LACMA Trustee Nicolas Berggruen on Supporting Museums and New Artists (Q&A)

From left: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jeff Koons, Katharina Fritsch and her interpreter, Taryn Simon, Douglas Gordon
From left: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jeff Koons, Katharina Fritsch and her interpreter, Taryn Simon, Douglas Gordon
 Courtesy of Berggruen Museum

In the world of soccer, there is a type of match called an "international friendly," where players and coaches can prepare for major tournaments, trying out player combinations and getting the feel for things. In the world of art, there is an international friendly that few have heard about. Art collector, financier and LACMA trustee Nicolas Berggruen convenes a gathering each summer following the gargantuan swap meet that is Art Basel. 

The International Council weekend took place the last week of June and featured a star-studded panel of artists moderated by curator sensation Hans Ulrich Obrist, who led a discussion with artists Jeff Koons, Taryn Simon and Katharina Fritsch on "The Future of the Museums" in a gymnasium adjacent to the Berggruen Museum in Berlin. According to Obrist, film has a future in museums because "you can show them in a very different way than in cinema – multi-screen, multi-sensory, immersive environments.  There are all of these experiments taking place with artists like Isaac Julien and Doug Aitken in L.A. I think we need a new renaissance moment where all the arts come together."

A cocktail reception followed, attended by such names as publisher Benedikt Taschen, Phillips de Pury auction house founder Simon de Pury and Berggruen’s brother Olivier, and then a dinner in the Charlottenburg Palace. Germany was competing in the World Cup that evening, so at a certain hour, a number of guests adjourned to the entrance hall where a flat screen television was set up.

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Above the drone of the sports announcers, de Pury shared some thoughts about the Berggruen family contribution to Berlin: “Nicolas and Olivier Berggruen’s father was really the catalyst for the cultural life of Berlin today. Because when he decided to put his collection in Berlin, it was a major gesture that enriched the cultural life in Berlin.”

Following the commercial moment of the fairs, Berggruen’s Council is a welcome respite. Invitations are made by Nicolas himself, who stresses that the event  “is not about business for anyone.” The festivities continued with an after party at the Paris Bar, a former haunt of artist Martin Kippenberger, where Simon confessed that she may have accidentally taken Koons’ car from the Palace. The next day, the weekend wrapped with a luncheon at Borchardt restaurant, where collectors mixed over a hearty meal of wienerschnitzel.

Following the weekend, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Nicolas Berggruen to discuss the International Council weekend and how the Berggruen Institute of Governance relates to his passion for art and supporting artists. (Two years ago the Institute backed Proposition 31 in attempt to implement sweeping reforms to the California state government, but it failed to pass.)  

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The Hollywood Reporter: How did the idea for the International Council meeting come about?

Nicolas Berggruen: It’s not a meeting. It’s a get together once a year to celebrate the museum and to invite some people from around the world to celebrate the museum. And Berlin is an exciting place and the museum is a special place in Berlin.  

It is interesting that you selected three artists and a curator for the "Future of Museums" discussion as opposed to museum administrators. Can you speak about that decision?

At the end of the day, the reason why people go to museums is because of the culture, the art. And Hans Ulrich Obrist — I think he is a very dynamic and very deep thinker about culture and museums in general. And then I wanted to hear about the people who make art — who create the culture.

Your patronage of the artist Chris Burden has created a magical situation at LACMA – with his kinetic sculpture Metropolis II featuring miniature cars on loan to the museum – are there other artists that you are passionate about?

Well, I think some of the artists that could benefit from being in a place like LACMA are artists that create things on a large scale and that are difficult to display except in museums. In some cases they may have a message or be very provocative. And in the case of Chris Burden - his work I think is super meaningful, personally. And it’s provocative and it talks to the public in general. Another artist that LACMA already has that I also collect is Bruce Nauman. Some of his work really engages the public and it is often large in scale. I think museums like LACMA can show things that are very intimate but also can show things that are larger scale and therefore really have an impact that is beyond. Obviously what Michael Govan did with the Michael Heizer piece (Levitated Mass) is a good example of this.

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What are some ways that you can imagine the arts becoming more democratic and accessible?

Well, there is no question that art is becoming more accessible. Technology, travel, the volume of art — all of this means that it is much more accessible. In that sense, art has become much more democratic. People will argue that it has become much more expensive and therefore less democratic. Well, yes and no. Throughout history — from the Egyptian pharaohs to today — art was very often produced or commissioned for patrons who obviously had resources that not everybody else did. But the reality today is that it is really shared very very widely through museums and other things. 

Do you see any connection between your work on governance reform through the Berggruen Institute on Governance and being a patron of the arts?

Well, you know, I would say that the two are really separate. Political work and the art-related work are both engaged and they are there to benefit community. So in a sense they are similar, but they are really very different, because one addresses the promotion of culture and art and the other one is really about trying to help things through systems of governance and trying to make systems of governance progress. But at the end of the day there is an effort in each case to involve new ideas, fresh ideas.

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