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Collectors' additions

L.A.'s cultural life, as measured by the catalogs of its museums and libraries, got a bit richer this year. Here are some of the things to be thankful for.

December 24, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

CUE the "Addams Family" theme. Now lay out that old leather-bound Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on a sturdy table, keep the Calydonian boar clear of the African elephant tusks, and step right this way to check out Charles Bukowski's crude scribbles.

Yes, from these attractions it may seem that the Ringling Bros. Library of Congress Aesthetic Pleasure Faire has come to town at last. But all of these wonders, along with reams of duller, more important scholarly items, have joined the collections of museums and libraries in greater Los Angeles this year.

The original score for the "Addams Family" theme? Composed 42 years ago by Vic Mizzy, who donated the original score to UCLA in May.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo? That's the 19th century deal that added California to the United States. After two decades of searching for a first-edition copy, a USC librarian happily paid "four figures" for one this year.

The boar -- actually, an oil painting of a boar, surrounded by hunters and nervous horses and painted by Peter Paul Rubens in about 1611 -- now belongs to the Getty Museum, which bought it in April from a London dealer, price undisclosed. Rubens drew the image from an episode in Ovid's poetry, but the alarm in the animals' eyes seems immediate enough to provoke a PETA demonstration.

The tusks -- real tusks, 8 feet long and 332 pounds together -- were removed from their central African owner in 1897 and donated to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County last month by William Cherry, a dentist in the Lake Tahoe area.

As for the Bukowski scrawls, for now let's just say the stubbled bard of San Pedro never lived in a home as nice as the one now housing his papers.

Deals like these have made 2006 a lively year for donations and purchases throughout the region, curators and librarians say, but then, most years are. It's just that the rest of the world rarely notices.

Whether they are paintings, diaries, photographs, musical scores, old clothes or correspondence, most artifacts and archives land quietly, get swaddled in acid-free paper and alphabetically shelved, all without much public notice unless there's a big celebrity involved.

While you weren't looking, the Natural History Museum added not only the tusks but a rare 14.6-foot oarfish from Catalina, the "XX" armband from Charlie Chaplin's uniform in "The Great Dictator" (1940) and sundry mineral specimens from the mines of Bisbee, Ariz.

The Museum of Contemporary Art added more than 100 works, including half a dozen small Robert Motherwell ink-on-paper works, 13 Jennifer Bornstein prints and etchings, and Fred Tomaselli's "Hang Over," a contemporary work made with leaves, pills, acrylic and resin on a 7-by-10-foot wood panel.

The Hammer Museum added more than 100 sculptures, paintings, installations, photographs and drawings

The Norton Simon Museum added a pencil-and-ink portrait by Don Bachardy of, well, Norton Simon. (Simon died in 1993; this addition ties in with the museum's celebration of Simon's centennial in 2007.)

The Southwest Museum of the American Indian (now largely closed as its parent, the Autry National Center, shores up the bedraggled Southwest building and plans expansion in Griffith Park) added 37 Pomo baskets.

Reading the material

INDIVIDUALLY, Bisbee minerals and Pomo baskets may not inspire dancing in the streets. But a year's acquisitions, surveyed at once, can reveal plenty -- not only about how culture endures, but about institutional ambitions.

For instance, the Getty -- so mired in recriminations over its past deals that it has given four works back to Greece and offered 26 more to Italy -- isn't buying so many ancient vases any more. And the Museum of the American West in Griffith Park, which was founded less than 20 years ago on the fortune and show-business artifacts of Gene Autry, hasn't been snapping up singing-cowboy memorabilia.

Instead, both institutions -- the one with roots in Western civilization and the one with roots in western serialization -- have lately turned to photography. Contemporary American photography in particular. In the last 12 months, in fact, both have bought works by living photographers John Divola and Jerry Uelsmann.

Of course, with the deepest pockets in all the museum world, the Getty could also afford the Rubens; a 14th century illustrated manuscript page by Pacino di Bonaguida; a 17th century Dutch drawing by Anthonie van Borssom; a 17th century painting by Spanish artist Juan de Valdes Leal; and a raft of further acquisitions by the Getty Research Institute.

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