THE NORTON SIMON MUSEUM : Industrialist Reported Resting; His Decision Stirs Speculation
Retired industrialist Norton Simon was reported to be resting at his Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow Thursday after an emergency hospitalization coinciding with the announcement that he has relinquished the presidency of his Pasadena-based museum and its fabled art collection.
Simon, 82, who has suffered for years from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disease, was treated at UCLA Medical Center for an unspecified “emergency,” according to Norton Simon Museum of Art spokeswoman Victoria Rogers. Other sources said he had been hospitalized twice since March 2.
His decision to turn over control of the museum to his wife, former actress Jennifer Jones Simon, 70, has renewed speculation over the future of the institution and its renowned collection of Old Masters and European paintings.
“As far as we know, there are no plans for any changes,” Rogers said. “But things are happening fast, and it’s not clear what the direction will be.”
Mrs. Simon was not available for comment Thursday.
Local art authorities said their major concern was keeping the collection intact and in Los Angeles.
“It is embedded here and it is part of the patrimony of Los Angeles,” said John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, often mentioned as a possible future home for Simon’s collection. “We all hope that a way will be found to keep it here.”
The most intense questions about the museum’s fate are likely to center on the qualifications and expertise of Jennifer Simon, an Academy Award winner and prominent fund-raiser for medical charities who has chaired the museum’s board of trustees since 1977.
Several prominent local members of the art world described Mrs. Simon, who by her own admission had little exposure to art before her 1970 marriage, as the person most likely to carry on her husband’s vision.
“She’s well-schooled in what he would like,” said Henry Hopkins, director of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation. “Probably nobody’s better versed than Jennifer as to what his wishes are.”
One art expert said Jennifer Simon is likely to give the museum a higher profile than her husband had allowed by encouraging educational programs and attempting to make the collection, which is open only four days a week, more accessible to the public.
“Under her I think we’ll start to see the museum become a bit more friendly,” said this expert, who did not want to be named. Norton Simon, he added, has been “single-minded” about building his collection.
But others in Los Angeles art circles, citing the close working relationship between the Simons, questioned whether there would be any appreciable change in direction. One source familiar with Jennifer Simons’ performance on the Simon museum board said she appeared at times to be working from a script prepared by her husband.
Another well-placed source said that Jennifer Simon was “sort of a passive participant” in her role as a member of the Getty Trust’s board.
Simon, the former head of Canada Dry, Hunt Foods, McCall Corp. and other companies, has claimed for years that even he cannot afford to subsidize his museum in perpetuity and that he will have to make arrangements with another institution.
Three years ago, he announced with great fanfare that he planned to donate his art collection to UCLA. But only four months later, the plan was quietly dropped. Since then, the most intense speculation about the museum’s destiny has centered on the Getty museum.
The close relationship between the two institutions--Harold M. Williams, president of the Getty Trust’s board, also sits on the Simon Museum board--has fueled expectations that Simon’s collection would eventually come under the Getty’s stewardship.
“We’ve had discussions from time to time,” said Williams, adding that no talks are occurring now.
Her Own Way
Williams also said he thought Jennifer Simon would provide “very responsible leadership.” “She’s not going to be another Norton Simon,” he said. “She’ll do it her way and do it very well.”
Jennifer Simon, who won an Oscar for her first role, “Song of Bernadette,” and went on to star in “Duel in the Sun,” “Beat the Devil” and “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” said in a 1974 interview that art once meant little more to her than raw material for the costumes and settings in her films.
“I don’t know how I managed to live for so many years without exposure to art,” she said.
But marrying Simon provided an unparalleled opportunity to learn from one of the world’s great connoisseurs. “Norton awakened me,” she said then. “Now I love living with art and being surrounded by it.”
In the mid-1970s, she began representing her husband at major international auctions. In April, 1980, she placed the winning $3.7-million bid for “Resurrection of Christ,” a 15th-Century masterwork by Flemish painter Dieric Bouts. The painting now hangs in the museum.
Staff Writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to the article.