The Long View Toward the Far East

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

George Kuwayama arrived in Los Angeles in 1959 as a willing participant in an arranged marriage. "In those days, you didn't get a job, your professors got you a job. I didn't have anything to do with it," he said of his position as head of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's department of Far Eastern art.

The system was different then. Precious few curatorial positions existed and there was no point in applying for them. When an opening occurred, members of an old boys' club of museum directors and academics compared notes and found an appropriate body to fill it.

In the case of Kuwayama, they chose a scholar who was born and raised in New York and received his undergraduate education at Williams College, then did graduate work at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts and the University of Michigan. He had been a fellow at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington and moved on to the Palace Museum in Taiwan when Richard Brown, director of the Los Angeles County Museum's art division, invited him to Los Angeles.

"I had been a professional student for several years and I was ready for a job," Kuwayama said. So he moved to what was then a cultural backwater where the prime attraction was the possibility of growth. Although the institution he joined was at the time only a division of a general museum in Exposition Park, a campaign already had been launched to establish a separate art museum. When LACMA opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1965, Kuwayama was one of a few curators poised to build its collections and present exhibitions.

Kuwayama, 71, officially severed ties with LACMA last week, retiring after 37 years. Except for helping to orient his successor, J. Keith Wilson, former associate curator of Chinese Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, he'll be reading, writing, traveling and "sitting under a cork tree like Ferdinand the Bull and listening to the birds."

Reviewing his career during a conversation in his office at LACMA, Kuwayama tracked a period of dramatic changes--both for better and for worse. In terms of artworks, the museum's Far Eastern art collection has mushroomed from a core group of Chinese ceramics and a handful of Japanese objects to about 2,000 pieces including Far Eastern lacquers, ancient Chinese bronzes, Japanese prints, and Chinese and Korean paintings and ceramics.

Initially, Kuwayama was in charge of all the museum's collections of non-Western art. As they proliferated, additional departments were established and curators were hired to direct them. LACMA's acquisition of the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck collection of Indian, Tibetan and Nepalese art spawned a department of Indian and Southeast Asian art, which flourished under the leadership of Pratapaditya Pal, who retired from the museum last year.

Other collections have greatly enriched the museum's Far Eastern holdings: Ancient Chinese bronzes and funerary sculptures came from Eric Lidow, Japanese prints from Herbert R. Cole Felix and Helen Juda, Edo art from Etsuko and Joe Price, Japanese netsuke from Raymond and Frances Bushell.

In honor of Kuwayama's retirement, the museum's Far Eastern Art Council--a support group he founded in 1971--has purchased six leaves from a Chinese album on the Zhi Garden painted in 1627 by Zhang Hong. Along with four leaves donated to LACMA last November and two others acquired previously, the museum now owns 12 of the 20 leaves created for the album--and all that had been in private hands. The remaining eight belong to the Museum fur Ostasiatische Kunst in Berlin. An exhibition of the complete album is on view at LACMA through July 21.

Kuwayama is justly proud of his legacy, but he regrets leaving the museum without landing the Robert Moore collection of Korean art--which he has pursued for several years. Experts say the Los Angeles-based collection is the finest and most comprehensive holding of Korean art in private hands outside Asia. Acquiring it would transform LACMA's paltry Korean holding to the best outside the Far East.

The problem is money. A sum of $5 million is needed to purchase a core group of about 100 top works in the collection--a large amount for the hard-pressed public museum but not much in today's art market. "It's the cost of one good Impressionist painting," Kuwayama said with a sigh.

The issue isn't dead, and he hopes the collection will eventually come to the museum. The Korea Foundation is expected to provide $3 million to $5 million for a building or to refurbish galleries once the collection is purchased, he said. The foundation's funds cannot be used for art acquisitions, so he hopes museum supporters, Korean businesses and Los Angeles' Korean American community will help.

Kuwayama has good and bad news to report on the exhibition front as well. He has staged more than 80 exhibitions during his tenure and organized such shows as "Art Treasures of Japan" (1965), "Ancient Ritual Bronzes of China" (1976), "Japanese Ink Painting" (1985) and "Imperial Taste: Chinese Ceramics From the Percival David Foundation" (1989).

But he is leaving with a disappointment. He had planned "China in Mexico's Cultural Heritage: Chinese Ceramics in Mexico" as an adjunct to a traveling show, "Converging Cultures: Art and Identity in Spanish America," scheduled to open at LACMA on March 30, 1997. But the show has been canceled due to a shortage of funds, so he will simply publish his essay.

Kuwayama seems to take the museum's fluctuating fortunes in stride. With a perspective that few have gained, he speaks of his early days at LACMA as a time when the monetary value of artworks was relatively low, insurance and shipping fees were comparatively inexpensive and big shows of foreign treasures were affordable. In addition, "conservation as a field hadn't developed then, so there were fewer restrictions on travel and exhibitions," he said.

International social and political issues also played a part in determining the role of museums, he said. "In the 1950s and '60s, when America was the supreme superpower in terms of wealth and influence, it was very generous to countries that had been devastated by war or were just beginning to establish themselves. All these countries were eager to present their history and culture and to persuade the United States to look favorably upon them, so there were great exhibitions [to further that purpose]." Among them were shows from Pakistan, Mexico and Egypt.

"The museum has come a long way since then, reflecting the growth of Los Angeles as a city and a community," Kuwayama said.

Charting LACMA's development in decades, he called the 1960s and '70s "the golden age" because of the relatively free flow of foreign exhibitions. The 1980s brought a boom in construction, membership and attendance, but LACMA fell on hard times in the early '90s when a countywide fiscal crisis forced staff and budget cuts. Amid the retrenchment, the museum also endured a leadership vacuum, only recently resolved by the appointment of Andrea L. Rich as president and Graham Beal as director.

"The '90s have been the low point in the history of the museum, and there has been enormous erosion," Kuwayama said. But with new leadership and a recovering economy, he believes things are finally looking up. "I'm more optimistic than I was two years ago."

As the only major metropolitan museum with global art holdings in the entire Southwestern United States, "LACMA should have a first-rate collection in terms of artistic quality and it should be comprehensive enough to represent the highest artistic achievements of all the cultures with class-A objects," he said. "To acquire them and do proper research, we should have a staff that is preeminent." He'll be watching from the sidelines, with his fingers crossed. "The museum has enormous potential but faces major challenges to fulfill its destiny. I hope everyone is up to it," he said.

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