Two thousand Mapplethorpe photographs and his archives have been jointly acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust.
Valued at more than $30 million, the bulk of the works will come from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York. It was obtained with donations from The David Geffen Foundation and the Getty trust, the museums said in a joint statement.
"It's one of last great analog archives because so much is being shot digitally now," said Sean Kelly, owner of the Sean Kelly Gallery, which represents the Mapplethorpe Foundation in the Americas.
Mapplethorpe became a symbol for artistic freedom after he died of AIDS at the age of 42 in March of 1989.
In June of that year, a Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington was canceled because a high ranking senator considered some of the photos obscene. There was an effort by Congress to limit federal funds for the arts.
In 1990, a grand jury indicted the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and director Dennis Barrie on obscenity charges for showing Mapplethorpe's work. Both were acquitted after a trial that focused on the use of public money to support art that some considered obscene.
Critics objected to photos that showed oral sex, bondage and homosexual fondling.
The year before he died, Mapplethorpe started his foundation to promote photography, support museums that exhibit photographic art and to fund research into HIV and AIDS.
His foundation biography says: "In the late 70s, Mapplethorpe grew increasingly interested in documenting the New York S&M scene. The resulting photographs are shocking for their content and remarkable for their technical and formal mastery."
Mapplethorpe told the ARTnews in late 1988: "I don't like that particular word shocking. I'm looking for the unexpected. I'm looking for things I've never seen before. I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them," the biography says.
There have been over 200 solo Mapplethorpe exhibitions around the world since 1977 and his foundation has donated millions to AIDS research.
"His legacy is absolutely enormous and it's only growing in stature as the years go by," Kelly said. "This acquisition is an indication of how important Mapplethorpe is and the critical position he occupies in recent contemporary art."
The acquisition consists of more than 2,000 works by Mapplethorpe, including several 20-by-24 inch (50 by 61 centimeter) Polaroid photos, works of art from his contemporaries and personal correspondence, the museums said.
There are over 200 drawings, hand-painted collages and assemblages, 120,000 negatives with 6,000 related contact sheets, Mapplethorpe's 1978 film "Still Moving" and a 1984 video titled "Lady."
There will still be a large number of Mapplethorpe photos available for sale around the world. Kelly said he has a big show planned at his gallery in May. There are also a large number of Mapplethorpe photos at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
At some point, the number of prints that can be legally made from each negative will run out, Kelly said, "but it's unlikely that will happen anytime soon."
It's the first time the J. Paul Getty Museum and LACMA have joined forces to acquire a collection.
The Getty obtained museum curator Sam Wagstaff's collection in 1984.
Artist Lowell Nesbitt told The Associated Press in 1990 that Wagstaff was Mapplethorpe's mentor and benefactor. "He introduced Mapplethorpe to what were the most advanced forms of art going on in the United States at that time. He probably helped develop Mapplethorpe's very personal eye and incredible ability to use light, which was somewhat prophetic," Nesbitt said.
Wagstaff, who died two years before Mapplethorpe, gave Mapplethorpe a Hasselblad 500 in 1975. With that camera, he captured the S&M subculture around New York.
The LACMA part of the purchase was made possible by a donation from the Geffen foundation. In a statement issued by the museums, Geffen called Mapplethorpe "one of the most significant artists of the 20th century."
So how did the collection end up in Los Angeles?
Mapplethorpe Foundation president Michael Ward Stout said he was in Los Angeles three years ago visiting LACMA chief executive Michael Govan. The men were colleagues when Govan was deputy director of the Guggenheim.
Stout said he was talking about finding a home for the collection, and Govan asked "Why not us?" That's all it took.
And does this mean Mapplethorpe has changed coasts?
That's a resounding no, Kelly said. "He's getting a second home in Los Angeles. He's still a New Yorker. His foundation remains in New York. He's going to live bi-coastally."