Pepperdine People Magazine
Pepperdine People Magazine Spring 2008
Rooms with a View
The Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art provides valuable exhibition space to prominent artists and talented students.
by Megan Huard
On the walls of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art hang world-class pieces of contemporary art and stunning work by Pepperdine's own up-and-coming artists. Creations by acclaimed artists Dale Chihuly, Wayne Thiebaud, Auguste Rodin, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Charles Arnoldi, and Lita Albuquerque have found homes in the museum during temporary exhibitions. Seaver College senior capstone projects, famous selections from the Frederick R. Weisman Collection, and landscape paintings of Malibu from the California Art Club regularly show at the museum as well.
Now celebrating its 15th anniversary year, the museum draws thousands of visitors to the Malibu campus and offers cultural enrichment to the Pepperdine and greater Los Angeles communities. But walls that stand the test of time are built slowly, and those at the Weisman bear the imprint of the people, resources, and ideas that made them possible. They also lay a foundation for the future.
Shortly after the University's move to Malibu in the mid-1970s, the Seaver College art faculty sought space to display student capstone projects. A unique, vertical space in Payson Library did the trick, and Pepperdine installed an informal art gallery. Professors Avery Falkner, Joe Piasentin, and Bob Privitt invited prominent Los Angeles artists to show their work. The trio welcomed notables like Sam Francis, Frank Lobdell, Ron Davis, and Gene Sturman throughout the next two decades.
When Pepperdine leaders began planning construction of the Cultural Arts Center (CAC) on the Malibu campus, they asked the art faculty for input. "We wanted to have a real showcase space," says Piasentin, "that would be sizable enough to bring in major exhibitions, yet intimate enough to be a comfortable and appropriate space for Pepperdine and its students." The Pepperdine University Art Gallery, housed in the completed CAC, opened in 1992.
It was finally, as Falkner describes, "a space worthy of a director." The University enlisted the help of art historian Nora Halpern, then personal curator to the prominent Los Angeles art collector Frederick R. Weisman. Within a year, Weisman made a seven-figure gift to the University and the museum was named in his honor.
Weisman led a life as varied and interesting as his taste in art. The third of five sons born to Russian immigrants, Weisman spent his childhood in Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Proving a poor match with college, he tried his luck in California's dynamic citrus industry. After rejuvenating an orange packing company, Weisman sold it to Val Vita Food Products Company. Val Vita's CEO Myer Simon, better known today as Norton Simon, became both his mentor and brother-in-law; Weisman married Simon's sister Marcia in 1938.
At the tender age of 31, Weisman assumed the top leadership role at Val Vita (which later merged with Hunt Foods) and became one of the youngest CEOs in America. Later the businessman pursued other ventures, including the purchase of Mid-Atlantic Toyota Distributors; anyone who bought a Toyota in that region of the United States bought it from Fred Weisman.
In the 1950s the Weismans began collecting serious contemporary art. Marcia, like her famous brother, had a keen eye for exceptional pieces. Fred shared both her judgment and enthusiasm. Works by Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein soon filled their eclectic Los Angeles home. As advocates of arts education, the couple organized tours to museums, artists' studios, and collectors' homes for their friends and community members.
"The Weismans were patrons of the arts in the old-fashioned sense of the word," says Michael Zakian, director of the Weisman museum since 1995. "They didn't just buy art; they felt an obligation to support artists in the community. That's a very rare thing."
Fred and Marcia eventually separated and Fred married Billie Milam, an established Los Angeles art conservator and museum professional. Together they traveled extensively, seeking out local art scenes and discovering new talents. The Weismans also commissioned original work; Fred asked artists Ed Ruscha and Joe Goode to paint his corporate jet to match the sky.
Following Fred's death in 1994, Billie took over as director of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, a position she still holds today and through which she is actively involved with the Pepperdine museum. She fondly remembers her husband as "an adventurous collector who relied on his own judgment rather than the expert opinions and critical tendencies of the time. He was an intuitive collector who acquired what he liked—in abundance and without hesitation."
His legacy continues at Pepperdine today. "Fred Weisman was a big believer in the accessibility of art," Zakian notes. "He had an enormously varied collection but everything was visually engaging, intriguing, and powerful. That's the goal of our exhibits now."
When selecting new exhibits for the museum, Zakian doesn't choose esoteric work, but instead favors bold pieces with visual appeal. The museum's most successful exhibit to date featured an artist whose work perfectly fits this description. From November 2004 to March 2005, the exhibit Chihuly: Los Angeles drew a record 31,000 visitors. The interior of the museum was painted dark gray, transforming the space to accommodate the vivid and dramatic works in glass created by renowned artist Dale Chihuly.
Zakian explains that the significant turnout was due to Chihuly's appeal to a general audience. "He is one of the few artists who captures the popular imagination. He earned respect first from the art world—collectors and curators—and the public's 'discovery' of him followed."
As part of the greater Los Angeles community, the Weisman competes with a few of the largest and most frequently visited museums in Los Angeles. "To stand out," Zakian says, "we offer art not being seen in larger museums."
Epitomizing this aim is the museum's second-most popular show to date: the 2003 exhibition of work by respected California pop artist Wayne Thiebaud, whose creations also composed the museum's 1993 inaugural show. Thiebaud, Zakian observes, is a rare type of artist both admired by critics and loved by the public. A large and popular retrospective of his work had toured the country a few years earlier but never came to Los Angeles. The museum was also coming upon its 10th anniversary. "This was a big opportunity to seize," Zakian remembers. The exhibit drew a tremendous number of visitors to Pepperdine; more than 700 came just to hear Thiebaud speak at the opening reception.
In addition to such standout exhibitions, the museum displays capstone projects of the Seaver College senior art students each spring. "Showing these exhibits at the Weisman," Piasentin says, "demonstrates that what our students are doing here at Pepperdine is of genuine quality. It's a declaration of our seriousness about first-class education, to which the arts are integral."
As the museum enters its 16th year, Zakian dedicates himself to bringing the highest quality of art to the museum, engaging with the Pepperdine and local communities, and building a permanent collection for the museum. Over the years the University has received donations of important works of contemporary art that compose the museum's permanent collection. The pieces were showcased in 2007 as the museum's first-ever exhibition drawn entirely from its own collection. Building on the excitement is the seven-figure anonymous gift the museum recently received, which will contribute to more growth and success in the future.
"Each new exhibit and piece adds something different to the museum and its history," Zakian says. "At Pepperdine we want to continue showing ever better and ever more important exhibitions; we want to keep raising the bar."