Giving Connoisseurship a Good Name : After 34 years, Robert Wark, the curator of the Huntington's art collection, is calling it a career, but you wouldn't call it retirement

Imagine "Masterpiece Theatre" getting the notion of doing one of its leisurely, humane series here in Lotusland. Somehow a city that only slows down for gummed-up freeways doesn't quite fit the bill. On the other hand, there are places hereabouts that do approximate the program's sense of the past existing in the present and chief among them is the Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino.

In this blessed Camelot anybody can bask in the illusion of being a character in "Brideshead Revisited" or a Henry James novel, strolling its rolling 200 acres of barbered grounds, browsing its famous library or standing in agreeable awe before masterpieces of British art like the affectionate favorites "The Blue Boy" and "Pinkie." Actually you can't see the boy at the moment as he's off the wall for some minor touch-ups.

Anybody can also wonder--as pleasant as this all is--if it is still culturally relevant in a city increasingly dominated by ethnic diversity and a cultural climate grown dubious of the hegemony of Anglo privilege. If anybody has the answer then it must be Robert Wark who has wandered the place and puttered its inner sanctums for decades as if it were his very own. He's just retired at 65 after 34 years as curator of the art collections and has witnessed every alteration visited on the Huntington by both history and changing times. He says the Huntington has not escaped the exigencies of the real world.

He thinks the most dramatic change has been in education. The major symbol of this is the big James Irvine Foundation orientation building which opened in 1981.

"When I first came here what we mainly did for the public was to open the doors at 1 o'clock and close them at 4:30. But we have become increasingly concerned with making our holdings interesting to the general public. We could do more.

"This place is based on a theme of Anglo-American civilization in an area more and more dominated by ethnic minorities who are not part of that or necessarily sympathetic to it. The Anglo-American axis was once axiomatic as a cultural standard; today the assumption that Anglo culture is automatically blessed is no longer accepted. All the more reason to reach out and help people understand it as a historical phenomenon. We need to show today's real world that this civilization was capable of aspiring to serenity, stability and peace."

He is troubled about the current controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts, calling it "a tragic business. If the government is to support the arts it should be without strings attached. But I'm more equivocal about it than some of my colleagues. Maybe expecting that degree of support from a government body is just too much to ask."

Wark retired officially Saturday covered with honors including a lecture series created in his name, an acquisitions fund and a ceremonial publication in his honor with laudatory essays by colleagues stretching from London's Tate Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum to the Yale's Paul Mellon Centre for British art. Former Huntington director James Thorpe said, "No one else has ever made such a profound and far-reaching contribution to the progress of art at the Huntington since the death of its founders."

It all adds up to the scholarly sphere's equivalent of an Academy Award for lifetime achievement. Of course it's not exactly the same thing and thank goodness. Oscars are for obvious fame. Wark's encomiums are for quiet dedication, careful work and the slow advance of human knowledge. If they have any symbolic dimension, they honor the virtues of dignity, self-effacement and real accomplishment. In his time, Wark has organized some 100 scholarly exhibitions, written a dozen books and catalogues and literally doubled the size of the art collection, loading in everything from decorative arts to study collections for a total of some 6,000 objects added to the holdings.

But on the eve of his retirement he had a black eye.

Wark strolled the Shakespeare garden the other day talking about his tenure. He was wryly witty, vaguely rumpled and unself-consciously elegant as usual, but under his half-glasses there was a noticeable shiner.

"I had a collision with a packing crate yesterday. There was something significant about it. It occured to me I hadn't had such a mishap since I first came here, ran into a crate and broke my toe. There is a certain symmetry in that as there was in connection with my first task of conservation, fixing some tiny spots on 'The Blue Boy.' At the time I was told it was a natural problem that would probably recur in about 30 years. Now it has and the painting is down again. A circle seems to have been closed."

He points out that his retirement, while quite real, will not involve him in much more that moving about 500 yards from his office in the still-new Virginia Steele Scott wing for American art to another office in the library building where he will be a senior research associate.

Wark came to the Huntington in 1956 with a joint appointment as curator and senior researcher. It was possible for him to pursue both tasks until the late '70s when a series of programs he politely calls "exhilarating" ate up more and more of his scholarly time, a minus factor in the idyllic column, an add to the harried real world quotient.

In 1979, the collection began to expand with a gift from the estate of Judge Lucius Peyton Green. It included a brace of French paintings that put the Huntington on the continental art map for the first time. Then came 50 American pictures from the Virginia Steele Scott foundation and a new pavilion to house them. At the moment, Wark is overseeing his final project--the permanent installation of a dining room by the legendary Pasadena craftsman-style architects Greene and Greene, plus a gallery of pictures from their collection done in collaboration with Randell Makinson, director of the Gamble house. It is slated to open in September.

In between, Wark was embroiled in what would certainly be the great crisis in a fiction-version of the Huntington--the disastrous fire of 1985 which singed irreplaceable pictures and kept the gallery closed for a year. The ever-gentlemanly Wark termed it "a blessing in disguise" because it precipitated a long-awaited cleaning of the collection. Wark praised assistance lent by the J. Paul Getty Museum's conservation team who came immediately to the rescue. They wound up applying their advanced research on earthquake-proofing art installations. "The Getty tells us we two are the best prepared in case of a temblor," said Wark proudly.

He has witnessed epochal change in Los Angeles' museum world.

"The Norton Simon collections are certainly the most dramatic. He was ambitious from the word go. Everyone said it was impossible to form a major collection in these times and he simply proved us wrong. It's a staggering achievement for one man.

"In some ways he and J. Paul Getty ran on parallel tracks. What Getty left forms an interesting contrast."

He would not characterize the higgledy-piggledy confusion of bad Roman sculpture and kitschy salon painting that Getty collected personally other than to say that, "Well, he was known to be interested in bargains.

"The future rests with that institution and they have splendid opportunities. It's an awesome responsibility to live in a fish bowl constantly scrutinized by the rest of the art world. I think they always try to act responsibly but it is true that witnessing that much power in the hands of a single institution is vaguely unsettling on the face of it."

He mused on how the Getty initially established its various institutes, educational and conservation programs because they assumed they would never be able to spend all their vast income on works of art. Now, with multimillion-dollar prices for art becoming commonplace, Wark sees the possibility of even the mighty Getty one day being shut out of the market.

"It seems to be the fate of all endowed institutions that operating expenses eventually catch up with income. In some ways the Huntington was the Getty of the 1920s. For a half-century it managed. I could buy things regularly for the first 10 years I was here. Sometimes I go and look at the prices on the old invoices when I want to cheer myself up.

"But by 1970, income no longer met the operating budget and now we are heading into a major development campaign led by our new director Robert Skotheim. I hope the campaign can achieve its ends without changing what people admire in the Huntington. It's a very special place. Its basic mission as a specialized research center gives it a scholarly direction others can't afford to indulge.

"Other institutions need blockbuster shows to keep people coming. Curators have no chance to do scholarship because they are too busy organizing special exhibitions. Our attendance stays steady at about a half-million a year. Curators ask me how we do it and I say we have a built-in blockbuster in the cactus garden alone. The total ambiance is more than the sum of its parts. It is a work of art in itself. You don't tinker lightly with the Huntington."

Wark was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 1924 when it was an attractive small city of 75,000. His father was a grain inspector and the family was more conscious of the ravages of the Depression than he realized at the time. Describing himself as a quiet child, he grew up loving music and still plays the piano, admitting that, "My personal artistic commitment leans more strongly to music than to art."

He attended the University of Alberta which turned out to be a classic provincial British college where professors taught in academic robes. "No one thought art history needed to be taught. It was the sort of thing a gentleman picked up on his own. I studied English literature and history."

He moved to Harvard for graduate study. At age 24, he had never seen a real art museum. One look a the university's fabled Fogg Museum and "I was bowled over. I knew instantly this was what I wanted to study."

The art history department was at a peak moment, crammed with legendary faculty members like the renowned connoisseur Jakob Rosenberg.

"I was greatly influenced by Wilhelm Koehler an expert in Carolingian miniatures. In those days, unlike now, the basic introductory course was taught by the most senior and eminent faculty member and Koehler taught that course. He could lecture for an hour on a single slide and told the teaching assistants that if they had more than three slides for a lecture it was an indication of being unprepared."

The Ph.D program was rigorously formal and so tough that Wark's class halved in size each semester for two years. "Art history is not taught like that anywhere anymore. In fact, it's been so long it is probably time for it to come back."

He mused on the state of present scholarship with its heavy emphasis on reading the social, political and economic significance of works of art.

"Of course it's not my dish of tea but I've lived long enough to see various forms of art-historical investigation come and go. Each one, as they pass along leaves behind something permanent and important. The Marxist approach leaves an awareness of social context. I was brought up with the feeling that art was self-contained and evolved internally so I was missing a lot that art could tell me about society. But I think a formalist approach still comes closest to the basic appeal of art and I'm troubled by an approach that leaves out the issue of quality. If you want to look at art for its socio-economic significance, ordinary artifacts are more revealing. The decorative arts closely reflect social reality while the fine artist tends to transcend his times."

Wark's Harvard mentors nagged him to give up his specialization in British art which was considered a minor genre, but he stuck to his convictions and the realization that if he wanted to work in this country, the Huntington was about his only option. When its then-director John Pomfret invited Wark to visit in 1955, he took one look and said, "This is it."

"I've never looked back despite some fairly handsome offers to move. I've had an incredibly happy career getting paid for doing what I most enjoy."

He's a self-confessed workaholic who never married. He's close to a surviving sister whom he visits in summer at a cabin on Pigeon Lake near Edmonton. He walks and hikes for recreation, going regularly to a piece of land he owns at the foot of Mt. Palomar.

"There's nothing on it but a magnificent oak tree and a stream. I plant things there. Sometimes I think I should have been a forest ranger."

Now back to scholarship, Wark plans to concentrate on finishing cataloguing the Huntington's British drawings.

"I've found 13,000 already and suspect there are two or three thousand more in books and folios in the library. As Kenneth Clark once said, I take more pleasure and satisfaction in adding one piece of factual knowledge than in all the interpretative writing in the world. Connoisseurship has a bad name now, but it does try to get the facts straight. When you find an accurate date for a drawing you add something concrete to history."

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