Art museums weren't the first priority for disaster relief on Jan. 17 when an earthquake devastated Kobe, Japan. At least one showcase, the Otani Memorial Museum in suburban Kobe, was temporarily turned into a shelter for 300 people who lost their homes, and many city employees who normally work in Kobe's museums were dispatched to do quake-related duties in other locations. But now cultural institutions are getting attention, with the help of two American conservators.
"In light of so much human misery, art has taken a back seat, but when some degree of normality returns, the people will want their museums back," said Jerry Podany, the J. Paul Getty Museum's antiquities conservator, who traveled to Kobe in early February with Barbara Roberts, a decorative arts conservator who worked for the Getty during the 1980s and now has a private practice in Seattle.
The two specialists, who have extensive experience in protecting artworks from earthquakes and other natural disasters, were invited to Kobe by the Japanese Ministry of Culture as consultants on Western art. The team visited the Otani Memorial Museum, the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, the Kobe Municipal Museum and a private facility.
Although museum problems were minor when compared with buildings that had been reduced to rubble, the conservators were shocked by what they found. "The amount of vertical lift and the displacement of buildings was most surprising," Roberts said. "Whole structures moved up and down, and side to side--north, south, east and west."
The museums benefited a lot from "fate," Podany said, noting that several large galleries happened to be empty during the quake. Most of the damage to artworks is reparable, he said, but it could have been prevented. Although Japanese conservators were aware of measures that have been successfully used by the Getty to mitigate earthquake damage, Kobe museums--like institutions in seismic areas in many other countries--had not implemented those methods.
Nonetheless, the visiting conservators were impressed with their Japanese colleagues' efforts. "I have enormous admiration for the staff who really did an extraordinary job of evacuating the objects they could reach when they were under stress," Roberts said.
The visit formed the groundwork for valuable international relationships, according to the conservators. "We've gone from having no communication with the Japanese to a flurry of communication, which should have long-term benefits," Podany said.
One immediate result is that Japanese conservators are linking up with their foreign colleagues on the Internet. In addition, preliminary plans are in the works to organize a larger meeting between Japanese conservators and their American counterparts who have done seismic work.
"We have the same problems and we both live in high-tech societies," Podany said. "If we can get it together, collaboration can make a big difference."
TRIBUTES TO SAM: Current exhibitions at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center and the Manny Silverman Gallery have launched a round of tributes to the late Sam Francis, the internationally renowned, Los Angeles-based painter who died last November. UCLA/Hammer is showing "Constellations of Light and Dark: Black on White Works on Paper (1947-1954)," through April 2. The exhibition of 21 ink or gouache paintings on paper will subsequently travel to museums in Germany and Denmark. Silverman's show, through April 15, features works on paper and canvas from 1956-1986, accompanied by a film on Francis and a display of his brushes, shoes and memorabilia.
"Sam Francis: The Last Works" is scheduled for May 25-Sept. 17 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Curator Howard Fox is organizing the show of more than 150 small paintings. They were created during the final months of the artist's life and will be arranged as they were in his studio.
All these exhibitions lead up to a major retrospective of Francis' work, planned for early 1998 at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. William C. Agee, professor of art history at Hunter College in New York, is guest curator.
In addition, the Jeu de Paume, a museum of contemporary art in Paris, has announced an exhibition of works made by Francis during his Parisian sojourns, Dec. 11-Feb. 18, 1996.
SILVER ANNIVERSARY: The Watts Towers Arts Center is celebrating its 25th anniversary with "Homecoming," an exhibition of works by 31 artists who have served as directors, instructors, part-time staff, muralists and program consultants at the center since it opened in 1970. Former directors Noah Purifoy, Curtis Tann and John Outterbridge will be represented along with such artists as Dan Conchalar, Alonzo Davis, Betye Saar, and Richard Wyatt. The show runs through April 30.