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Sharing its treasures

The Norton Simon Museum is making unprecedented loans to the National Gallery and New York's Frick Collection.

December 18, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

FOR decades, leaders of the Norton Simon Museum balked at the advice of Dean Martin and assorted other sages who sang of what it takes to reap the glory of love: "You've got to give a little, take a little."

Now, after keeping its trove of European Old Masters and Impressionists to itself for more than 30 years by nearly always refusing to lend them to other institutions, the Pasadena museum is loosening up in a way that might have pleased Martin.

The Frick Collection in New York is the latest beneficiary of the Simon's decision to give a little for the glory of art -- with an expectation of taking a little in return.

The Frick recently began promoting an exhibition opening Oct. 28 titled "Masterpieces of European Painting From the Norton Simon Museum." The five 16th and 17th century works headed east for three months are New Testament-inspired scenes by Peter Paul Rubens, Jacopo Bassano and Bartolome Esteban Murillo; a still life by Francisco de Zurbaran; and a large portrait by Guercino of a sturdy-looking dog.

In return, Southern California museum-goers can expect to see a choice morsel from the Frick, perhaps in 2009 -- and before that, probably in 2008, a select piece from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the other museum with which the Simon has struck an open-ended agreement to give and take.

For the Norton Simon Museum, the five paintings heading to New York in the fall represent a veritable torrent of exportation. Only since 2006, 31 years after it opened, has the museum significantly relaxed its policy of not lending works originally collected by the Hunt Foods magnate after whom it is named. And the first step -- sending a Raphael to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York -- required something on the order of shuttle diplomacy.

In his first phase as a private collector, starting in the 1950s, Norton Simon often shared his acquisitions with museums. But that changed in 1975 when, having bailed out the financially tottering Pasadena Art Museum, which was devoted to 20th century art, he placed his holdings under a single public roof with its collection. Lending continued to be OKd for works that had belonged to the Pasadena Art Museum but was virtually cut off for the art that came from Simon.

The boards of two foundations Simon had established continued that reluctance to lend after his death in 1993. Among the rare exceptions were a handful of crosstown loans to the J. Paul Getty Museum, owing largely to personal links between the two museums' boards, and, in 1994, the dispatch of a masterpiece by Hans Memling to the artist's hometown of Bruges, Belgium, for an exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of his death.

According to Carol Togneri, chief curator of the Norton Simon Museum, the Met pried loose the Raphael last year -- with considerable difficulty -- by presenting a unique opportunity to serve art scholarship and appreciation: If the Pasadena museum allowed its "Madonna and Child With Book" to travel, the piece could be seen in New York alongside several preliminary sketches the artist had made for the 500-year-old painting.

Other prospective lenders used blunter tactics, threatening to withhold the related drawings if the Norton Simon failed to lend the painting. So, eventually, an art world stink was avoided, the Raphael's Manhattan summer vacation went smoothly, and Simon board members saw that select temporary partings with masterpiece holdings could serve their goal of making their museum better known.

This year, Rembrandt's "Portrait of a Boy in a Fancy Dress," also known as "Titus," spent four months away from home, hanging from late spring through the summer at the National Gallery. Unlike the one-off loan to the Met, this was the beginning of what promises to be a beautiful friendship: The two museums agreed to take turns sending each other choice art bonbons, although not on any timetable. The partnership with the Frick will follow a similar pattern.

For other potential suitors who have great art to lend and might seek the Simon's reciprocal favors, Togneri has a straight and simple answer: The museum is not interested in dating around.

"Nope. For now, it's just these two," she said. "We have yet to see how this all works."

Togneri said the Simon foundation boards allowed the partnerships with the Frick and the National Gallery partly because Simon himself probably would have approved. He had lent art to the National Gallery before his own museum opened -- including, in 1965, the same Rembrandt that recently returned to Washington. And he spoke of the Frick, which opened in 1935 in its namesake benefactor's former Fifth Avenue mansion, as a model institution.

"Everything about it appealed to him," Togneri said.

In practice, the Frick is a somewhat constrained partner for give and take: Its chief curator, Colin Bailey, said there's a hard-and-fast rule, set by Henry Clay Frick himself, that works acquired before his death in 1919 cannot be lent. But about a third of the Frick's holdings arrived later and are potentially free to ramble.

"There's a short list" of art the Simon would like to borrow from both the National Gallery and the Frick, Togneri said, but the first picks haven't been decided.

Bailey, for his part, said "we are receptive to any proposal the Norton Simon makes. This is a very special relationship, and we're very pleased it's being inaugurated."


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