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Shrewd Move : Some Reasons Behind Simon's Gift

March 01, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

Among the discouraging quirks of modern humanoids is their quickness to believe bad news and their suspicion of good tidings. Say the White House secretly sold arms to Iran and illegally used the proceeds to buy deadly force for the Nicaraguan contras and many folks believe it instantly. Announce that Norton Simon intends to give $750-million worth of the world's greatest art to UCLA and clouds of skepticism rise like smog from a 5 o'clock freeway.

Well, he doesn't really mean it. Why would anybody want to make UCLA the greatest university art museum in the world?

Maybe because it is the right thing to do. Maybe because placing his magnificent collections in the embrace of the university enhances not only their aesthetic worth but dramatizes their scholarly and intellectual value. Maybe because establishing two homes for the collection--one right where it now resides in Pasadena and another to be built on the UCLA campus--would not only increase display space but would also double the convenience of getting to the art. (Alas, there are still people born on the West Side who regard Pasadena as more remote than Bulgaria.)

Well, yeah maybe, but even if Simon really wants UCLA to have the trove, how are they ever going to raise money for the additional museum and pay the staggering costs of maintaining the collection and operating two showplaces?

Granted there are concerns about the plan that go beyond grudging skepticism. Simon and UCLA chancellor Charles E. Young were stampeded into an announcement by leaks to the press and felt obliged to reveal a partially formulated plan. No wonder the whole thing sounded vaguely half-baked. But these are smart, practical people who certainly pondered all questions before going public, including how silly they will look if it does not gel. These are not people who like to look silly.

Real questions remain but the more one poses them to people in a position to know, the more encouraging are their answers. Experienced museum administrators tend to view UCLA's task in realizing operating expenses to be well within the realm of the possible, particularly if the collection continues to be presented with the kind of self-contained decorum it now enjoys.

Norton Simon has a long history of mercurial changes of mind which people who know him ascribe to a combination of restless brilliance and an almost theoretical delight in cutting deals. Once his collections resided in the headquarters of Hunt Foods when he ran that firm in Orange County. Then he conceived a "museum without walls," making large long-term loans from San Francisco to Princeton.

A protracted courtship with the County Museum of Art ended when Simon took over the financially beleaguered Pasadena Museum of Modern Art in 1975. Even after that settling, there continued to be restlessness within and speculation without as to the eventual fate of the collections. Simon toyed with the idea of sending his Asian material to San Francisco, hometown of his youth.

Rumors persisted that the J. Paul Getty Museum would somehow absorb Simon's artistic El Dorado. There are close ties to the Getty. They have made joint purchases such as Nicholas Poussin's "Holy Family" and Edgar Degas' "Waiting." Simon's wife, Jennifer Jones, sits on the Getty board. Harold P. Williams, who heads the Getty Trust, was once a Simon executive.

And the Getty could clearly afford to maintain the collection in princely fashion. (Since the Getty has cordial relations with UCLA, one suspects that Getty generosity could play a helpful role in its task with the Simon art.)

But when all shifts of field and changes of heart have swiveled past, something has to happen to the collections. Evidently Simon, for all his wealth, cannot afford to endow them in perpetuity, as the lawyers say. He could, of course, just decide to let the whole thing go at auction but then the greatest achievement of an already significant life would melt away like the snows of August. For a man who loves to cut a good deal, what finer thing could there be than to parlay the greatest art collection of modern times into the greatest act of philanthropy in the history of American universities?

What could be shrewder and more surprising in a nasty world than to be the good guy, the hero who makes it all come to a happy ending?

Skepticism is the bullet-proof vest of the heart, it protects us from disappointment but suffocates joy and wonder.

The Simon collections are a heart-stopping phenomenon. Selecting the proper superlatives to make them live in words mocks at Hollywood hype and shames scholarly jargon. The idea that they are going to have two homes in Southern California should be bringing Simon movie-star fan mail.

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