Jarl Mohn by Stephen Voss.
Jarl Mohn © Stephen Voss
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Art collectors are sometimes secretive types, but certainly not the Los Angeles media executive and investor Jarl Mohn. He positively encourages groups to visit his homes — in Los Angeles, Washington DC and New York — to see his art.

“We open our homes as much as possible; sharing is very important,” he says, on the phone from LA. “This is part of our stewardship of the works.” During Frieze Los Angeles, Mohn will be taking four collector groups around his Brentwood property, to show off his collection of minimalism, and his particular emphasis on Californian artists.

Currently chief executive of National Public Radio, Mohn, 67, has a ready smile and a crinkly charm; when he talks about art, it is with infectious enthusiasm. “Anyone who buys any art — from anyone, for any purpose — is a hero!” he proclaims. “It is great way to support artists and galleries, and — even better — not-for profit institutions.”

This enthusiasm is carried over into his philanthropy: the charitable Mohn Family Foundation makes awards to various institutions, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Hammer Museum. The foundation contributed to the acquisition of the 340-ton monolith, “Levitated Mass” (2012) by Michael Heizer, that stands over a walkway in LACMA’s grounds.

With his wife Pamela, Mohn is a member of the host committee for Frieze, a star-studded list that includes the tennis player Serena Williams, fashion designer Tamara Mellon, actress Salma Hayek Pinault and businesswoman Dasha Zhukova.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 26: Visitors walk underneath the ''Levitated Mass,'' a permanent exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in California on June 26, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The exhibit was created by artist Michael Heizer, which features a 340-ton megalith rock. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Michael Heizer’s ‘Levitated Mass’ at LACMA © Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

He has in fact created two collections — one of Minimalism and more “historic” Californian artists; the other of emerging Californians. But the path to the present day took time, as he explains. “At the beginning it was Pamela who said we needed to buy art to fill the walls of a new house,” he says. “My back went up. I said, ‘We can’t do that — we can’t collect art, it’s too expensive, we don’t know anything about art, we won’t know our way around, we don’t know the galleries . . . !’”

In the end, Pamela prevailed. But Jarl’s first purchase, a series of Larry Clark photographs from the “Tulsa” series, was not exactly what she’d had in mind. “They were from his days as a junkie, they were dark . . . and Pamela immediately said there was no way they were going up in the house, with our two young daughters there.”

The photos were put away — they are now with the couple’s eldest daughter — but Jarl continued buying. “Pamela was the catalyst, but then I got the habit. She’s very supportive now, but more of a cheerleader.”

Jarl Mohn and Pamela Mohn in front of the work of Julian Hoeber “Execution Changes #40 #41 #42 and #43.” It is part of their emerging LA collection and commissioned from the artist in 2012. J Grassi/Patrick McMullen
Jarl and Pamela Mohn in their New York home © J Grassi/Patrick McMullan

Speaking about his early collecting, he says, “Like many people, I didn’t have a focus, I had a scattergun approach.” The defining moment came 10 years after he bought the Clark images, when Mohn saw an outdoor steel sculpture by John McCracken at what was then the Zwirner & Wirth gallery in New York. “It blew my mind. It was a huge step up from the price point of view, but I bought it, installed it in California, and from then on knew what my focus would be.”

California, with its vast skies and blazing sun, fitted with Mohn’s interest in Minimalism and the Light and Space movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

“I liked the idea of the two reacting to each other: Californian open spaces and minimalism. It was something that emotionally resonated with me,” he says. He installed a James Turrell screening room with a retractable roof, “Skyspace” (2002), in his home. Elsewhere, works by Robert Irwin, DeWain Valentine and Doug Wheeler are displayed, along with the classic minimalists Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre. Mohn was also interested in women artists, and works by Agnes Martin and Helen Pashgian are in the collection.

James Turrell Screening room in MOhn's home
James Turrell screening room

He did not stop there. He started a second collection, this time of emerging, often under-recognised Californian artists, which is held in his Washington and New York homes. The intention, he says, was to be different, to stretch his imagination, to be open to newer forms and media. “The very newness is a lot of fun,” he says. “Yet I still have a tendency — possibly even unconscious — to gravitate towards minimalism.” He gravitated in particular towards work by women and people of colour.

He acknowledges the influence particularly of the Pacific Standard Time initiative at the Getty and the Hammer Museum’s “Made in LA” biennials. A number of the artists he has collected have been shown in previous editions, among them Todd Gray, Samara Golden, Ricky Swallow, Math Bass, Ry Rocklen and Liz Glynn.

Mohn emphasises that he does not resell — “I’m not a speculator” — so I ask him about the future of the collection, which is held in a trust. Will it go to his daughters? Will he open a private museum? Will he donate it?

“We think about that a lot, and to be honest we haven’t got an answer. At the beginning we didn’t anticipate what the collections would grow into, and we don’t have a solid plan at the moment. We do have conversations about gifting it, or about other opportunities,” he says, without specifying them.

I turn to the subject of Frieze LA. The London-made fair is generating a huge amount of interest, and I point out that other fairs have attempted, but failed, to take root in the City of Angels.

“I don’t think I am qualified to answer this, because I don’t know the market so well,” he says. “I do know, however, that some excellent out-of-town galleries are coming, coupled with local galleries such as Blum & Poe, Kordansky — and they will stoke the fire. I am hoping that all this will get more people engaged in loving art as I do.”

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