Moser, the assistant vice president for advancement, tells tales of courting Hong Kong tycoons and local big shots -- part of a campaign that raised funds for the $18.3-million Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance.
Now, Moser is trying to bring in even more money -- $30 million -- for Phase 2. The price tag reflects the confidence the Huntington has in its ability to do what many once thought impossible, at least for an institution long identified with Western culture: build a classical garden in the famed Suzhou style and help pay for it by engaging a previously ignored resource -- the Chinese community.
"When we started, people were skeptical," Moser says, "until they saw what happened." With a wave, she motions to the cloud-shaped rocks, shimmering lake and greenery outside. Indeed, since it opened in February 2008, Liu Fang Yuan has been a hit with visitors. (Attendance at the Huntington is up by more than 20%.) It also has impressed scholars as well as observers from San Gabriel to Shanghai with its meticulous blending of aesthetics and literary references: hallmarks of the gardens of Suzhou, China's garden capital.
To accomplish this, the Huntington has been working with Chinese designers and brought in Chinese artisans and materials. It also relies on June Li, the garden's curator, to serve as what one colleague calls "our culture guardian."
"Having rocks from China doesn't make us authentic," says Li, who joined the staff in 2004 after retiring as a curator of Chinese art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "The deeper question is, 'How can we be true to the spirit of the garden?' "
As one answer, Li has developed an extensive series of lectures, festivals and exhibitions. A show of painting and calligraphy -- drawn from one of America's major private collections of Chinese art -- opens Saturday. "These programs help us understand: What is the garden about?" Li says. "What does it teach us about Chinese culture?"
"The educational component is crucial," agrees Steven S. Koblik, the Huntington's president. "For one thing, this is a research-and-education institution and not just a botanical garden." Just as important, he says, Liu Fang Yuan and "the cultural overlay June created make us more relevant and interesting to our neighbors," especially the growing number of residents of Chinese ancestry.
"The garden also has done wonderful things for people's overall perception," Koblik says. "We used to have an image of being inward-looking. We let you think the only thing here was 'Blue Boy' and 'Pinkie,' when we are one of the most important libraries about the history of California.
"In the past year," he points out, "we opened the Chinese garden, exhibited art in ways people wouldn't have imagined and opened Dibner Hall, which looks at the history of science." The Huntington is now home to the archives of La Opinión and the papers of Charles Bukowski. This May, its American art collection will reopen in expanded galleries. "People can't tell you we're not interested in serving communities and change," Koblik says.
Art as context
Li's latest garden-inspired cultural offering, "Treasures Through Six Generations: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy From the Weng Collection," features works assembled by Weng Tonghe, a 19th century scholar-official, and brought to the U.S. by his great-great-grandson, Wango H.C. Weng, a scholar-artist who lives in New Hampshire. (He also is an advisor to the garden project.)
"Treasures," which runs through July 13 in the Boone Gallery, originally was presented by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, although it has been reorganized to illustrate different themes. The show's first section covers the 12th to early 17th centuries, the second the late 17th to 19th centuries. Among the highlights is Wang Hui's 50-foot-plus scroll, "Ten Thousand Li Up the Yangzi River," which depicts the great waterway in delicate detail.
The final section is inspired by what the Chinese call "an elegant gathering": a salon in which art is discussed and created. Generations of Wengs united through their paintings and poetry. One scroll contains 15 inscriptions, Li notes, which means "you have these writers who could be a hundred years apart commenting and participating in their own elegant gathering."
The connection with Liu Fang Yuan is "effortless," Li says, "in that gardens often were built by people like the Wengs, who possessed what the exhibition emphasizes: the refined collector's taste." Also, she says, "We talk about a garden as a three-dimensional painting because it takes its symbolism from the way you look at a painting, which is to enter it with your eyes and then read the inscriptions or write an inscription."
Ideally, says Li, viewers will leave the gallery and head for the garden. "That way they can link everything together themselves."
Breaking more new ground
At the heart of Liu Fang Yuan lies a man-made lake graced by pavilions, Chinese and native plantings and ornamental stones.
"If you walk around to the north and west sides," says Moser, "you may ask, 'What is going to happen over here?' " Phase 2 will add a performance hall, courtyard and display and viewing areas, filling in the 12-acre site. "The idea is to give a sense of completion," says Moser, "even though we know the garden will never be complete."