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L.A. Couple Gives Away About 1,000 Works of Art

Art * Contemporary pieces from Peter and Eileen Norton collection are disbursed to 29 museums.

January 19, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Los Angeles-based art collectors Peter and Eileen Norton have distributed about 1,000 works of contemporary art to 29 museums in the United States and England. The gift, valued by the Nortons at a total of more than $3 million, has provided a bonanza of edgy, adventurous works to institutions ranging from the mighty Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York to small community cultural centers such as the Carnegie Museum in Oxnard.

Although many of the artists represented are not well established and the value of individual works has yet to be determined, the Laguna Art Museum--which has received 124 works by Southern California artists--is the biggest winner in terms of sheer numbers. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art received 30 pieces, including works by Roy Dowell, Rachel Whiteread, Elizabeth Peyton and Alfredo Jaar.

"We are thrilled with the whole thing because these works fill holes in our collection," said Lynn Zelevansky, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at LACMA, who helped her colleagues select pieces in the donation. "The gift deepens our representation of younger Southern California artists and Latin American art."

Other Southern California recipients are the Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State L.A., CalArts, Children's Museum of Los Angeles and the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara. Three Northern California institutions--UC Berkeley, the Oakland Museum and the San Jose Museum of Art--also received donations of artworks.

Peter Norton, a computer software magnate, said the gigantic giveaway was overdue. But it was a two-year, labor-intensive project, spurred by the acquisition in 1998 of Clyde and Karen Beswick's large collection of similar material, mainly by emerging artists.

"Like a lot of collectors who have been buying art for many years, we had acquired a lot of stuff, and it had come to a point where we realized that we needed to concentrate, focus and weed out," Norton said. "It's a big job, so we had put it off. But in 1998, when we acquired the Beswick collection, that added about 800 pieces to our collection of 1,600, for a total of 2,400 pieces. We knew we had to get serious about integrating the Beswick pieces and culling the collection."

The Nortons hired Tom Solomon, a Los Angeles-based independent curator and former contemporary art gallery owner, to advise them on how to winnow about 1,000 works from their holdings. Solomon scouted institutions all across the country, interviewing personnel and checking out collections and programs. The goal, Peter Norton said, was to find institutions that would benefit most from donations of contemporary art. After about two years, Solomon compiled a list of institutions and began to package groups of artworks to be offered to museums and other educational and cultural organizations.

But before that distribution proceeded, Norton decided that he should at least inquire to see if five major organizations he either had served as a trustee or supported in other ways wanted any of the artworks. He at first thought the works would be deemed too adventurous or not important enough for those organizations: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Tate Gallery in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Friends of Art and Preservation in Embassies, which places American artworks in embassies and ambassadorial residences around the world.

To his surprise, all five organizations selected works for their collections, he said. "They got first pick, and skimmed the cream in a way, but the choices weren't predictable," he said. And in the end, there were almost no conflicts to be resolved; each institution got essentially what its curators wanted, he said.

Norton said the rationale for the distribution was threefold: "We wanted to reward institutions that have done great work. We wanted to give works where they would have maximum benefit. And finally, we hope that news stories and publicity about these gifts will be an increase in local support for institutions. This is a form of validation."

Some of the donated works will go on view in local museums during the next few months. The Laguna Art Museum has scheduled a show of 49 works from Feb. 19 to March 26. Zelevansky said LACMA is planning an installation of the museum's gift in March.

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