concerns. Others have landed in hot water after building private museums next to their homes and claiming tax-exempt status by allowing in a trickle of visitors.
Mr. Tisch has no such plans, but keeping people out has its own drawbacks; when the blog Curbed Los Angeles got wind of his intentions, it held him up as a self-involved 1 percenter, calling his admittance policy “no plebes allowed.”
Mr. Tisch, 67, the only person in history with both a Super Bowl ring and an Academy Award, which he won in 1995 as a producer of “Forrest Gump,” does not see any particular need to justify his indulgence. “I feel very comfortable with my philanthropy,” he said in his even way. “Very simply, I wanted a home for my art, and I’m looking forward to using the space for entertaining and hanging out with my friends.
“The building is dramatic,” he continued, “but it’s not pretentious and it’s not overwhelming.” He declined to say how much it cost. But, he added with a smile, borrowing “Citizen Kane” imagery to make a point about not needing to prove himself: “I’m not Charles Foster Kane, and this isn’t Xanadu. Nobody took away my sled.”
In some ways, his inaugural dinner — attendees included the superagent Bryan Lourd, the financier Matthew Orr and Robert H. Blumenfield, a real estate titan — had a public function. It was part of an elaborate fund-raiser for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Mr. Tisch sits on the board.

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Every spring, people pay up to $60,000 for the opportunity to vote on artworks to add to its permanent collection. The event, which this year raised $6.4 million, begins on a Friday, with seven simultaneous dinners at the homes of museum donors, and concludes with a gala and voting the next night.
As is often the case with high-end philanthropy, especially in Los Angeles, over-the-top dinners — each prepared by a celebrity chef and flooded with famed wines — are needed to coax open the checkbooks.
One year, Mr. Tisch brought in live longhorn cattle. “They were big boys,” recalled Mr. Bourgeois, whose events company handles all of Mr. Tisch’s dinners. (The organizers were going for a rural theme; the chefs behind the restaurant Animal were cooking, and guests ate inside a barn that was constructed for one night and strewn with straw.)
Another year, Mr. Tisch recreated Rao’s, the exclusive New York restaurant, right down to its Christmas lights, over his swimming pool.
This time, guests were treated like apostles. As everyone sat down at a mirror-covered table lined with 20 wax-dripping candles, two attendants rolled out an 8-by-16-foot blank canvas. Mr. Tisch had hired a muralist to paint us as we ate: the First Supper. “How lucky are we to have Steve Tisch on this planet?” Mr. Govan said, giving a toast. “Steve, we just think you’re awesome.”
Mr. Tisch leaned into Ms. Francesconi. “I just feel so blessed,” he said.
The evening had started with cocktails inside Mr. Tisch’s main house, which is tucked high in Benedict Canyon. Chitchat centered on his generosity to the museum; Mr. Tisch has become one of its most important patrons, giving millions in recent years to acquire video art, with Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” a 24-hour film that splices together thousands of movie clips involving time, as a particular showstopper.
“Steve is like a laser when he sees something he wants,” said Deborah McLeod, who runs Larry Gagosian’s Beverly Hills gallery, to approving nods from other guests. Mr. Tisch recounted an anecdote about once trying to haggle with Ms. McLeod for a discount. “She kept going back to Larry, who finally said, ‘Tell him to pay the asking price — it’s so much easier,’” he said.
Mr. Tisch then whistled by putting two fingers in his mouth. (“Classy,” somebody said. “Hey, I’m from New Jersey,” he answered.) It was time to use a curving staircase to descend the hillside and enter the gallery, which sits at the base of the property.
“Oh, my God,” Ms. McLeod said as the doors opened to reveal Ed Ruscha’s moody, large-scale “A Blvd. Called Sunset.” Jaws continued to drop as the rest of the gallery’s first level came into view — a pair of sublime paintings by Vija Celmins, Gerhard Richter’s gray and white “Two Women at Table.” Mr. Tisch gestured to another of Mr. Ruscha’s word paintings. “A piece like that is totally wasted in a hallway,” he said.
The story of the shed dates back about five years.
Mr. Tisch had recently started living on the estate again. “I got kicked out for a while,” he said with a wink, referring to a 2009 divorce from his second wife, Jamie Tisch, who continued to inhabit the main house for a time.
As he redecorated the 10,000-square-foot mansion, designed in 1929 by Paul Revere Williams, he began to realize how much of his art collection was displayed in less-than-ideal spots. “It couldn’t breathe,” Mr. Tisch said. “You couldn’t properly view a lot of pieces.”
So he hired Johnston Marklee, an architecture firm known for art-related projects, including the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, to design a more institutional space. “We considered some kooky options, like building a gallery underneath the house,” said Sharon Johnston, an owner of the firm. “Then we looked at the middle of the hillside, but that wasn’t quite big enough.”
Ultimately, Mr. Tisch suggested the space occupied by a tennis court and a tennis house. “My kids were upset at first, and so I asked each of them the last time they played on it,” he said. “None could remember. The same went for me.”
The finished building has floors made from Douglas fir — not just any, but trees grown in Denmark and then treated with a lye finish to make the wood lighter — and a metal exterior cladding, which continues across the gabled roof.
“It’s not a humble building by any means, but it has an elemental quality,” Ms. Johnston said. “We think of it less as a museum and more as a barn or a shed.”
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