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Donors and LACMA: Not a Fine Romance : Art: Joe and Etsuko Price are unhappy with the way the L.A. County Museum of Art is handling their gift of Japanese art; the museum is unhappy that they are unhappy.

July 20, 1991|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Relationships between collectors and museums tend to be delicate affairs that shift with the sands of time. Long after the courtship is over and the marriage is consummated, disputes and misunderstandings can shatter the peace. A current case in point concerns Japanese art collectors Joe D. Price and his wife Etsuko and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The Prices in 1983 bequeathed about 300 Japanese screens and scrolls to the museum and donated $5 million in seed money for a building to house them. The museum, in turn, agreed to maintain and exhibit the collection and to raise up to $2 million in additional funds to build the pavilion. The museum actually raised $7.5 million for the project, in addition to the Prices' gift, and the $12.5-million Pavilion for Japanese Art opened in 1988.

The exotic building--a design by the late visionary architect Bruce Goff that features a prow-shaped roof, cylindrical towers and translucent walls--has received mixed reviews, but the collection of Edo period art (1615-1865) is widely revered as the best and largest of its kind in the Western world. Joe D. Price, an Oklahoma oil man now living in Orange County, is credited with awakening new appreciation for the art of the Edo period, which was out of favor when he began buying it nearly 30 years ago.

The Prices are not happy, however. They have raised various objections over the years concerning the building, the collection and curatorial affairs. Lighting of the art, signs on the building and locating an office in a study center are among problems that they say indicate a lack of respect for the art. Museum officials, on the other hand, contend that they have strived to address the Prices' concerns and will continue to do so.

"The museum has met and substantially exceeded its obligation in terms of the construction costs, the building design and the collection," museum Director Earl A. Powell said, referring to a 1983 contract between the museum and the collectors.

"We have honored every agreement with the Prices. We are more than willing to discuss matters of concern to them and, to the extent possible, implement them." The couple have full access to the collection and they have largely determined which parts of it will be on view in rotating displays, he added.

To delve into the situation is to discover that some of the issues and solutions are elusive. The ongoing bugaboo of lighting, for example, is a "resolvable" problem, according to Robert F. Maguire, president of LACMA's board of trustees. The building was intended to display art in natural light, but visitors complain about not being able to see the art. A sensor system was developed so that lights come on on gloomy days and winter afternoons, but everyone agrees that the light still isn't right and another solution is needed. A new system of lights on timers that can be turned on by visitors is under discussion.

The stickiest issue, at the moment, is the Prices' request for a permanent agreement to house the scrolls in their collection at a new study center in Orange County, instead of at the museum as stipulated in a legally binding agreement. (The screens, most of which are much larger than the scrolls, would remain at the museum.)

This would formalize a situation that is already in effect, Joe D. Price said. According to a standard museum-world practice affecting gifts of art that are promised at a collector's death, the Prices have been allowed to retain possession of parts of their collection that are not needed for public display. For the past two years they have had annually renewable agreements with the museum "for mutual lending of screens and scrolls."

The Prices want to make the agreement permanent, in part, because the museum has put a curatorial office in a study center for the scrolls. Maguire and Powell say they have repeatedly offered to move the office but their offers have not been acceptable to the collectors. Joe D. Price says there's no point in relocating the office now; he would rather move ahead with plans for his own study center where he can accommodate visiting scholars.

Maguire indicated that the Prices' request is not a problem in principle. "We have no objection to the scrolls' being there. If they want to be able to use the scrolls for their study center, that's fine with us," he said.

Any change that would require restructuring the promised gift, as stipulated in the 1983 contract, would have to be approved by the museum board, however. For example, Joe D. Price has suggested giving the museum recently acquired screens and removing the scrolls from the gift.

"If the Prices want a revision of the agreement, that would have to be looked at to be sure it is fair to the museum," said board chairman Daniel N. Belin. "Arrangements would also have to be made so that the director and the curatorial staff feel comfortable with them. But within that framework, I would be supportive of the Prices to the fullest extent," he said.

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