He’s been described as reclusive, enigmatic, and very, very private. After Jerry Perenchio revealed Thursday that he’s bequeathing a 47-piece art collection valued at $500 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA,) he’ll also be known as very, very generous.
The collection, which Perenchio spent 50 years amassing, includes works by the greatest painters of the 19th and 20th centuries, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Edouard Manet, Rene Magritte, and Paul Cezanne.
“In sum, this collection comprises the greatest gift of art to LACMA in its history,” LACMA director and chief executive Michael Govan told the Associated Press. It’s conceivably one of the greatest art gifts ever, to any museum.
While you may not have heard of Perenchio, you’ve surely heard of the people with whom he’s been associated and his many high profile enterprises. They include, to name a few, the Ali-Frasier fight of 1971; the 1973 tennis Battle of the Sexes; Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Norman Lear, Loews Cineplex and more recently, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.
Perenchio is also the former chairman and single largest shareholder of Univision, the Spanish-language television network.
He’s known for his unyielding privacy when it comes to the media. “I really don’t want my name in the goddamn paper,” he once told the Los Angeles Times.
But he agreed to lift the veil as a donor because his bequest came with strings: the museum will get the art after Perenchio’s death if it completes the construction of a new modern building, designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.
“For over 35 years I’ve been making charitable donations anonymously,” Perenchio said in a speech via The Wrap. “I decided to go public because I believe it’s important for Los Angeles County and LACMA to help make this new building possible.”
Perenchio continued: “I hope my donation to LACMA will encourage others to do the same. A big part of the heart and soul of any city is the dedication and commitment to the arts.”
“I did seek him out, in a way, but he always had hoped that there would be an opportunity to leave his collection — I think he calls them ‘his children’ — in Los Angeles,” Govan told KPCC.
The building is slated for completion in 2023, and the Los Angeles County board of supervisors has unanimously approved a $125 million bond that would cover 21 percent of the $600 million project. The museum must raise the remaining $475 million and will rely heavily on private donors with deep pockets.
Perenchio’s willingness to come forward really did represent a huge shift for him. This is the man who, in 1981, told the Los Angeles Times: “I really don’t mean to be rude. I just don’t want to give out interviews. I just hate them. Inevitably, I ended up hurting some people or leaving some names out, or getting quoted out of context.”
Forbes estimates Perenchio’s net worth to be $2.7 billion, and the road to his success is filled with interesting whistlestops. Perenchio, is the grandson of Italian immigrants and the son of a Fresno winery owner. He worked his way through college by booking bands at the University of California Los Angeles, and then worked as an agent for MCA — legend has it MCA’s legendary mogul Lew Wasserman handpicked Perenchio himself. Eventually, he represented Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, and in 1964, Perenchio started his own talent agency.
He dabbled in sports promoting, and orchestrated the 1973 Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. He was also responsible for Muhammad Ali’s famed 1971 bout versus Joe Frazier.
“He came to us with a payday of $5 million for each fighter, and we were only getting $2 million at the time,” Ali’s then-manager Bob Arum told Bloomberg Businessweek. “So he doubled the prices at the theaters for pay-for-view and promoted it like a movie premiere.”
Former Warner Bros. chairman Robert Daly, who plays poker with him, called Perenchio “one of the most powerful guys in [Los Angeles]” but said simply, “He doesn’t like being in the limelight much. He just likes people to leave him alone.”
Norman Lear met Perenchio while working on the “Andy Williams Show.” In 1982, they bought a studio and distribution company, Embassy Pictures, for $25 million. Their existing television company, Tandem, was folded into Embassy Communications, which was responsible for “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Facts of Life,” “Silver Spoons,” “Who’s the Boss?,” “The Jefferson,” “Square Pegs,” and “227.” They sold it to Coca-Cola in 1985 for $485 million.
Afterward, Perenchio bought the Loews Cineplex theater chain, sold it less than 12 months later and pocketed $140 million.
Lear described his business partner in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television: “The word ‘creative’ is so misused in my business. There was the creative side and then … there are the others. And there is more creativity in Jerry Perenchio and a number of other executives that I have met that are never considered part of the creative community, than there is in three-fifths of the creative community. … In a business sense — in a cultural and business sense, he has great vision.”
Perenchio bought Univision from Hallmark in 1992 with a group of partners for $550 million. When they sold the network to Haim Saban and a group of investors in 2007 for $12.3 billion, Perenchio netted $1.3 billion, according to the Los Angeles Times.
While amassing his fortune, Perenchio was also buying up real estate in Malibu Colony (12 properties and a 10-acre private golf course that will be donated to the state following his death and the death of his wife, Margaret) and 13 acres in Bel Air, including the Kirkeby Estate — the estate that you see in the establishing shots of the “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Variety actually has a really fascinating account of the property he’s bought and what he’s done with it — apparently he’s installed a “30-car motor court” and a helipad. Among his neighbors? Nancy Reagan, Cheryl Tiegs, Salma Hayek and her husband, François-Henri Pinault. His wife, Margaret, paints portraits of celebrities and other media influencers, including CBS president and chief executive Les Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen. Her price, in 2009, was $12,000 per portrait. She’s also painted Shakira Caine (Michael Caine’s wife), Hayek, and Luciano Pavarotti.
While Perenchio hates giving interviews and has famously shunned the spotlight — “It fades your suit,” he said — there’s quite a trove of information about his philanthropy and political contributions. The American Prospect once referred to him as “California’s Sheldon Adelson,” a reference to the Vegas mogul in the news over the past few years for his generosity to Republicans and the state of Israel.
Perenchio and his wife have contributed more than $50 million to political campaigns and PACs, including $2 million in 2012 to Karl Rove’s superPAC, American Crossroads. Perenchio served as national finance co-chair for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
The Sunlight Foundation released extensive details on the Perenchios’ philanthropic giving, which they estimated totaled $144 million between 2001-2010. Perenchio is a founding trustee of the Geffen Playhouse — a club that also includes Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Quincy Jones, and Les Moonves, and obviously, David Geffen.
“These contributions include millions for UCLA, generous gifts for AIDS charities and gay service organizations, environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), art museums, symphonies, and hospitals. When Los Angeles was in a pinch to fund a victory parade for the Lakers, he was one of the wealthy locals to kick in the cash,” wrote Nancy Watzman.