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Simon UCLA Art Gift a Record : His $750-Million Collection Hailed as 'Stupendous'

February 20, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON and SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writers

Fabled master art treasures worth $750 million being donated to UCLA by Norton Simon would make the institution the recipient of the largest single gift ever given a university, UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young said today.

Young, at a morning press conference in the Wight Art Gallery on campus, confirmed rumors that Simon has decided to give his world-renowned art collections to the university. The UCLA chancellor emphasized that the understanding between the university and Simon was an "agreement in principle" that has not been formally confirmed. But in a telephone interview prior to the public announcement, he said that discussions were "very far along. It is time for lawyers and developers to sit down and work out detailed terms and provisions."

"The depth, breadth and quality of the whole of these collections is magnificent," said Young. "UCLA would quickly become home to the greatest university-based art collection in the world."

Simon's collections, amassed since about 1964, are generally acknowledged to constitute the finest connoisseur's compendium of Old Master, classic modern and rare Asian art put together by one person in recent decades. They have become noted because of million-dollar auction prices but are treasured by scholars and cognoscenti for the intelligence and sensitivity of their selection.

The outline plan for the future of the collections, according to Young, would be for much of them to remain in their present home in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena administered by UCLA and the present boards of the museum and the Norton Simon Foundation. The plan was applauded by Pasadena Mayor John C. Crowley, who said he was delighted that Simon's "magnificent art" would remain in Pasadena.

Young said that the university plans to build a separate museum facility on campus "for expanding scholarly and public access to parts of the collection not presently on view."

He envisioned the campus museum as being at least equal in size to the present Wight Art Gallery with appropriate space for expansion and parking. At about 14,000 square feet, the Wight gallery is only about a quarter the size of the Simon Museum. It was not immediately clear if the Simon treasures would be portioned out equally between the two showplaces or if the campus museum would tend to be a scholarly study collection. Young said discussions had not reached such detailed considerations.

Neither Simon nor his wife, Jennifer Jones, was on hand for the morning conference. Simon just turned 80 and has been ill, but said in a prepared statement, "I want to be assured that our collections live, not just survive. The university can lend vitality to these great works of art. I believe deeply in education and feel that it is most fitting to devote our art collections to its service."

Young said he thought Simon's decision to cede these "stupendous" works to UCLA was based on the collector's long association with the university. A longtime benefactor, Simon sat on the university board of regents for 16 years.

The university's astonishing windfall brought a sigh of relief to a local art sphere that has sometimes feared Simon's renowned collections might be dispersed at auction or donated to another location, but the suddenness of the announcement triggered new concerns.

Young firmly denied a printed speculation that Simon's move to UCLA might be a ploy to trigger counteroffers from elsewhere. "This is not a negotiating ploy on either side," he said, pointing out that his discussions with Simon had been going on for five years.

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