Collector Billie Milam Weisman on living with modern masters
Billie Milam Weisman could be seen as the keeper of the flame. She is director of the Frederick R Weisman Art Foundation in Los Angeles, set up by her late husband, which houses a remarkable and extensive collection of 20th-century art. More than 400 works, from Josef Albers and Larry Bell to Ed Ruscha and Niki de Saint Phalle, jostle for space on the walls — even on the ceilings — of the 1920s villa in Holmby Hills which he bought in 1982.
But at the same time Milam Weisman is not content with just looking after the collection, which is free to visit by appointment. She curates travelling exhibitions loaned from the collection and buys contemporary art, often by young Californian artists. “Fred taught me to trust my instincts,” she says over Zoom from LA. “He and his first wife, Marcia [sister of the great collector Norton Simon], collected wonderful postwar art, they both had incredible eyes. But looking back, over 80 per cent of the present collection was purchased during the 10 years we were together, until his death in 1994. I had some influence, and generally we chose the same thing. But I didn’t have the courage to collect at that point.”
Hanging behind Milam Weisman in her office at the foundation is a bold painting in broad stripes of blue, orange, yellow and red — is it a colour field work? I ask. “No,” she laughs, “I made this myself. It just has sentimental value for me.”
She talks a lot about Fred during our conversation, and when I point out that this profile is about her, she admits talking about herself makes her a little uncomfortable. “I always liked to remain in the background,” she says. Yet the foundation has been operating under her direction for 28 years, although she initially had to battle (now long-settled) lawsuits over his estate.
She arrived in California as a five-year-old from Minnesota and came from an artistic family; even when very young she adored creating art. “I loved making sculptures — I always had a lump of clay in my hands,” she says. “In school, we were given a limited amount of paper to paint on, so when I had used it all up I painted on my dress. Then I had to wash it off, and my mother would get a call — ‘Mrs Milam, she did it again, she is soaking wet’ — and my mother would have to come over with a dry dress!”
This love of art was carried into her studies, and she did a masters in art history at UCLA before landing a position in the art conservation department in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma). And it was there that she was spotted by the visiting head of Harvard, who suggested she intern at the college. Afterwards, she returned to Lacma as an objects conservator, notably for south-east Asian works.
While at Lacma she met Frederick, who was a trustee and a multimillionaire who had made his fortune in Toyota dealerships. He was a generous donor to social and cultural organisations, a flamboyant collector and friends with many of the artists he bought, including Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha and Joe Goode — the latter two between them went on to decorate the corporate jet.
Frederick also collected far more widely: European modernists (Cézanne, Picasso, Kandinsky), surrealists (Miró), abstract expressionists (de Kooning, Clifford Still), colour field works (Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler) and contemporary artists (Frank Stella). The display is quirky and dense, with a seated figure in the library, for instance, turning out to be a sculpture by Duane Hansen. During Frederick’s lifetime, he constantly moved works around — and Milam Weisman says that the walls behind some were like “Swiss cheese”.
Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, Francis Bacon, Jasper Johns . . . these are just some of the 400 works on public view in Holmby Hills and rarely lent. The rest of the 1,500-strong collection is sent out for exhibitions at smaller institutions or university galleries. Some even have their own museums set up with funds from Frederick — for instance the Pepperdine University gallery in Malibu, California.
“We also lend to major retrospectives — in Paris, London and New York,” says Milam Weisman, noting that the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris has requested Rothko’s No 14/No 10 (Yellow Greens) (1953) for exhibition in 2023. “The Rothko hangs in our living room — it’s very hard to think of giving it up, but it’s our duty to the artist to loan in these circumstances,” she says.
Meanwhile, Milam Weisman has been buying emerging artists extensively. She is proud of having found Joel Morrison before he was picked up by major galleries such as Gagosian and Almine Rech; she has several works by Channing Hansen (“he creates art from algorithms and then makes them out of yarn”). Another artist she likes is Kelly Berg: “I was never a big fan of landscape, but Kelly is so passionate that I ended up purchasing four pieces,” she says. She found Vanessa German at an art fair in Miami and has three of her totem-like sculptures. And she held an entire show of work by Leslie Dill — who uses language to create sculpture and performances — alongside the permanent collection.
I ask about the future of the foundation. “We have made projections for the next 30 years,” she says. “It is important that we can continue to offer free admission. Fred and I strongly believed that art should be accessible to all. Our future is secure.”
The Frederick R Weisman Art Foundation is open by appointment Monday-Friday, weismanfoundation.org