Behind the greatness of LACMA stand many great women

Behind the greatness of LACMA stand many great women

For more than 30 years, a plaque near the entranceway to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Ahmanson Building greeted visitors. "This museum was conceived by Norton Simon and Richard F. Brown, director …" the inscription began. A list of founding trustees followed, including savings-and-loan titan Howard Ahmanson and department store mogul Edward W. Carter.

The plaque was removed during a mid-'90s renovation project, but the sentiment — that the museum was founded by men — lingers in the city's cultural consciousness.

FULL COVERAGE: LACMA at 50

As the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary on Wilshire Boulevard, however, a look at LACMA's early history reveals key female supporters and staffers who worked at the institution's earlier incarnation as the Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park. After 1961, when the art department broke away from the history and science museum to form its own institution, the job of helping the new LACMA acquire and shape its collection was led by two longtime female donors, Anna Bing Arnold and Camilla Chandler Frost.

"There were a lot of women touching a lot of areas — volunteers who did a lot of work for the museum in the early, early days," LACMA archivist Jessica Gambling says of the Exposition Park operation. "But you don't necessarily see their names on the walls, you don't even know who they are. They don't come to mind like Howard Ahmanson or Norton Simon, and it's really not an accurate retelling of the museum's history to leave them out."

When the Museum of History, Science and Art opened in 1913, it didn't own any art. The museum's first director, Frank Daggett, was a businessman and an amateur ornithologist, not an arts professional. The museum's first art curator, Everett Maxwell, lasted only three years and no one took his place, in any significant way, for 15 years.

Growing the museum's collection from eight paintings in 1916 — George Bellows' "Cliff Dwellers" was the first one purchased — to several hundred objects in just a few years was a frenetic, disorganized process without a single vision.

A series of assistant curators, however — all women — held down the fort. Helen B. Wood joined the staff in 1919. Tapped into the local art scene, she began showing local artists at the museum through individual shows and through groups like the California Art Club and Camera Pictorialists. Assistant curator Mary E. Marsh was briefly given a curator title in 1922, making her LACMA's first woman in that role, but she left the museum only three months later shortly after marrying. Assistant curators Mildred McLouth and Louise Upton stayed on in their supporting roles until 1927 and 1940, respectively.

With a limited budget for staffing, events and programming were largely run by volunteers — women, without full-time jobs, who were looking for philanthropic opportunities. The art department of the museum relied heavily on loans and traveling exhibitions in its first years, and that required intricate coordination and copious paperwork. With just one registrar for history, science and art, much of that work was done by female volunteers as well.

The phenomenon was not uncommon across the country at the time, says art history professor Selma Holo, director of USC's Dornsife International Museum Institute, the research unit of the university's Fisher Museum of Art.

"Salaries were very low in the art world; museums were places where ladies and gentlemen of independent means, often smart, educated people, could volunteer and do important work," Holo says. "Most of the people who would have had the time were privileged women. The ranks [of museum volunteers] may have more men now, but there's still a disproportionate amount of women in the core volunteer programs. That tradition — it lingers."

In the late 1940s, the Exposition Park museum finally hired a director with an art background: James Henry Breasted Jr., the son of a well-known Egyptologist and an art history academic from UCLA. German art historian William Valentiner, formerly director of what's now Detroit Institute of the Arts, came on board as an advisor. The art department began to aggressively shape its collection into what now totals more than 120,000 objects, the largest art museum in the western United States.

Also instrumental was L.A. native Ebria Feinblatt, LACMA's founding curator for prints and drawings in 1947, previously a UCLA graduate school fellow at the museum. She built the department into an acclaimed collection of works on paper, and she stayed until 1985. Feinblatt regularly borrowed from Armand Hammer's collection of prints and drawings and put up exhibitions of his works. She also was a board member of L.A.'s Tamarind Lithography Workshop (now the Tamarind Institute), started by June Wayne in the early '60s to revive the art of printmaking. Feinblatt made an agreement with Wayne for LACMA to acquire prints by artists such as Ed Ruscha, Ken Price, John McLaughlin and Ed Hamilton.

"It was significant not in numbers but in the kind of work that was being acquired," Gambling says, "expanding the department beyond old masters to works on paper in multiples."

The tradition of fundraising councils at LACMA hearkens back to the early days when, in 1953, a group of women formed the Junior Art Council. That young fundraising arm grew into what became LACMA's oldest council, the Art Museum Council, which raised money for acquisitions until it was disbanded in 2013.

Women also pioneered LACMA's art docent program in 1960.

"One of the legacies of the women philanthropists that endures today — one of the strengths of LACMA — is the docent program," says Bill Ahmanson, Howard Ahmanson's great nephew and president of the Ahmanson Foundation. "It's unbelievably good, the quality is outstanding. It's primarily female — and always has been."

LACMA's best-known early donors included not only William Preston Harrison, Janet and Allan Balch, the Mabury family, J. Paul Getty and William Randolph Hearst but also the forces of Camilla Chandler Frost and Anna Bing Arnold.

Chandler Frost, daughter of former Los Angeles Times Publisher Norman Chandler, joined LACMA's board in 1962 just after it split from the Exposition Park museum. With lessons in the art of philanthropy from her mother, Dorothy Buffum Chandler, who spearheaded fundraising for L.A.'s Music Center, Chandler Frost began donating to the museum as early as 1975. Funds from Chandler Frost and the Times Mirror Foundation went toward purchasing an 18th century German sculpture of St. Scholastica.

In addition to working as a docent leading tours, Chandler Frost gave $60,000 to bus elementary school students in underserved communities to LACMA for field trips. Over the decades she has been credited with gifting 2,480 works valued at $20 million.

Chandler Frost was best known for forging personal relationships with LACMA's curators, with whom she often wandered through the galleries, gaining insight into what needed to be acquired, from single objects to whole collections. Now almost 90, she was unable to grant an interview, but as recently as 2012 she toured the Japanese galleries with curator Robert Singer.

LACMA's curator of Islamic art, Linda Komaroff, worked closely with Chandler Frost, whom she calls "unassuming, humble and kind." They traveled together on LACMA's first trip to Iran in 2000 and remained good friends. It was on that trip that Chandler Frost made the promise of a gift that would forever change the Islamic art collection.

"We'd just exited a beautiful mosque in Isfahan. She turned and said to me: 'I'd like to help out with buying the [Medina] collection,'" Komaroff says, referring to more than 700 objects including ceramics, glass, textiles and calligraphy. "It was a multimillion-dollar acquisition and probably the single-largest amount of cash she ever gave us. It doubled in size our existing collection of Islamic art and significantly increased its importance in the U.S. and internationally."

The late Bing Arnold, a former theater actress, was often called "LACMA's angel." Her first husband, real estate developer Leo S. Bing, swept her away from the East Coast and brought her to L.A., where ultimately she gravitated to the budding LACMA. She joined the board in 1965, but even before then, she donated works to the museum.

In the early '50s, Bing Arnold gave a 7th century limestone statue, "Standing Male Figure," from Cyprus that's now on view in LACMA's Hammer building. Perhaps most notably, Bing Arnold funded LACMA's Bing Theater, one of the museum's three original buildings.

"She was called 'LACMA's Angel' because every time there was something the institution wanted to purchase and didn't have a particular donor for, Anna Bing would step in and buy it," says Jane Burrell, head of LACMA's education department. "She was reserved but elegant, gracious and kind."

When she died in 2003, Bing Arnold left a significant endowment for off-site arts education. LACMA wouldn't reveal the amount but said it was the single-largest endowment bequest it had ever received.

LACMA now spends about $1 million a year on arts curriculum materials and puts on artist-led workshops in L.A. public schools for students in kindergarten to eighth grade.

"There were other women [donors]," LACMA deputy director Nancy Thomas says of the early years, "but Camilla and Anna really stood out as major benefactors. I think it was their belief that LACMA would become a really important place one day and, coupled with their interest in art, it really encouraged them to engage."

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

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