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Forum Urges Global Defense of Art Heritage

Times Art Writer

From pollution problems of global proportions to regional concern with crumbling adobe, from the effects of tourism on ancient monuments to the ravages of sunlight on contemporary murals, a high-level forum on art conservation, held Monday at the County Museum of Art, hammered away on threats to the world’s cultural heritage.

Ignorance, indifference, technology, pollution, ideological fervor, mass tourism, armed conflict and a misguided “zeal for knowledge” that wipes out the past in the course of studying it--these were the culprits ticked off by Federico Mayor Zaragoza, director general of UNESCO, in his introductory speech at “Collections, Monuments and Architecture at Risk: A Forum for Southern California Decision Makers.”

Architect Frank Gehry added urban development to the list of villains as he flashed a rapid succession of slides of historic Los Angeles buildings that have been demolished.

Natural disasters have also done their part to destroy bastions of culture, as Luis Monreal, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, pointed out in slides of the 1966 flood in Florence that damaged museums and ruined artworks throughout the city. Monreal also spoke of the fire set by an unknown arsonist in 1986 that devastated the Los Angeles Public Library.

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Impermanent pigments, too much light and general neglect have ruined a set of Mark Rothko’s paintings at a Harvard University faculty center, said Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, in his presentation to the 100 or so cultural and corporate leaders who gathered at the conference.

Frank Preusser, program director for scientific research at the Getty Conservation Institute, delivered the depressing news that Los Angeles’ air contains more than 140 pollutants. And, according to a recent survey, Southern California museums filter out as little as 20% of these impurities.

Most of the trouble is man-made, the speakers repeatedly emphasized. The species that “fouls its nest most successfully is man,” concluded Franklin D. Murphy, director emeritus and former chairman and chief executive officer of Times Mirror Co., parent company of The Times.

The message was grim, but the mood was determinedly hopeful. Far from proclaiming “Apocalypse Now,” the speakers sounded an alarm that amounted to a call for action.

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“The question today is, can we save our cultural heritage?” Monreal asked, early in the conference. Considering the quickening pace of destruction cited by Monreal--some cultural monuments such as Greece’s Parthenon or Egypt’s Sphinx have suffered more damage in the 20th Century than in the previous millennium--the response to his query seemed inevitably negative.

But after 10 speakers had addressed various aspects of the issue, the collective answer was, “We must.”

The problem is enormous, the speakers agreed. Even in the United States, the world’s richest country, the majority of museums don’t have professional conservators and there are only about 70 scientists working on art conservation in the entire nation, Preusser noted.

In developing countries the situation is much worse. “Priorities necessarily lie elsewhere when a square meal and a roof are still uncertain for millions of people,” Mayor said.

How, then, does a group of 100 “decision makers” convened in Los Angeles effect solutions?

Americans can do two things: contribute money and “clean up the mess they make,” Murphy said.

Mayor pointed out that UNESCO has been “at the forefront of the worldwide conservation movement.” It has “mustered international support” for major conservation projects at Abu Simbel, Egypt; Venice, Italy and Carthage, Tunisia, he said, and it has established practical “doctrines” in the World Heritage Convention, an agreement on environmental protection and cultural preservation signed by 109 countries.

Working both with governments and private organizations such as the Getty Conservation Institute in Malibu, UNESCO is “a facilitator,” “an experimenter,” “a clearinghouse,” “an innovator,” “a bridge” and “a catalyst” for conservation, Mayor said.

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Giovanni Agnelli, keynote speaker and chairman of the Italian auto-making giant Fiat, argued for corporate responsibility and provided an impressive example of “private initiative” when he showed slides of Fiat’s $12-million conversion of Palazzo Grassi, an 18th-Century residence in Venice, into an art museum.

Asked how he justified such a large expenditure to shareholders who would prefer a dividend, Agnelli said it was easy to argue in favor of such long-term cultural “investments.” In the case of Palazzo Grassi, Fiat revitalized part of Italy’s “monumental legacy” to serve “artistic objectives” and promote the nation’s “cultural activities,” he said.

Mayor said that conservation projects are a special joy to UNESCO, in part because they are “visible.” But the benefits go deeper than newspaper pictures of restored monuments that illustrate UNESCO’s work. In the poorest, most hopeless countries, “magnificent masterpieces bring self-esteem” to people who are desperate for it, he said.

Few of the participants have large corporate or government resources at their disposal, but they were called together in the belief that a few committed, well-placed people can make a difference. The event was organized by the National Committee to Save America’s Cultural Collections and funded by the Ahmanson Foundation, AT&T; and the Times Mirror Foundation.

Forum chairman Lloyd E. Cotsen said he called the meeting “to create a sense of awareness of the problem” and “set up a network of people who will allocate resources to it.” Introducing himself as a “soap salesman,” Cotsen, the president of Neutrogena Corp., asked participants to fill out questionnaires to be compiled in a sort of “white-collar pages” of resources for conservation. “We want you to be available when you are needed. Be an advocate,” he urged.

As the meeting wound down, the clearest theme that had emerged was the need for a cooperative effort--one that involves public and private sectors, ignores national boundaries and persuades the haves to help the have-nots.

“We are a global village. More than that, we are a global culture. The Renaissance didn’t advantage Italians only,” said Murphy. “We owe much to Greece, to Rome, to Egypt, to China, and we have an obligation to pay something back.”

“Our cultural heritage is the most vivid record of how people lived and died,” Monreal said. “If we don’t take our cultural heritage out of the twilight zone, if we don’t move quickly, tomorrow will be too late and there will be no future for our past.”

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