The fate of Norton Simon's art collection is the most brightly burning issue in Southern California's art scene. Will his $750-million collection of European and Asian art stay in Pasadena in the building that bears his name? Will the museum merge with the J. Paul Getty Museum? Will Simon donate the collection to other museums? Or will he sell the whole thing in the art auction of the century?
All of these possibilities flare up at one time or another, ignited by Simon himself or by yet another rumor. A consummate businessman with a quixotic personality, Simon wouldn't be Simon if he weren't negotiating with someone somewhere. He has been courted by dozens of museums and several cities during 35 years of collecting, and he has dashed the hopes of as many suitors.
In recent years, his close ties to the J. Paul Getty Museum and a short-lived offer in 1987 to donate his collection to UCLA have fueled speculation that Simon--who is 83 and disabled by a neurological disorder called Guillain Barre--is seeking another museum to take charge of his vast collection. Meanwhile, a wildly escalating art market has sparked fear that Simon might decide to cash in at auction. Roughly valued at $750 million, his collection of about 12,000 artworks might bring close to $1 billion if shrewdly marketed at a peak moment.
The stakes are enormous for Los Angeles, which has lost great collections in the past and is only now shaping up as what is seriously considered a "world-class art center." Simon's collection represents more than 2,000 years of European and Asian art, while boasting such masterpieces as Raphael's "Madonna and Child With a Book," Lucas Cranach's "Adam" and "Eve," Francisco de Zurbaran's "Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose" and Rembrandt van Rijn's "Portrait of the Artist's Son, Titus."
Among the collection's strengths are distinguished paintings by pre-Renaissance and Renaissance artists, Old Masters, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists; an extensive assembly of South Asian sculpture; monumental bronzes by Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore; bronze modeles of ballet dancers and related works on paper by Edgar Degas; major suites of prints by Rembrandt, Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso, and the Galka Scheyer collection of art by the Blue Four group.
No less an authority than John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, calls Simon "the best collector of our time." Simon is widely credited with assembling the finest art collection in the country after World War II and with owning the most distinguished group of European paintings west of Chicago. Even those who have bitterly criticized Simon's 1974 takeover of the Pasadena Art Museum concede that his collection has added luster to Southern California's cultural life. To disturb such a great good thing could be troubling; to lose it would be a tragedy.
So far this drama has been played out in the press while Simon has maintained a conspicuous silence. But now he has revealed his intentions--insofar as a fiercely independent, consistently unpredictable man is willing or able. In his first extensive interview in more than a decade, Simon talked at length about his plans for the museum and his life as a collector. The four-hour interview touched on a wide range of issues. (See Page 93.)
"We'd like to keep the museum as it is, but we should be open-minded about it," Simon said, making an initial, equivocal pass at dealing with a query about the fate of his collection. But as the conversation evolved, he returned to that issue repeatedly, each time taking a little more steam out of rumors and building confidence that he is putting his energy into keeping the museum right where it is, under Simon-designed management.
The Getty is out of the picture for now, he said, although the two museums have a close relationship. They have jointly purchased important artworks by Edgar Degas and Nicholas Poussin; Simon's wife, Jennifer Jones Simon, serves on the Getty's board of trustees, and Harold Williams, head of the J. Paul Getty Trust, is a longtime Simon associate.
"Harold Williams worked for me for a long time and we got to know each other very well. We have had talks to see how they (the two museums) would fit. But at this time, there is no desire on my part or on the part of the Getty to merge. We have not found a basis for merging that would make sense to both the Getty and ourselves," Simon said.
"Our desire is to keep going on our own, if we can, and we really think we can. I have a lot of faith in my wife, my board and our people, and the people of the United States who have supported the museum," he said.
As for selling his collection, Simon revealed that he had given the idea serious consideration. "For awhile I thought it might be better to get the dollars and put them into your foundation," he remarked to his wife, who joined him in the interview in their bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel.