Art Carny, Part 1: Hundred. Million Dollars

Screenshot from Luna Luna dot com, with an adaptation of Sabine Sarnitz’ 1987 aerial photo of Luna Luna installed in Hamburg

So Luna Luna is now a Drake joint, and it is open in Los Angeles. In the year-plus since news of the art amusement park’s re-emergence for the first time since its brief debut in Hamburg in 1987, the number being floated is $100 million. $100 million for a one-of-a-kind, first-ever, long-lost traveling carnival filled with rides and games designed by art stars like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein, Kenny Scharf, Salvador Dali…Sonia Delaunay…Jörg Immendorff…Georg Baselitz…did I mention Kenny Scharf? The list of 38 artists Viennese artist André Heller wrangled [actually 37, plus himself] was split neatly between famous artists and famous in Austria artists.

Sabine Sarnit’z 1987 aerial view of Luna Luna, first shot for Neue Revue, provided by the new Luna Luna Entity to the NYT

Heller worked from 1985-87 to make Luna Luna happen. It feels the initial $350,000 grant [sponsorship?] from Neue Revue, a German magazine, would have been eaten up by the $10,000 honorarium each artist was supposedly paid. And that’s before fabrication. It does sound like Heller had a rickety old traveling carnival at hand, so maybe all that was left was Viennese scenery painters blowing up artists’ sketches. [Heller claimed Delaunay “discussed her ideas” for a gateway to the park before she died in 1979, which “Heller’s artisans” realized. Or created from scratch. But let’s circle back to that.] It opened in a Hamburg park, had 250,000 visitors, according, I assume, to Heller, and was set to travel the world bring peace or whatever. It didn’t happen.

Sonia Delaunay looking like she’s signing a print for André Heller, a photo scanned from Luna Luna von Neue Revue, 1987, via MinnieMuse

But it almost did? In 1990, with Luna Luna’s supposed civic success still fresh enough, Heller signed a deal to sell the whole thing to the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation, for $6 million. In 1991 the Birch Foundation had a deal to stage Luna Luna in Balboa Park in San Diego, and a plan to tour it around the US before installing it permanently somewhere. There were issues around the Birch Foundation’s plan to charge admission for an event staged in a public park. But after making the first $3 million payment to Heller, the Birch Foundation also had questions about the authenticity and title to Luna Luna works, and what even still survived. They hadn’t been able to see the works. How all this came up only after paying $3 million is beyond my comprehension.

Screenshot from Heller v. Birch of a proposed order by Birch’s lawyers which lists all the Luna Luna contents & artist agreements, from a 1994 Zurich arbitration decision that was still being unfulfilled and disputed 13 years later. TBF it doesn’t look like Heller budged.

The Birch Foundation’s 17-year dispute with Heller and his Swiss operating company, Admart AG, has become a case study for international contract law, and the interconnections between Zurich arbitrator’s rulings, and US courts’ enforcement/interpretations. Basically, Heller had to secure title, authenticity, and use agreements from all the artists, which he did in 1992-93. Except a 1994 list from the Swiss arbitrator’s decision which became the basis for the next 13 years of litigation did not include Delaunay, who obviously didn’t make or authorize her contribution. And wildly, it didn’t include Keith Haring, who very much did make his merry-go-round before he died in 1990. After suits and countersuits, by 2007 Birch’s final payment of $5.6 million, including interest, sat in escrow with Birch’s lawyers complaining about the impossibility of braving an Austrian winter to inspect, much less collect, the shipping containers abandoned in a frozen field.

the art carnival? yeah we can store it for ya, just put it out back of the shed: this Google Map satellite doesn’t show the big, fancy Butler bldg the conservators ordered for the 2023 Streetview

But I guess they got a guy, because in 2007 44 containers were moved to a field in Nocona, Texas, on some of the 1,000 acres owned by an LLC owned by the Foundation. The Luna Luna assets first appeared on the Birch Foundation’s 990 IRS filing in 2001, with a book and market value of $8.5 million. Sitting in a field is good business, I guess, because by 2010, Birch reported their value at $14.2 million.

2018 was a turning point, though. In his November 2022 NYT article announcing Drake’s amazing discovery and rescue of Luna Luna, Joe Coscarelli reported that, “In 2019, the creative director Michael Goldberg was clicking around an obscure website that an intern had sent him when he happened upon one of the rare detailed mentions of Luna Luna online.”

First, Michael Goldberg is a creative director at Live Nation, and the “obscure website” is Minnie Muse, the blog/inspo board of Colby Mugrabi, Tico’s wife, who recapped the 1987 Luna Luna book in a late 2018 post. So an exec at the live events behemoth heard about the Haring/Basquiat carnival from the biggest Pop Art dealing family in the world, and wondered if Drake would be interested?

In 2019, after the first calls came in, the Birch Foundation, after leaving it unchanged for a decade, increased the value of the Luna Luna assets by almost 20%, to $16.9 million. In 2022 they sold Luna Luna for $15 million, netting the Foundation a loss on paper of $1.8 million. If Live Nation or whoever is investing in the project at a $100 million valuation, or if there’s a business plan that says Drake’s Traveling Art Carnival will sell enough $85 Moon VIP Experience tickets to make $100 million, that’s great. But Drake did not pay $100 million for Luna Luna.

Coming soon, in parts 2 & 3: WTF is the Stephen & Mary Birch Foundation, and why TF’d buy an art carnival in the first place? Also, isn’t André Heller the guy from that forged Basquiat at TEFAF mess? Yes, yes he is.