September 22, 2019

When art becomes a means of support

Audrey Irmas, a noted philanthropist and one of the most prominent art collectors in the United States, laughed as she recalled a friend’s response to her purchase of Cy Twombly’s “blackboard” painting, “Untitled, 1968,” back in 1990.

“He was a very important, famous attorney in town, and he was handling a divorce for a very wealthy family,” Irmas, 86, recalled in her airy den in a Westwood high rise, where she sat surrounded by museum-quality works by artists such as John Baldessari and Jean-Michel Basquiat. “He went to New York, because the couple had to do a division of their holdings, and he came in and said, ‘You will not believe it! There is a painting that just sold at Sotheby’s for $3.5 million, and it was just scribbles on a blackboard.’ And I said, ‘I’ll believe it, because I just bought it.’ And he looked at me like, ‘Why would you buy that?’ ”

Fast-forward to Nov. 11 of this year, when Irmas, renowned for her discerning eye, sold that same Twombly for a stunning $70.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction in New York, believed to be a record sum for the artist’s work.  

Audrey Irmas

“But I won’t take one cent of the proceeds,” said Irmas, who is down-to-earth and amiable in conversation. Rather, she has pledged $30 million of the proceedings toward Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s planned Audrey Irmas Pavilion, a $60 million, 55,000-square-foot events center that will stand just east of the synagogue’s 1929 Byzantine-Revival sanctuary in Koreatown. The rest of the Twombly sum will go toward projects sponsored by the Audrey Irmas Foundation for Social Justice, which has funded a school and an orphanage in Africa, among many other endeavors.

The synagogue’s new building, designed by the esteemed Rotterdam-based architect Rem Koolhaas, will not only host weddings and bar mitzvahs but also nonprofit and other events, in a venue that will include an arched banquet room with 36-foot-high ceilings, as well as a large rooftop garden overlooking the Hollywood Hills. You’ll see the Hollywood sign and the observatory and palm trees — it will be very beautiful and very ‘California,’ ” the temple’s rabbi, Steven Leder, told the Journal in September.

This gift is one of many Irmas has made to the synagogue, which has provided a spiritual home for her family for five generations.  In 1994, she and her late husband, Sydney Irmas, an attorney, entrepreneur and fellow philanthropist, contributed $2.5 million toward building the synagogue’s Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles.  And when the synagogue’s Koreatown campus embarked upon its $160 million building and renovation project some years later, Audrey Irmas donated $5 million to build the Irmas Family Courtyard at the temple’s historic location.

For Irmas — who served as a leading trustee of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) from 1992 to 2006 — “Untitled, 1968” had been a favorite piece within her extensive art collection.  The image of swirling loops against a gray background had previously graced her living room in a place of honor above the mantel. “I loved the freedom of the movement,” she said of the painting.

But after Leder showed her Koolhaas’ designs for the new events center, Irmas made the difficult decision to part with the painting. “I adored it, but I had had it for 25 years, so I just decided it was time, because it could do so much good,” she said. “Once I made up my mind to sell it, I was facing it one day at dinner and coming to grips with losing it, not seeing it. But I was very much ready.”

There was, as well, a more tragic reason Irmas was prepared to sell the piece: Her son, Robert Irmas, died of brain cancer at age 62 in January. That blow came almost two decades after Irmas lost her husband to leukemia in 1996 when he was 71.

“Losing a child has been extremely difficult, and it’s changed my whole attitude of living,” she said. “That’s why I gave away the picture.  I don’t need anything, and I don’t want anything. … I’ve become less attached to things, I guess.”

In the past, Irmas has donated myriad artworks to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as well as to MOCA, where she is now a lifetime trustee.

A long gallery adjacent to her den is hung with art, including Roy Lichtenstein’s playful “Emeralds,” and Fabio Mauri’s 1970 “Schermo The End (Screen The End),” in which the words “The End” are inscribed on an otherwise blank canvas that appears to be a movie screen. Irmas said she purchased the latter work when, devastated by her son’s death, she saw the piece in a gallery.

Irmas’ roots at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT) run deep. The synagogue had been her husband’s family temple, and she joined when WBT’s Rabbi Edgar Magnin married her and Sydney in a backyard ceremony at her in-laws’ home in 1949.  “We just started going,” she recalled of the temple.  “Our three children went to [religious] school and were confirmed there. I got more involved because [the temple’s Rabbi Harvey Fields, who died in early 2014] was a very wonderful man, and then I got friendly personally with Rabbi Leder; he’s exuberant,” she said.

Irmas praised Leder as a spiritual leader who has spearheaded much work not only on behalf of congregants, but also the general community; for example, next year, WBT’s new Karsh Family Social Service Center will start providing free food, dental and vision care, as well as mental health services, for residents of the neighborhood and beyond.

It was Sydney Irmas who spearheaded the couple’s own ample work on behalf of the impoverished and the homeless. Their family foundation contributed funds to help form the Los Angeles Family Housing Foundation, which creates housing for low-income families, as well as the Sydney M. Irmas Transitional Living Center in North Hollywood.

Audrey Irmas said she knew little about art collecting when her daughter Deborah, a photographic historian, suggested that her parents begin acquiring photographic self-portraits in the 1970s. “In those days, the photographs were at the back of the galleries, so you had to walk past other art to get to them,” she said. “And that opened up my eyes to other art; it was something that hit me and opened up a new world.”

Over the years, she said, “People would say I have an excellent eye. I don’t just go for the pretty pictures. I go for contemporary art.”

In 1992, the Irmases donated their photography acquisitions to LACMA, and Audrey Irmas contributed $3 million to MOCA, among many other gifts over the years, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Yet Irmas said that her husband had sometimes raised his eyebrows at the idea of collecting art. “He said, ‘If there’s a downturn and you need money, if it’s in stocks or cash, you can have the money in hand. But who knows what’s going to happen to the art?’ So he wasn’t that enthusiastic,” she recalled. 

Of the recent Twombly sale, she added, “Many times I’ve thought, ‘I wish he’d known about it.’ ” 

In an interview the day after the auction, Leder praised Irmas for her $30 million gift to the temple.  

“Audrey herself has now guaranteed a bright future for our congregation and the Jewish community as well as the city of Los Angeles, certainly in our neighborhood,” he said.

“But, more importantly,” Leder added, “Audrey has set an example for other collectors of what is possible after they’ve fully enjoyed their collection and are ready to pass on its benefits to the next generation.”