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ART : Laboring Under No Illusions : Pratapaditya Pal has built one of this country's preeminent collections of Indian and Southeast Asian artworks at LACMA. Do we appreciate him? Well, he's pretty realistic about popular acclaim.

November 20, 1994|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer. and

Two Ph.D.s. Twenty-two major museum exhibitions. Two hundred fifty-seven publications. Nineteen editorships. Six professional appointments. Eight university teaching positions. Twenty fellowships and awards. Too many lectures to count.

Pratapaditya Pal's resume reads like a committee's lifetime work, but the credits all belong to one man, the senior curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. What's more, Pal's curriculum vitae doesn't even mention his most visible legacy: a collection that he built from a handful of items to about 4,000 pieces, giving LACMA one of the nation's preeminent holdings of Indian and Southeast Asian art.

"It really is quite staggering to see what we have done," Pal says. "If you gave me $30 million or $40 million to put this collection together today, I couldn't do it."

Casting his net wider to emphasize this unheralded aspect of Southern California's cultural wealth, Pal says: "If we put our collection and the Norton Simon collection--which I also helped to build--together with the Edward Binney collections of paintings at the San Diego Museum of Art and at our museum, without question this would be absolutely the No. 1 place in America for the No. 1 collection of art from India, Southeast Asia, Nepal and Tibet."

Having played a lead role in amassing these riches is enormously satisfying, the 59-year-old curator says.

"But whether the city knows about it or not, and whether they appreciate it or not is another matter," he says. "One day maybe they will, 100 years after I'm gone, which is OK. It's all right. You can't expect instant rewards."

Within museum circles, however, Pal is no secret treasure. Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III, who directed LACMA for 12 years before taking over the helm at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, praises Pal's intellect and talent: "He's very gifted, he's a great scholar, and he has worked with donors to build the premier collection of its kind in the country. His is a rarefied field, and he's at the top of it."

Approaching his 25th year at LACMA and having recently organized the museum's critically acclaimed exhibition "The Peaceful Liberators: Jain Art From India" (which runs through Jan. 22), Pal is in the limelight. And he is delighted that the art of a little-known religious sect--whose pacifist devotees believe that every living creature has an immortal soul--is getting so much attention.

"I am putting Jain art on the map," he says. "No major exhibition of Jain art has ever been done, even in India. . . . This is the first and only major attempt at representing one of the great artistic traditions--under the umbrella of Indian art's aesthetic tradition of course, but through the eyes of the Jains."

*

Taking a break from welcoming out-of-town visitors and fielding inquiries about the show, Pal has agreed to an interview. Seated at a long table that serves as his desk in a loft behind the museum's Indian art galleries, he reflects on his career with a mixture of contentment and regret.

Pal is unabashedly proud of LACMA's collection and his scholarly accomplishments--preserved in voluminous writings that put his less industrious colleagues to shame--but far too truthful and art-world weary to pretend that all his ambitions and dreams have been fulfilled. As a senior curator in an institution he loves, he is grateful for the opportunities that have come his way and for friends who have faithfully supported his collecting efforts.

But it isn't easy being a curator of Indian art in a country that has little interest in the subject, let alone in a city whose collectors favor contemporary art. Neither has it been pleasant to watch his department's acquisitions budget diminish--from a high of $545,251 in 1981 to a low of $28,000 in 1993--as the museum threw its resources into expanded facilities during the 1980s, then tightened its belt to deal with an economic crunch in the early 1990s. Yet another sore point is multiculturalism, which he says is the subject of too much talk and too little action, not only at LACMA but throughout the museum community.

This is vintage Pal--or Pratap, as friends call him. Gracious and witty but brutally frank, he is LACMA's eminence grise, resident critic and perpetual outsider. Pal, born in Bangladesh and educated in India and England, has thrived professionally as a Los Angeles County civil service employee, but he does not suffer the bureaucratic system gladly.

"I don't believe in wasting time," he says, when asked how he has published so much without the benefit of sabbaticals.

The story of his career begins in 1957 at the University of Calcutta, where he was working on a master of arts degree in ancient Indian history and culture.

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