The fate of Norton Simon’s art collection is the most brightly burning issue in Southern California’s art scene. Will his $750-million collection of European and Asian art stay in Pasadena in the building that bears his name? Will the museum merge with the J. Paul Getty Museum? Will Simon donate the collection to other museums? Or will he sell the whole thing in the art auction of the century?
All of these possibilities flare up at one time or another, ignited by Simon himself or by yet another rumor. A consummate businessman with a quixotic personality, Simon wouldn’t be Simon if he weren’t negotiating with someone somewhere. He has been courted by dozens of museums and several cities during 35 years of collecting, and he has dashed the hopes of as many suitors.
In recent years, his close ties to the J. Paul Getty Museum and a short-lived offer in 1987 to donate his collection to UCLA have fueled speculation that Simon--who is 83 and disabled by a neurological disorder called Guillain Barre--is seeking another museum to take charge of his vast collection. Meanwhile, a wildly escalating art market has sparked fear that Simon might decide to cash in at auction. Roughly valued at $750 million, his collection of about 12,000 artworks might bring close to $1 billion if shrewdly marketed at a peak moment.
The stakes are enormous for Los Angeles, which has lost great collections in the past and is only now shaping up as what is seriously considered a “world-class art center.” Simon’s collection represents more than 2,000 years of European and Asian art, while boasting such masterpieces as Raphael’s “Madonna and Child With a Book,” Lucas Cranach’s “Adam” and “Eve,” Francisco de Zurbaran’s “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose” and Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Portrait of the Artist’s Son, Titus.”
Among the collection’s strengths are distinguished paintings by pre-Renaissance and Renaissance artists, Old Masters, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists; an extensive assembly of South Asian sculpture; monumental bronzes by Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore; bronze modeles of ballet dancers and related works on paper by Edgar Degas; major suites of prints by Rembrandt, Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso, and the Galka Scheyer collection of art by the Blue Four group.
No less an authority than John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, calls Simon “the best collector of our time.” Simon is widely credited with assembling the finest art collection in the country after World War II and with owning the most distinguished group of European paintings west of Chicago. Even those who have bitterly criticized Simon’s 1974 takeover of the Pasadena Art Museum concede that his collection has added luster to Southern California’s cultural life. To disturb such a great good thing could be troubling; to lose it would be a tragedy.
So far this drama has been played out in the press while Simon has maintained a conspicuous silence. But now he has revealed his intentions--insofar as a fiercely independent, consistently unpredictable man is willing or able. In his first extensive interview in more than a decade, Simon talked at length about his plans for the museum and his life as a collector. The four-hour interview touched on a wide range of issues. (See Page 93.)
“We’d like to keep the museum as it is, but we should be open-minded about it,” Simon said, making an initial, equivocal pass at dealing with a query about the fate of his collection. But as the conversation evolved, he returned to that issue repeatedly, each time taking a little more steam out of rumors and building confidence that he is putting his energy into keeping the museum right where it is, under Simon-designed management.
The Getty is out of the picture for now, he said, although the two museums have a close relationship. They have jointly purchased important artworks by Edgar Degas and Nicholas Poussin; Simon’s wife, Jennifer Jones Simon, serves on the Getty’s board of trustees, and Harold Williams, head of the J. Paul Getty Trust, is a longtime Simon associate.
“Harold Williams worked for me for a long time and we got to know each other very well. We have had talks to see how they (the two museums) would fit. But at this time, there is no desire on my part or on the part of the Getty to merge. We have not found a basis for merging that would make sense to both the Getty and ourselves,” Simon said.
“Our desire is to keep going on our own, if we can, and we really think we can. I have a lot of faith in my wife, my board and our people, and the people of the United States who have supported the museum,” he said.
As for selling his collection, Simon revealed that he had given the idea serious consideration. “For awhile I thought it might be better to get the dollars and put them into your foundation,” he remarked to his wife, who joined him in the interview in their bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
“But you didn’t, and I’m glad you didn’t,” said Jennifer Jones Simon, a former actress whose foundation benefits mental health programs. “You have put so much passion and love and energy into your collection, selling it or giving it up would be too sad.” While Norton Simon’s philosophical bent rules out nothing, his wife stated that the collection absolutely will not go on the auction block. A Simon associate who requested anonymity concurred, saying, “That will never happen.”
How large an endowment would be required to maintain the museum in perpetuity?
“I don’t know,” Simon said, with the exasperated air of a man who knows, right down to the last penny, but isn’t about to tell the press. The museum’s operating budget for the 1988-1989 fiscal year was about $2 million, according to official tax records. Revenue, also totaling about $2 million, included $779,762 from dividends and interest from securities, $457,463 in contributions and grants, and $312,404 in museum admission and tour fees.
The building, listed on tax forms as a $3.2-million asset (depreciated from $5.7 million), is owned by the board of trustees, and stands on land leased from the City of Pasadena for $1 a year. The 75-year lease runs out in 2050, but Simon said the city is eager to keep the museum and has even offered to donate the property.
Some sources have suggested that a $20-million endowment might be sufficient to maintain the museum. Others speculate that it might take twice that, but long-range projections can be tricky. Museums that once appeared to be generously endowed, such as the Huntington Library in San Marino, have been overwhelmed by inflation. The Simon museum has a significant source of income, however, in a six-acre property adjacent to the museum site.
“We could sell the property or develop it,” Simon said. Automobile agencies currently lease a sprawling, one-story building on the land at the corner of St. John Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, but Simon envisions a multistory structure that would incorporate parking and upper-floor office space for the museum with lower floors rented. He also has in mind an attractive complex that would include a luxuriant sculpture garden contiguous with the museum grounds. “I’m not talking about the tallest building in Los Angeles,” he said, but he is looking for maximum income. One proposal for a two-story complex was rejected because it was too modest, he said.
These arrangements, which are only in talking stages, are necessary for the future care and feeding of a collection that Simon has built with great flair. Simon has collected art so long and so energetically that it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t born to the job or even conventionally trained for it. His actual development is a quite different story.
Born for Business
Norton Winfred Simon was born on Feb. 5, 1907, in Portland, Ore., and spent his teen-age years in San Francisco. Endowed with a photographic memory and the ability to calculate figures in his head at lightning speed, he was a natural at business and attended college for only six weeks. One of the most frequently told stories about Simon’s youthful financial skills is that he put $3,000 into the stock market and emerged from the crash of 1929 with $35,000.
In 1931 he made a critical move that would lead to his Hunt Foods & Industries empire, the major source of his wealth. Investing $7,000 in a bankrupt orange juice bottling plant in Fullerton, Simon parlayed it into a wildly successful venture. Within 10 years, sales rose from $43,000 to $9 million.
Simon began buying stock in Hunt Brothers Packing Co. in San Francisco in 1941. Two years later he sold his company to Hunt for $3 million and used the money to increase his Hunt holdings until he owned 25% of the stock. Once he gained control of the company, he honed it into an efficient operation. By 1946, Hunt sales had risen from $14.5 million to $48.4 million. Sales soared to $102.5 million by 1956 and to $523.6 million in 1976.
He followed this pattern throughout the most intense period of his business-oriented life. Scouting for poorly managed companies whose stock was undervalued, he would quietly buy shares of stock until he had a large enough portion to demand a place on the board of directors.
Simon had earned his title as a self-made titan of American corporate business and industry, and he would earn a similar title when he turned his energies to art in the mid-1950s. “I don’t think I was very interested in art until we moved into a new home and a decorator started bringing pictures into the house,” he recalled. He didn’t like the pictures, so he went to galleries in Los Angeles and New York and soon bought three paintings-- by Pierre Bonnard, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Gauguin.
How did he decide what to buy?
“I had a lot of business experience. I knew a few questions to ask and I read a lot. The fact that I started rather late in life may have been a help because of the broad knowledge I got in living,” he said. Though he has served on the boards of Reed College and UCLA and supported educational programs, Simon has little patience with the hidebound aspects of academia. He wouldn’t trade what he calls his “life experience and business experience” for the “academic experience” of most people in the museum field.
Simon was a novice in the halls of art, but not for long. Now acclaimed for having a great eye and well known for picking the best brains but making his own decisions, Simon began to seek advice from art historians and to devour art books. His first decade of collecting was relatively quiet, but his business moves were characteristically shrewd. Setting a pattern that holds to this day, he established the first of several tax-exempt foundations to buy art for public display. He didn’t have a museum, so he created a “museum without walls” that loaned works from the foundation’s collection.
In a stunning move in 1964, still talked about in art circles, Simon bought the entire inventory of Duveen Brothers Inc. in New York for $15 million. The sale included 146 Old Master paintings and sculpture, porcelain, tapestries and furniture assembled by legendary dealer Joseph Duveen, plus a 12,000-volume art library.
In another coup, the following year, he purchased “Titus,” Rembrandt’s portrait of his son, for $2.2 million at Christie’s London. The sale was big news because the price was second only to the $2.3 million paid in 1961 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for another Rembrandt, “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.” But the more interesting story--and one that has become a favorite art world anecdote--is that Simon almost got aced out of the sale by his own secretive style.
He had submitted a letter to the auction house, directing that he would be bidding on “Titus” as long as he was sitting down. If he stood up, he had stopped bidding. The auctioneer apparently misunderstood and sold the painting to Marlborough Fine Arts for $2.18 million. Simon reportedly shouted that he had not finished bidding and brandished a copy of his letter. After the confusion died down, the auctioneer reopened the sale and Simon made his winning bid.
Simon’s purchases have made the news since the mid-'60s. He bought an Edgar Degas gouache and pastel, “Repetition de Ballet” in 1965 for a reportedly “breathtaking” $410,000. In a highly publicized London auction of the Robert von Hirsch collection, in 1978, Simon paid $923,500--the auction’s top price--for “The Branchini Madonna,” the central panel of an altarpiece by 15th-Century Italian master Giovanni di Paolo.
Simon’s foundations have spent millions of dollars a year on art for the museum and Simon has made tax-deductible contributions of art to the foundations. In 1976, one foundation spent $1.7 million on art and received $5.6 million in gifts of art from Simon. The following year, the foundation bought $5 million worth of art and Simon donated $3.3 million worth.
While earning a reputation as one of the world’s major acquisitors, Simon has also sold enough art to stock an entire museum. A 1973 auction of 47 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, for example, brought a total of $6.8 million, a record for a painting auction at the time.
Constantly revising, reshaping and upgrading his collection, Simon has consistently sold art at a profit. In 1980, one of Simon’s foundations sold $5.3 million worth of art, $3.8 million more than its total purchase price. In 1982, the foundation unloaded $15 million worth, at a gain of $11.4 million. Simon has sold at auction, to dealers and to such private clients as Ivan Boesky, who in 1979 bought a sculpture by Aristide Maillol for $350,000. The piece cost Simon $90,000 in 1970.
“He buys low and sells dear, something we all try to do,” said J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Does Simon regret any of these sales?
“I’d have to look at what I did with the money to answer that. I usually sold to buy something else, and you have to measure what you get against what you paid for it,” he said.
Library for Fullerton
While all this commerce was going on, Simon became a cultural patriarch in Los Angeles and Fullerton, the home of Hunt Food & Industries. He built a $485,000 library on Hunt land and, in 1962, donated it to the City of Fullerton. Simon stocked the library with paintings and outdoor sculpture, and donated a $5,800 collection of art books the following year. Hoping to extend the complex, he approached the Fullerton City Council in the spring of 1964 with an offer to donate at least $500,000 for a museum. The city agreed to donate land just east of the library for the museum, but the plan broke down because of inadequate parking.
Simon suggested using a parcel of nearby Fullerton Elementary School District property for parking and offered to advance funds to buy land for an exchange. He also purchased a dozen houses and cleared land for an entrance to the museum, but the project got bogged down in negotiations for the proposed land swap. After 2 1/2 years of delays, Simon withdrew his museum offer and said he would spend the money he had set aside for the museum to acquire artworks. Other Orange County cities indicated that they might be more appreciative of Simon’s efforts, but he stuck to his new plan, spending $2.4 million on art in 1967 and $4.7 million in 1968.
By 1969 he had withdrawn from Hunt management and moved his offices to Los Angeles, where he was already deeply involved with the County Museum of Art. As early as 1957 he had worked with Richard F. Brown, then curator of art at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park, to separate art from that complex and build a new museum for art. LACMA opened in 1965 on Wilshire Boulevard with Brown as director and a marble plaque stating that he and Simon were responsible for the conception of the museum. The inaugural display included about $32 million worth of art; 100 works valued at $15 million were on loan from Simon.
Many cultural mavens hoped--even assumed--that Simon’s art would eventually belong to the county museum. A Time magazine cover story on Simon, shortly after he bought Rembrandt’s “Titus,” said that LACMA would be the painting’s “permanent home.” The painting was exhibited there, in what amounted to a media event, but it now holds a commanding position in Pasadena. Simon’s relationship with the county museum soured, reportedly over conflicts with other board members, quarrels about the museum’s architecture and competition among major donors. Today Simon recalls a museum with “too many bosses” who failed to give Brown “enough authority” to do a good job. Brown resigned and became director of the Kimball Art Museum in Ft. Worth.
Simon removed some of his art from the museum in 1965, then loaned two groups of work in 1968 in a move that was viewed as a rapprochement. Getting the Simon collection “would be the greatest thing that ever happened to the museum and to Los Angeles,” LACMA director Kenneth Donahue said at the time. But it wasn’t to be. Simon resigned from the board in 1971 and established his own museum three years later. In the interim, he loaned large groups of art to Princeton University, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and other museums--all of which entertained hopes of Simon gifts.
This was a turbulent period in Simon’s life, rocked by the suicide, in 1969, of his 31-year-old son, Robert Ellis Simon. Simon lost a race for the U.S. Senate to Republican Sen. George Murphy in 1970, after staging a $2-million campaign for a capitalistic approach to government. Later that year he was divorced from Lucille Ellis Simon, his wife of 37 years.
In the spring of 1971, a mutual friend set up a blind date between Simon and Jennifer Jones. They were married a month later. The pair shared an interest in social causes. Jennifer Jones Simon had no formal art background, but she is credited with initiating Norton Simon’s pursuit of Asian art and she has played star roles in auctions. In one classic mix-up she bid against a mysterious man on a telephone who turned out to be her husband. They discovered their mistake in time to drop out of the competition. There was no such confusion in a 1980 auction in London, when she bid more than $3 million for “Resurrection of Christ” by 15th-Century Flemish master Dieric Bouts and he took over by telephone, finally snagging the painting for $4.25 million. Jennifer Jones Simon now serves as president of the museum, a post that Simon resigned last year when his health took a turn for the worse.
Confined to a Wheelchair
Now confined to a wheelchair, Simon still directs a museum that was born amid raging controversy. He was first approached for financial assistance in 1971 by trustees of the Pasadena Art Museum, which had opened in 1969 to great critical success but was already deeply in debt. Various bail-out proposals were discussed, but they didn’t reach an agreement until 1974.
Simon finally proposed a five-year plan that was accepted. He took over an $850,000 loan on the building and other financial obligations, including a $1 million accumulated operating deficit, in return for using 75% of the gallery space for his collection. The remainder was used to display the Pasadena museum’s contemporary collection. A new 10-member board of trustees was formed, consisting of four members from Simon’s group, three from the Pasadena museum board and three public members nominated by Simon.
He gained a home for his collection in a climate of increasing acrimony. Supporters of the failed museum, some of whom had donated artworks and didn’t want them to go to Simon, viewed him as a villainous savior. He kept his promise to show contemporary art for five years, but it became increasingly clear that the man who paid the bills was in charge. If any doubt remained, it disappeared in 1978 when he changed the museum’s name to the Norton Simon Museum.
The holdover board members, Robert Rowan, Alfred Esberg and Gifford Phillips, resigned that year, saying they were concerned about the collection and Simon’s refusal to loan contemporary works. Discovering that he intended to sell some contemporary pieces at auction in 1980, the former trustees brought a civil suit against the museum. They charged Simon with cannibalizing the permanent collection and manipulating the museum’s assets for personal gain. He countered that the trustees had been irresponsible managers, noting that he had renovated the museum to the tune of $3.75 million, wiped out its debts and devoted more than 25% of museum space to contemporary art for the promised five years.
Simon was absolved of impropriety in handling museum’s collection in 1981, but only after the case had rekindled old resentments. Apparently stung by the litigation and negative publicity, he called Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco, and raised the possibility of moving his collection there.
Feinstein threw a dinner party for the Simons and flew to Pasadena for meetings. San Franciscans, thrilled with the news, tried to imagine where the collection would go and how the city could afford to maintain it. Meanwhile, Southern Californians were dismayed to learn that they might lose a second museum and a great collection. The affair turned out to be a summer sideshow that fizzled out in a few months, but Simon had made his point.
All was reasonably quiet on the Simon front until rumors of a Getty buy-out or merger began to fly. Then, on Feb. 20, 1987, UCLA announced an “agreement in principle” for Simon to give his collection to the university. The plan was to keep most of collection in Pasadena, administered by UCLA, the Simon board and the Norton Simon Foundation. The university was to build a separate museum facility on campus for part of the collection. But the announcement turned out to be premature. Negotiations were far from complete, and Simon withdrew his offer three months after the announcement was made.
Every move Simon makes sends up a flare in the art world. Two summers ago his unexpected long-term loan of contemporary art to the County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art raised questions about gifts of the work. Would he donate the art to an appropriate museum? “That’s possible, if I could figure out who the stars of today are,” he said. And if he could name the stars, would he give them away? “No, I would keep the stars,” he said.
In a reflective moment, Simon seems content to leave things as they are and enjoy his collection, which he fondly discusses in detail. He isn’t buying art now because the market is too “unsettled.” Besides, he said, “We have so many exceptional pictures. The question is, how far do you go?”
From Simon’s Perspective
While Norton Simon focuses much of his attention on his collection and museum in this interview, his thoughts go much further afield. An opinionated observer of the art scene at large, he aired his views on a variety of issues during a four-hour interview.
On censorship: “You have to keep in touch with your society. Otherwise, you don’t know who your dictators will be,” Simon said in commenting on the controversy over federal funding of art that some consider offensive. Art has dealt with sexual subjects for centuries, and fig leaves have gone on and off with the winds of morality, he noted. He added that legislation isn’t the answer. “Censorship should be in the eye of the beholder.”
On traveling shows: They’re bad for art, in Simon’s opinion. He loaned large groups of works from his collection in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, but now he rarely lets any of his treasures out of his museum--particularly the fragile Old Masters. This policy is often criticized, but Simon believes he’s doing the right thing for his collection. Some works have been damaged while on loan and in transit. “Old Masters shouldn’t be moved and banged up,” he said.
On the art market: “It’s unsettled and it will probably stay that way for awhile because of exposure” in the media, he said. But there are still good buys. “If I were starting over I would try Indian or Southeast Asian art. I think it has been overlooked,” he said.
On contemporary art: “There are painters who are damn good and painters who are damn bad, as it has always been, and there are a lot of them in the middle. There’s nothing to say that this isn’t a high point in American painting.”
On looking at art: “The best way to get to know a painting and love a painting is through frequent, casual contact.”
On national treasures: “The United States will have to develop policies more in line with those of European countries if it wants to prevent a flow of art out of the country.”
On the Rembrandt Research Group: “I think they are very arrogant,” he said of the Amsterdam-based team that recently concluded his Rembrandt self-portrait is actually the work of the Dutch master’s highly accomplished student, Carel Fabritius. “I can’t find any American scholars who agree with them. I’ve had 15, 18 or 20 people look at the self-portrait, so I feel pretty secure on it. If it is a Fabritius, it’s a very good one,” he said.
L.A. Times Researcher Dorothy Ingebretsen contributed to this story.