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A departure sadly noted

Seldom shown for lack of funding, the Claremont Colleges' rare musical instrument collection heads to Phoenix -- and visibility.

April 21, 2008|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

For lovers of rare musical instruments, the Fiske Museum at the Claremont Colleges long has been an astonishing if somewhat mysterious collection.

Its 1,200 instruments from around the world include an 18th century Italian mandolin, unusual over-the-shoulder military brasses from the Civil War era, a gourd fiddle from Africa and a 9-foot-long temple trumpet from Tibet.

The museum had limited visiting hours at its home in the windowless basement of Bridges Auditorium for three decades, and then it closed altogether 16 months ago, partly because of a lack of upkeep funds. Now, almost the entire batch -- harpsichords, pianos, clarinets, banjos and cymbals -- will leave its home in Claremont and be sold for an undisclosed price to a music museum under construction in Arizona.

The move is triggering strong protests from some music faculty members, who say Claremont is losing a cultural treasure. But other officials are expressing relief that the collection will have a better-funded steward and a lot more public exposure at the new Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, an ambitious project financially backed by Robert Ulrich, chairman of Target Corp.

Barbara Jefferson, advancement director of the Claremont University Consortium (CUC), which owned the Fiske, described the sale as "a win-win situation." The consortium has no endowment to preserve or better display the instruments, and there was no "collective will" among the group's seven colleges to sustain it.

"This is a rare opportunity to keep the collection together. The stars just lined up for this," said Jefferson, who emphasized that Claremont wanted to avoid a piecemeal auction.

However, Robert Zappulla, a harpsichordist who is chairman of the music department at Claremont Graduate University, denounced the sale of what he described as "a jewel to be treasured and preserved." The move would deny the Southern California community access to the collection and end the arrangement under which Claremont students sometimes played the rare instruments in local concerts, he said.

"To be honest, it's truly shocking to me that CUC is willing to sell off the collection -- period. Selling it to a private museum sends the outrageous message to the world that the Claremont Colleges just aren't willing to give the collection its due consideration, and to try in earnest to make it generally available for educational and research purposes -- our moral duty, really, as a prestigious institution of higher learning," Zappulla said.

Preethi de Silva, who recently retired as a Scripps College music professor and still teaches part time at the Claremont Graduate University, said she too was "tremendously sad" about the sale.

"To give up something like that is incredible," she said. "I can't understand why more effort had not been made to keep it here, and not just in mothballs, but in a more accessible manner to our students and the public."

The ownership by the consortium was part of the problem. Not a college itself, the consortium provides shared services such as libraries, healthcare and maintenance to the seven otherwise independent colleges, including Pomona, Scripps and Pitzer. Because the collection belonged to no particular college, none took responsibility for it. Further clouding the Fiske's future, Bridges Auditorium was transferred last year from consortium control to Pomona College.

"Everyone agrees we need health services, everyone agrees we need library and security services and some centralized maintenance," said Graydon Beeks, a music professor and band leader at Pomona College. "But of the seven institutions, only three have music departments, and it is difficult to convince the others that it is valuable to own a collection and put the kind of money in it to make it really useful for teaching purposes, research or public relations."

Beeks said the sale was probably best for the collection and public access, even if its departure was regrettable. "Yes, it's a loss to the consortium, but we've had it for 50 years and we haven't figured it out," he said.

In 1954, the Claremont consortium paid $10,000 for 600 brass instruments from collector and musicologist Curtis Janssen. That original collection included a World War I German bugle that Janssen reportedly found in a battlefield trench and a set of seven Civil War-era horns that point over the shoulder to project music to troops marching behind.

More instruments were donated, especially after the collection went on public display in 1977. It was named after its longtime caretaker, Pomona music professor Kenneth G. Fiske, who died in 1984.

Glass cases and wall displays now contain Bali bells, a three-string Moroccan fiddle made from a turtle shell, an 1810 English flute of ivory and silver and an 1830 French trombone with a bell shaped like a dragon head.

Unusual pianos, organs and harpsichords came from around the world. One novelty is a 19th century walking stick that also is a skinny violin.

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