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Lacma reaches halfway point for $600m Zumthor building with another surprising gift

Self-made hardware store mogul Eric Smidt gives $25m to museum’s expansion campaign

Five years ago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) literally rolled out the red carpet at its inaugural Art+Film gala in an explicit bid to reach Hollywood players alongside more established museum patrons. And this weekend, the event worked its Gucci-sponsored magic to bring out stars like Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow and Leo DiCaprio (who co-chaired the event) and gross about $3.6m (net revenues not available).

But the biggest gifts so far towards Lacma’s plans for a new museum building by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor have come from neither art-world nor Hollywood royalty, with Eric Smidt and his wife Susan surprising many by announcing this week their pledge of $25m.

Eric Smidt, not to be confused with Google billionaire Eric Schmidt, is a self-made businessman who built Harbor Freight Tools into a company that the Los Angeles Times projects will have $4bn in sales this year (think chain saws, power tools and more). With some guidance from the museum’s director Michael Govan over the last decade, he has shifted from collecting Old Masters to more modern material.

Smidt’s gift follows a $25m pledge from another low-profile collector, the former Univision chairman A. Jerrold Perenchio, and a $50m pledge by the co-chair of Lacma’s board Elaine Wynn, who began buying art hand-in-hand with her ex-husband, the casino mogul Steve Wynn.

Two major names not on the donor list: Lynda Resnick, who was Lacma’s leading donor before she resigned as an active, voting member of the board (she is now a "life trustee"), and her friend David Geffen, who earlier this year announced his $100m gift to New York’s Museum of Modern Art towards its own expansion.

The museum has raised $300m so far out of the $600m projected budget for the building, with another $50m earmarked as a contingency fund. The lead donor so far is Los Angeles County itself, which has pledged $125m towards the project pending approval of Zumthor’s designs and the Environmental Impact Report certification, now underway.

The review process and fundraising both have taken longer than predicted back in 2013, when Govan made a splash by unveiling Zumthor’s models for a curvy one-storey museum raised on thick legs or “pavilions” that visitors could enter or walk around. While remaining elevated, the building has morphed during this time to extend over Wilshire Boulevard and shed its blob-like (actually tar-pit-inspired) form in favour of a sleeker structure that eats up less real estate on campus.

Still, a museum spokeswoman stresses that the project remains on schedule, with construction due to start in the second half of 2018 and to be completed in 2023. She also noted there is still plenty of time for fundraising: “We haven’t even officially launched the capital campaign yet,” the spokeswoman says. “That will happen when the Environmental Impact Report is completed in spring or summer.”