A Search for Intellectual L.A. (Paul Holdengraber and LACMA)

It’s a Friday night and an overflow crowd is jammed into the penthouse of the former May Co. store on Wilshire Boulevard — now Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) West — to hear a conversation between French journalist and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik.

Presiding over this abundance of intelligence is Paul Holdengräber, the founder and director of LACMA’s Institute for Art and Cultures (IAC). Holdengräber is erudite, worldly, self-deprecating and all the more charming for being so, equal parts Joel Grey in “Cabaret,” and Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.”

As a swimmer in the shallower pools of life in Los Angeles, there is something shocking (and exciting) about all these people hungry to hear intellectuals go at it in the Southland. It makes you want to ask: who is Paul Holdengräber and what is he doing in Los Angeles?

Holdengräber often describes his position as being akin to the “art of the dinner party” and his goal, he told me recently, is nothing more or less than to animate the intellectual life of Los Angeles. In many ways, this is the perfect job for Holdengräber — if it didn’t exist he would have had to invent it. Actually, as matter of fact, he did.

Five years ago, Holdengräber, then a fellow at the Getty Research Institute, approached LACMA about creating an institute for art and cultures. He argued that a museum should not be a mausoleum, that it should have an intellectual mission.

“I wanted to expand the definition of ‘museum,’” he said. Holdengräber argued that just as curators exhibited talented visual artists, he wanted to bring some of the most articulate thinkers, critics and writers to engage in debate and create a public forum for ideas about art and culture. LACMA decided to give Holdengräber a shot and the IAC was born.

Since 1998, Holdengräber has hosted conversations with Pierre Boulez and Frank Gehry, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Peter Sellars, Susan Sontag, Pico Iyer, André Aciman, R.B. Kitaj and David Hockney. The institute hosts a dozen events a year.

Many, like the evening I attended, are sold out. The crowd is a mix of old and young, Eastside and Westside, industry and civilian. Just this week, on Dec. 4, former Talking Head and multimedia artist David Byrne gave a presentation, “I Love PowerPoint.”

In many ways, Holdengräber’s position is the culmination of his upbringing and education. The son of Viennese Jews who fled Austria before the Anschluss, only to find refuge first in Haiti and then in Mexico, Holdengräber spent much of his formative years on the move, living in Mexico, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and France.

He studied law and philosophy at Louvain in Belgium and earned a doctorate in comparative literature at Princeton, before teaching for several years at Williams, the University of Miami and Claremont College. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1995.

Holdengräber, raised in the old world, has brought his sensibilities to the new world. Although he would have loved to have been among the cafes of Vienna at the start of the 20th century — to have known Schnitzler and Zweig — he sees his current position as the opportunity to make Los Angeles a forum for ideas of the 21st century. “For once, I’m in the right city at the right time,” he said.

“Los Angeles,” Holdengräber said, “is a work in progress. You have to expend effort.” To make it work, he said, “you have to interact.”

That, in a nutshell, is Holdengräber’s mission — to make us interact, to engage, to inspire us, as he puts it so well, “to pursue the journey of knowing.”

As we all know, it is easy to be complacent in Los Angeles. The entertainment industry can reduce one’s spectrum to a world of pitches and spec scripts, of hot manuscripts and trade-related gossip focusing on who’s in and who’s out at the agencies and studios. What appears in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter drives the conversation, fueling an inner life that swings between envy and schadenfreude. That world can be stifling.

Some weeks it seems that the search for intellectual life in Los Angeles is limited to getting a copy of the Paris Hilton video. Although now that I’ve managed to work the tape into this column, I would like to say one thing to Mr. Solomon and Ms. Hilton: Used to be all a nice Jewish boy and his shiksa goddess girlfriend had to do to piss off their parents was show up at their parents’ home for dinner — boy oh boy, have you two raised the stakes!

In any event, over the last year in writing this column, I have discovered another Los Angeles — Friday luncheons for fellows of the L.A. Institute for the Humanities, panels at the Skirball, the Villa Aurora and UCLA LIVE’s ever-more eclectic programs. Each, in its own way, is altering the consciousness of Los Angeles.

Holdengräber wants his LACMA debates “to act as an aphrodisiac.” Who can argue with that?

For more information about LACMA’s Institute for Art and Cultures, visit www.lacmainstitute.org.