News From Prep
Posted July 13, 2012
Michael Smooke ’63 - A collector’s passion
Michael Smooke ‘63 walks through the basement of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) like he knows the place. And he does. On the Board there for the past 20 years, his name is listed just above Barbra Streisand’s. His interest in LACMA stretches back many years, and is arguably a family affair.
Michael’s parents, Nathan, a member of the LACMA Board for close to 15 years, and Marion Smooke started purchasing paintings around 1970. Michael had earned a BS in economics, Phi Beta Kappa, from UCLA—though he confesses he best remembers his art history classes. Older brothers Barry ’55 (UCLA BS) and Richard ’56 (Stanford BS and UCLA MBA) were pursuing careers in real estate.
Meanwhile Michael himself was becoming “fascinated and challenged” by contemporary art, “picking up where my parents left off.” After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1970, he returned to Los Angeles to practice bankruptcy law and met his wife-to-be, Terri, on a blind date. Soon after Michael and Terri were married, in 1972, they went on an art walk along La Cienega Boulevard. They both fell in love with a lithograph by Frank Stella.
“I told Terri, it’s a couch or the art; we couldn’t afford both,” says Michael. Terri immediately chose the art. A collecting partnership was cemented, “and we sat on the floor for a few more months,” laughs Michael. “But we had the print on the wall, and we loved it.”
Michael and Terri have been immersed in the contemporary art scene ever since. They began as junior members of LACMA’s Modern and Contemporary Art Council (MCAC). This group of sophisticated donors and collectors got into the “conceptual, very avant-garde” art scene beginning in the 1960s. The group visited artists, exhibitions, and galleries, sponsored educational events, travel and museum acquisitions. Michael was president of the MCAC from 1982–1987 and Terri, from 1996–2000. Their daughters, a lawyer and a doctor, both majored in art history at Yale and also support the Museum. The four grandchildren (ages 1-5) visit LACMA’s Boone Children’s Gallery regularly. Art is a multi-generational obsession, and Michael is seeing the same “discovery, learning, and awareness” in his grandkids that he did when he took his daughters on a three-month tour of Europe when they were very young. Michael’s brothers are also collectors. Barry ’55 specializes in contemporary works and Richard ’56, photography.
“Contemporary art grabbed me,” says Michael. “I find it interesting, beautiful, fulfilling.” He and Terri have an agreement that they “must both love a piece in order to purchase it. One time, a curator was visiting us at home, and he asked us about a certain painting, ‘Do you still get up every morning and look at it?’ The point is to enjoy it.” Their traditional house is filled with art and when they buy a new piece they “just hang everything closer together,” confesses Michael with a smile.
Michael’s professional career was sparked by Flintridge history teacher Mr. Frederick Best, who remarked after a spirited classroom debate, “You argue so much you should be a lawyer.” Michael was the chair of the Los Angeles real estate practice of the international law firm Fulbright & Jaworski, LLP, for 20 years and is now the chair of the real estate practice at the Beverly Hills law firm Eisner, Kahan and Gorry. He combines profession and passion when he selects art for his law offices, using the resources of LACMA’s Art Rental and Sales Gallery. “I like letting people live with art, and fall in love with it. One piece I selected, made of hubcaps, was a big risk, and a huge hit. People get attached to certain works, which I always find rewarding.”
He’s experienced the power of art for himself and fosters it through his lifelong involvement with LACMA. Michael’s work there complements his long-standing service on the board of the Jewish Community Foundation and the Board of Governors of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Overall, he’s interested in institutions “that serve the community and make everyone’s lives a little richer.”
Why does art mean so much to Michael? “It’s not necessarily about looking at a pretty picture,” he explains, “it’s about changing the way people look at the world we live in, and the way they interface with the art. Terri and I like works that are challenging, that have a lot of color and form, that have a historic reference.” In 2002, LACMA announced the naming of the Terri and Michael Smooke Curator and Department Head of Contemporary Art.
For Michael, the recent “Pacific Standard Time” series of art installations and exhibits city-wide, which covered the art scene in LA from the 1960s through the 1980s, has been “like visiting old friends. And I mean the art as much as the artists. That couch we might have bought in ’72 would have worn out by now, but the Frank Stella lithograph still hangs on our wall. And yes, we look at it every day.”