At the Huntington, the synergy grows

At the Huntington, the synergy grows
RESPECTING ROOTS: Suzy Moser, left, of the museum’s advancement staff and the garden’s curator, June Li, have worked to, as Li says, “be true to the spirit of the garden. (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times)
Suzy Moser is on a roll. Resplendent in teal and black, she is schmoozing potential donors in the teahouse of the Chinese garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

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."

The idea of creating a Chinese garden had bounced around the Huntington for years. Nothing happened, however, until what Koblik calls "a gift from heaven": a surprise $10-million bequest from board member Peter Paanakker, who died in 1999.

Half was designated for construction and half for a maintenance endowment. "I promised the trustees I would bring in the rest of the money from sources that were not involved before," Koblik says. That meant seeking the help of Chinese American and Chinese patrons.

Building a base of support, just like building the garden itself, required the 90-year-old institution to do many things it never had. Among the first steps, the Huntington recruited Moser -- a veteran fundraiser who had worked in Hong Kong -- in 2003. She introduced her colleagues to the art of raising money "Chinese style." "The motives are different and the methods are different," she says. "In America, you make a case for your cause." She holds up a fact sheet about the garden. "But the Chinese also will look at this." She holds up a list of donors. "They see who has given and if the right names -- others whom you respect -- are there."

Fortunately, the Huntington had hired the Suzhou Institute of Landscape Architectural Design to design the project, based on conceptual drawings by landscape architect Jin Chen. "One great moment was when I could prove to prospects that as a white institution we knew what we didn't know," says Moser. "We had partners in Suzhou and were shipping over Chinese materials and labor."

Early on, Huntington officials discussed fundraising with Dominic Ng, the head of East West Bank. "If we wanted credibility, we needed to start with him," Moser says. The Huntington also formed the Friendship Fund Committee, made up of well-connected Chinese American women who could locate likely donors.

"Some people didn't know too much about the Huntington," recalls committee member Betty Wang, a longtime South Pasadena resident. "Some in the community weren't that enthusiastic because Chinese pay a lot of attention to education and the needy. They said, 'If I am donating this much, I would rather give to villages in the countryside.' I would agree. Never push. But having a Chinese garden is building a bridge between East and West."

The garden's donor walls represent an unusual coming together of L.A. families with roots in old Canton, new-money merchants from the mainland and entrepreneurs from Taiwan and Hong Kong. This proved to be a boon because costs were skyrocketing.

"When I arrived, the working number was $9.3 million," says Moser. "But we had no clue of how difficult it was going to be. We committed to building a classical scholar's garden that had to live up to California earthquake codes and a bunch of other codes."

The Huntington sponsored Li's first lecture series even before the garden opened. Since then, more than $2 million has been raised to fund and endow programs such as a Chinese New Year festival, concerts, calligraphy workshops and a chef's garden tour.

Despite today's economic turbulence, Moser is optimistic about attracting donors for the next stage, which will begin once sufficient funds are raised.

"It is worth the money," says Wang. "The garden definitely is a bridge. Chinese Americans or people in China, they all have heard of the Huntington Library now."