William S. Hart wanted to leave the world a museum, one dedicated to exhibiting the mementos, artifacts, paintings and personal effects of William S. Hart.
Upon Hart's death in 1946, his son was so upset to learn that the bulk of the former silent movie star's estate was going to a not-yet-established museum that he demanded that an autopsy be done on his father's brain.
"Young Hart," as the son was called in several news stories, was convinced that his father had been "mentally incompetent" when his will was written. The will stated that a Newhall ranch, grand ranch house, memorabilia and a considerable amount of money go to the project.
What the elder Hart wanted and eventually got (no anomalies were found in his brain or in his detailed will, which held up to a decade of court challenges) was his own museum, one that stands as a tribute to his life, art collection and furniture.
The Westside and San Fernando Valley areas have a rich heritage of museums that were established by an individual or a corporation to open a private collection to the public. Although they are the museum version of a vanity press book, that does not mean that they always operate on a small scale. Nationwide, they include the esteemed Frick Collection in New York and the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, which is the second most visited non-gaming attraction in the state of Nevada.
Establishment of these museums ensured that the family or corporate name would be solidly linked to a collection. It gave the founders complete control over how the collection would be displayed for the public. And in some cases, where the founder donated the collection to his own nonprofit museum, it provided a tax break. This is no longer an incentive--under the 1986 changes in the tax law, that benefit has been virtually eliminated.
Each of these "one-man museums" locally is financed and administered in different ways, most of them have been visited by controversy, and all of them have had to adapt to the harsh realities of the museum world.
Norris Bramlett, the long-standing personal assistant to J. Paul Getty, had a simple explanation as to why his boss loved his museum project. "He wanted to make sure his name would be perpetuated as long as there was civilization," Bramlett said when Getty died in 1976.
At the very least, Getty will never be forgotten by museum administrators worldwide who find themselves competing for acquisitions with the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Malibu facility, funded by a $3.2-billion trust fund, is the wealthiest museum in the world.
It was founded in the way the late Getty did everything--on a grand scale with overtones of eccentricity.
Getty, an oilman who at one time was considered to be the richest man in the world, began acquiring art in the mid-1930s when prices were the "lowest of the century," he noted in his diary, according to the 1985 biography, "The Great Getty." By the 1950s, he had built a sizable collection of French 18th-Century furniture, Old Master paintings, and Greek and Roman antiquities.
Bramlett and other aides came up with the idea of establishing a nonprofit museum that would allow for tax benefits and also keep the collection together under the Getty name, according to the biography.
The small museum, which held only part of Getty's collection, opened in 1954 at a ranch house Getty owned in Malibu. In the late '60s, Getty, who had long been fascinated by the period when Rome was ruled by emperors, oversaw the design of a much bigger museum on the same property. He wanted a building patterned after Villa dei Papyrii, a spectacular, art-filled villa destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
Although many of the architecture reviews were scathing when the new museum opened in 1974, Getty continued to make buys that forced the art world to take his museum seriously. The institution seemed to be his first love. When he died in 1976, the art world and some of his family members were shocked to discover that he had left the museum about $660 million worth of Getty Oil stock, the bulk of his personal estate.
He perhaps loved acquiring the art more than the art itself. He never once saw, in person, the Getty Museum, in either its ranch house or pseudo-Roman versions. Getty left the United States for Europe in 1951, never to return.
Equally surprising, he left few directives for the museum administration, which is funded by a trust that is planning a new Getty museum, conservation, research and education complex in the Santa Monica Mountains.
The Getty Trust has the luxurious problem of having to spend, under federal tax laws, a minimum of 4.25% of the value of its endowment each year. Last fiscal year, the trust spent $155 million for its programs, including the acquisition of art. This kind of spending has put the Getty in the spotlight. In 1984, for example, officials made the surprise announcement that the museum had purchased several of the world's most important photography collections, thus changing the art photography market forever. But all this spending has meant that its failings, including the acquisition of several works that turned out to be fakes, have been big news too.
In good times and bad for the museum, Getty's wish, as interpreted by Bramlett, has remained true. There is no more Getty Oil--it was merged with Texaco in 1984. The museum has kept the Getty legacy alive.
William S. Hart knew exactly what he wanted done with the museum and park left in his name in Newhall. His will even stated the wording he wanted on a sign at the park entrance: "This park has been dedicated by WILLIAM S. HART for the benefit of the American public of every race and creed."
The will also declared that Los Angeles County, upon acceptance of this gift of his property, pave certain roads, build public washrooms, maintain the artifacts in the house, and plant trees and shrubs. It was forbidden to drill for oil or gas, charge admission fees or sell souvenirs on the premises.
The resulting adobe museum-house is a peaceful, gracious and beautifully kept setting in which to view his Mission- and Spanish-style furnishings, native American artifacts and clothing, gun collection, movie and stage mementos and Charles Russell paintings of Old West scenes.
Some of the provisions of the will have proved trying to the county Museum of Natural History, which is in charge of the museum. "It makes it tough that we can't charge fees," said county museum deputy director Mark Rodriguez. "The money he left to take care of the property may have seemed adequate at the time, but it is woefully inadequate by today's standards."
Hart left a $150,000 endowment and directed that the museum pay its bills with the yearly interest, which amounts to about $20,000. But the annual budget, just to take care of the collection and prepare visitor programs, is itself $150,000. The county and private fund-raising efforts make up the balance of the museum's operating funds.
The Merle Norman Classic Beauty Collection museum in Sylmar was opened in 1972 by J. B. Nethercutt, chief operating officer of the Merle Norman cosmetic company. The "Tower of Beauty" or "San Sylmar," as the museum is called in some of its promotional materials, has nothing do with the company's products or with the late Merle Norman, who started the company out of her Santa Monica kitchen, where she mixed cosmetics on her stove.
Nethercutt, Norman's nephew who worked with her in building the company that has more than 2,000 cosmetic stores nationwide, is a car buff who has been collecting and restoring antique automobiles since the early 1950s. The Tower is primarily a showcase for almost 200 of his classic cars, including rare examples by Duesenberg, Rolls-Royce, Bugatti, Bentley, Victoria, Isotta Fraschini, Packard, Pierce Arrow and Tucker. All of the automobiles are in vintage condition and running order, and some are prize winners. Nethercutt has won the Best of Show award at the prestigious Concours d'Elegance car show in Pebble Beach a record number of times.
Also in the Tower are his collections of hood ornaments, antique furniture and music boxes, some of which are so large they can emulate several instruments.
"Mr. Nethercutt is a very generous man and he wanted the cars to be in a place where he could share them with people," said Dick Nolind, executive vice president of Merle Norman. "He didn't want to just keep them to himself."
The museum is underwritten by Nethercutt. Visitors who tour the museum by reservation at the rate of 400 to 500 a week are admitted free of charge.
The press has not been entirely kind to the museum, suggesting at times that the collection and its environs are more kitschy than beautiful. Critics have taken the museum to task for its building--a plain, almost windowless brown bunker--and its columned interior that is closer in sensibility to Caesars Palace than to the grand salons of Europe that it strives to emulate.
Matters are not helped by Nethercutt's habit of giving the spectacular cars cutesy names on their personalized license plates and the grand prose of the museum's press releases, one of which reads, "What Napoleon did with the Louvre, Merle Norman Cosmetics has done with its Classic Beauty Collection at San Sylmar."
Nolind, who would not disclose what it costs Nethercutt to operate the museum, said criticisms have been unfair. "It bothers me that these things are said about Mr. Nethercutt, who gives so much. Some people take a view that I think is nearly grotesque."
Nethercutt, who is semi-retired, does not give interviews, according to the company's press office.
The Museum of Flying in Santa Monica has grown from a tiny exhibit meant to honor aviation pioneer Donald Douglas into a bustling, highly visible operation that is striving to adopt the fund-raising and promotional techniques of modern museums. It may have started out as a kind of vanity museum, but it can no longer rely on subsidy or the largess of a single donor for its operating funds.
It was born in the wake of the demolition of the McDonnell Douglas plant near Santa Monica Airport in the mid-1970s. Donald Douglas Jr. did not want the area to be devoid of reminders of what his father had built more than six decades ago. "My father brought aviation to Santa Monica," Douglas said. "He brought Santa Monica in the world."
Douglas salvaged furniture and many of his father's personal effects from the plant and he was given space at the Evening Outlook newspaper building in 1975 to put them and his own mementos on display. Later the exhibit moved to a cramped building and a hanger near the airport where some of the classic DC airplanes designed by the Douglas company were displayed.
Few people knew about what was then called the Donald Douglas Museum and Library, but the elder Douglas did visit a few times. "He was thrilled," his son said. "He didn't have anything to do with starting it. He didn't have that kind of an ego. But he was so pleased to see some of his heritage being preserved."
Douglas Sr. died in 1981.
About two years later, golf course and real estate developer David Price, who also collected antique airplanes, came to see Douglas Jr. "He asked if I would like him to build a bigger building for the museum. My exact words were, 'With whose money?' He said, 'With mine,' and I said, 'I sure do.' "
Price housed the museum in a high-tech, $13-million complex at the airport that also includes the fashionable DC-3 restaurant.
The multistory, light-filled museum opened this year to display vintage Douglas airplanes, including one of the famed World Cruisers that took off from Santa Monica to circle the globe in the 1920s. There are also tributes in photographs, displays and film clips to vintage Douglas aircraft and on one floor his office has been re-created. But the museum also displays aircraft designed at several other companies.
Museum officials knew that they would have trouble raising funds for a museum dedicated solely to the accomplishments of one man or company. The name was changed to show that the museum was dedicated to the history of manned flight.
A major fund-raising campaign has been started to support the museum. Douglas said his family cannot be the sole or even major underwriter. "People think we are wealthy because of the name," said Douglas, who was president of the company his father started until a 1967 merger made it McDonnell Douglas. "But we don't have what people think we have. We supported it for 15 years and can't really do anything else right now."
The recently appointed director of the museum, former test pilot Don Madonna, said one of his first goals is to increase attendance. "The admission fees we get are minuscule, which is one of the reasons we operate in the red right now," he said. "We want to build up this museum to the point where it is thought of like Disneyland and the Universal tour, something people who come to town absolutely must see."
In addition to meeting the museum's $700,000 annual operating budget, he wants to raise enough money to establish a new wing with interactive displays concerning the history of flight. Madonna knows that his task is not an easy one.
"It's not as dangerous as being a test pilot," he said with a laugh. "But I think the flack is more severe."
The latest one-man museum is being developed with a healthy dose of the controversy that often comes with this type of institution. Under construction in Westwood is the Armand Hammer Museum and Cultural Center that will reportedly cost about $80 million to build and endow. It is scheduled to open in November, 1990.
The origins of the Hammer project lie in a bitter argument that the 91-year-old industrialist had with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art over how his collection, which had long been expected to go to the art museum, would be displayed. Hammer subsequently announced plans to build a museum that would be independent of any other art institution.
But that was not the end of the controversy. Last month, a pension plan that owns 2.4 million shares of Occidental Petroleum, the company that Hammer founded, filed a court action claiming that company funds were improperly used to assemble Hammer's collection and build the museum.
Shareholders have asked the court to force Hammer to turn over a large portion of the collection and order the sale of the museum.