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Art of reconciliation

After an extended rift, the patrons behind LACMA's Japanese pavilion show a new administration they're ready to make the space truly blossom.

June 22, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Joe AND Etsuko Price are back.

Twenty-five years ago, they joined with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to fulfill a dream. The Prices donated $5 million to help construct the Pavilion for Japanese Art and promised a spectacular collection of Japanese paintings to the museum. Five years later, the building was completed: an eye-popping, lotus-like structure on the east end of the museum campus. But five years after that, the marriage between the Prices and LACMA fell apart -- compounded by a lawsuit.

When "The Age of Imagination: Japanese Art, 1615-1868, From the Price Collection" opens today, it will mark the end of a 15-year estrangement. The sprawling exhibition of 109 meticulously painted screens and scrolls from the Edo period ) -- combining some of the 161 long-promised gifts to LACMA with additional pieces from the collectors' personal holdings -- will fill the Pavilion and the plaza level of the nearby Hammer Building.

What happened?

The Prices have two words: Michael Govan.

"We are very happy," Etsuko Price says on a recent weekday, flashing a smile as she inhales the pleasures of the seductive artworks in LACMA's galleries.

The exhibition is making its final stand at LACMA after touring Japan and stopping at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. Govan got wind of it in early 2006, soon after he took charge of the L.A. museum and visited the Prices in Corona del Mar, where they reside and maintain a private study center for hundreds of works acquired in the last couple of decades.

"When Michael Govan found out about our show in Tokyo, he said, 'I will come,' " Etsuko Price says, recalling their first meeting. "He has a passion for art, a passion for education and people. He also has common sense."

The exhibition's itinerary was planned with no thought of including Los Angeles, Joe Price says. Then Govan suggested "a homecoming." "By the time he went to Tokyo with us, I thought it would be nice to do that," Joe says. "It will be a beautiful exhibition."

Joe Price is a self-styled collector credited with reviving a chapter of Japanese art history that was out of favor when he took a shine to it. And he loves to talk about the paintings he has pursued for 55 years. Speaking softly but with passionate outbursts, he expounds on the artists' economy of means and technical prowess.

The artworks were made to be seen in natural light, in the soft glow that comes through traditional paper shoji screens, he says, reciting a mantra. Electric lights are never quite right, but a technician is working on that.

A few special pieces -- including a pair of black-and-white folding screens depicting rabbits and crows in a snow storm and a mosaic-like scene of birds, animals and flowering plants -- will be illuminated by a system that varies brightness in brief rotations, as if compressing a day's sunlight into a few minutes.

Etsuko Price, who has become an active partner in the collection, points out details in the paintings that might by missed by Western observers. The life-size bull in a pair of nearly 12-foot-wide screens is more than a drop-dead amazing image of a beast, she says. It's a symbol of the Shinto religion, and it's face-to-face with an elephant that represents Buddhism. In a series of silk scrolls, "Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months," insects appear in warm-weather panels and disappear in those depicting fall and winter.

No one wants to recount past grievances. Govan says he doesn't even know all of them.

"I'm a latecomer," he says, "but I can do a lot for the future. It was not rocket science to figure out how important that collection is to LACMA or that having a Japanese Pavilion devoted to Japanese art identifies the museum as being ahead of the game. It was an architectural risk that is turning out to be a masterpiece." The concept of housing an extraordinary collection in a made-to-order landmark with a study center is a model of cultural patronage, he says. "It's one of the most important cultural assets of Southern California."

Courting the collectors

Museums' relationships with donors are rarely without tension. In an age of escalating art prices, most museums must balance patrons' wishes with the institutions' missions and resources. And it can be especially difficult to strike a deal with a collector who has a fixed idea about how the art should be displayed.

In a case dating to 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York landed a collection of nearly 3,000 artworks assembled by one of its trustees, Robert Lehman, by building a wing that emulated his house on West 54th Street, outfitted with the same wall fabrics, draperies, rugs and furniture. Another Met trustee, Walter Annenberg, had a falling out with the museum, but finally agreed to donate his collection of Impressionist and postimpressionist paintings to the Met in 1991 on the condition that it be kept intact in its own gallery.

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