On the Edge: A Big Campus Gift Helps Explain Why the L.A. Arts Scene is So Exciting

Juli Hansen/shutterstock

Juli Hansen/shutterstock

Recently writing in the New York Times, Jason Farago proclaimed that thanks to its expanding museums and scrappy galleries, Los Angeles now has “America’s most exciting” arts scene.

Farago confirmed what leading arts patrons like Eli Broad, David Geffen, Maurice Marciano and David Gindler have been predicting for years, and now it’s irrefutable: Los Angeles has eclipsed New York as the country’s contemporary arts epicenter. And while the city’s ascent can certainly be traced to huge gifts from billionaire donors, the importance of smaller grants flowing to all corners of the city’s sprawling and diverse arts ecosystem is clear.

For instance, a few years back, the Davyd Whaley Foundation, launched to fill an “overlooked gap in L.A.’s art philanthropy”—namely, support for visual artists in Southern California. Last April, we reported that the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts has been ramping up its efforts to support small arts organizations in L.A.

Or consider donor support for the region’s network of universities, like the $15 million gift to Pomona College from alumnus Janet Inskeep Benton. The gift funds the construction of the 33,000-square-foot Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, or simply The Benton. The $44 million facility is set for completion by fall 2019, launching the yearlong process of moving the museum’s extensive collection to the new facility and installing opening exhibitions. The new museum is slated to open in 2020.

“The Benton will be a rewarding visit for all who seek to venture beyond the expected and to explore the diversity of California,” said Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr. “This new museum will benefit our students, our community and the Southern California art scene in which our campus has long played an important role.”

The Benefits of Sprawl

In a previous post, I cited some of the reasons behind the surge in arts-related giving in the greater Los Angeles region. L.A.-based collectors, rather than see their work gather dust in storage, are opening their own museums. Artists, many of whom have been priced out of New York City, are arriving en masse. And the city is experiencing a long-anticipated philanthropic growth spurt as it navigates a post-movie industry landscape. As the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan noted, “We’re almost 100 years behind New York—we’re still young by museum and civic standards.”

But another big reason for L.A.’s success is also what has been considered its greatest weakness: the city’s endless sprawl.

Anyone who’s experienced a Sunday morning traffic jam on the 405 probably won’t be sympathetic to this line of thinking. However, L.A. arts organizations have deftly used the region’s vast canvass—pun intended—to its advantage. The city has vast swaths of under-leveraged neighborhoods. Developers can build horizontally rather than vertically. 

Here’s one example: The LACMA, in an effort to reach underserved populations, announced plans to transform an 84,000-square-foot building in South Los Angeles into a center for a variety of community-targeted arts programming. “If you look at a map of L.A.’s public schools, the dots representing the neediest students are all through South Los Angeles,” Govan said. “You start thinking, where can the value of your collection and program be the greatest? When you’re behind a big fancy fence on Wilshire Boulevard, or out in the community?”

Pomona’s Starr also called attention to his school’s ability to parlay its far-flung location. Being located on the geographic edge of Los Angeles County—35 miles east of the city center, to be exact—informs the Benton’s mission of supporting boundary-pushing Southern California contemporary artists. “It’s really about art on the edge of what’s possible,” Starr told the Los Angeles Times. “And being on the edge of what it means to be responsible stewards of objects we have been given or will be given.”

Colleges as Sub-Ecosystems

The New York Times’ Farago identified a particularly relevant driver behind the Los Angeles arts boom—its acclaimed art schools like the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia and ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, which “drive the conversation more than money does.”

This logic can extend to the region’s numerous universities. Big arts gifts have flowed to schools like Cal State University, Northridge and Fullerton, the American Jewish University, and, not surprisingly, the region’s two fundraising powerhouses, UCLA and USC.

Then there’s Pomona College, which “has long been at the center of artistic excellence and experimentation for Southern California,” said Museum Director and Professor of Art Kathleen Howe. “The Benton continues our commitment to presenting vibrant contemporary art, intimately engaged with the issues of our day, while bringing the art of the past into an ongoing dialogue with the present.”

The Benton’s collection will include pieces from alumni artists Helen Pashgian, James Turrell, Peter Shelton, the late Marcia Hafif and the late Chris Burden, while future exhibitions will carry forward the college’s emphasis on “cutting-edge art in the Los Angeles region.'“

Which brings me back to the alumnus behind the $15 million gift, Janet Inskeep Benton. A longtime supporter of the museum, Benton is a member of the Pomona College Board of Trustees. After graduating from Pomona in 1979 with a degree in history, Benton earned an M.B.A. at Harvard Business School. After working in product management at General Foods Corporation in the mid-1980s, she left the workforce to raise her family and serve on various nonprofit boards in her Westchester County, New York, community.

Benton is currently board chair of the Pleasantville, New York-based Jacob Burns Film Center, a nonprofit arthouse theater complex and media arts education center. In 2000, Benton founded the Chappaqua, New York-based Frog Rock Foundation, whose mission is to improve long-term outcomes for underserved children in Westchester County.

“Art is a passion of mine as an adult, something I didn’t explore fully as a student, and selfishly, I’d love kids today to have more of an opportunity,” Benton said of the gift. “I think museums should be social centers on campus where students gather, talk, see visually interesting things, ask questions, compare notes. It’s a mind-broadening experience in a very safe, accessible, not-intimidating environment. That’s my hope and dream.”