LACMA Acquires Islamic Art

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a move that adds significantly to its diversity and stature, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has landed a renowned collection of Islamic art that it has been seeking for several years.

The acquisition of about 775 objects--to be announced this morning at a news conference--effectively doubles the museum's already notable Islamic collection and catapults the Wilshire Boulevard institution into a league with the world's 10 best places to see historic Islamic art.

The collection of decorative arts, architectural ornaments and calligraphy was built over nearly 40 years by Maan Madina, a Syria-born professor emeritus of Middle Eastern languages at Columbia University. He sold the bulk of his collection to the museum at an undisclosed price and donated a few additional pieces.

Most of the funds were provided by Camilla Chandler Frost, a longtime LACMA trustee who is the sister of Otis Chandler, former publisher of The Times. According to a scholar familiar with the Madina materials, the collection, which dates from the 7th century to the 19th century, is worth in the range of $15 million.

"The acquisition of this collection, which illustrates the richness and diversity of the Islamic culture, is particularly appropriate at this juncture in our history, but we didn't plan that," said Andrea L. Rich, president and director of the museum. "We were motivated by the strength of the collection and the opportunity to acquire it."

Discussions between the museum and Madina have gone on for several years, Rich said, and he had already lent some of the objects to the museum for display starting in 1996. They reached a preliminary agreement several months ago, when Frost decided to underwrite the purchase.

Oleg Grabar, a leading authority on Islamic art who is a professor emeritus at Harvard and Princeton universities, said that snagging the Madina collection is a "a major coup, especially for the West Coast. The East Coast has very remarkable collections in the field. But on the West Coast, LACMA is the only museum that had something significant, and now this makes it major."

With the new addition, LACMA's Islamic holding ranks third nationally, according to Linda Komaroff, the museum's curator of Islamic art. The collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York of 11,000 to 12,000 pieces is the largest in the country, while the Smithsonian Institution's Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries offer the finest selection of masterpieces, she said.

LACMA's acquisition also gives the museum world status in Islamic art, Komaroff said, albeit well behind the top collections, which are at the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

For LACMA, the significance of the Madina collection is more a matter of breadth and depth than numbers. The current collection of about 1,000 pieces, including many ceramic shards, mainly consists of Persian material. The new material--including 250 glazed ceramics and tiles, 65 textiles, 50 glass objects and 50 examples of calligraphy--will allow the museum to present a much more comprehensive picture.

"The strength of this new collection is from Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Spain," Komaroff said. "The Persian material, including tiles, a book binding and a wood finial, are things we don't have. It's kind of serendipitous that the two collections fit together so well; they make one really great collection."

Among the highlights are a hexagonal, glazed ceramic table made in Syria during the late 12th century or early 13th century; a glass lamp created during the same period in the eastern Mediterranean region; and a double page from a parchment manuscript of the Koran, made in Spain in the 13th century. Stylized floral designs proliferate on vividly colored tile works.

Islamic art might be expected to be exclusively religious, but at least 75% of the pieces in LACMA's collection are secular, Komaroff said.

"They are objects of daily use. You don't have to understand the religion to appreciate them. Islamic art is perhaps the most accessible manifestation of a complex civilization."

Complicated objects, such as a star-shaped mosaic made of glazed tiles, cut and fitted into a pattern, offer insight into the craftsmanship and intellectual traditions of the decorative arts, she said.

"When you see something that is beautiful and meant to be touched, it makes you relate a little better to whomever that work of art was made for."

Madina, who was born in Syria in 1926 and came to the United States to do graduate work at the University of Chicago in 1947, could not be reached for comment. In a statement released by the museum, Madina said he is "delighted at the acquisition of my collection in its entirety by a museum that already has substantial holdings of Islamic art complementary to mine."

Thirty-one pieces from his collection are on view in the museum's galleries of Islamic art, including some that have been previously displayed as anonymous loans. An additional 25 or 30 examples will be installed over the next few months. Plans for an exhibition drawn exclusively from the collection are in the works, Komaroff said.

The acquisition announcement comes as the museum is beginning fund-raising for a new building, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, that would replace four of the six existing LACMA structures. It provides for expanded exhibition space for the permanent collection, which will be arranged according to a global view of artistic achievements, with the Madina collection falling under the umbrella of Asian art.

LACMA made its first major commitment to Islamic art in 1973, with the acquisition of about 650 objects from the collection of New York dealer Nasli M. Heeramaneck, as a gift of LACMA benefactor Joan Palevsky. A group of ancient bronzes, ceramics and seals, purchased with funds from the Ahmanson Foundation, and gifts from individuals have enhanced the Islamic holdings over time.

Camilla Chandler Frost said her interest in the field has been reinforced by studies connected to her travels to Turkey, the Arabian Gulf countries and Iran. As for the Madina collection, "It's one of the great private collections in America and, thus, a rare opportunity for LACMA to build on its strength," she said. "I felt that it was so special, we had to make an effort to acquire it."

Rich said the acquisition is the third step in a strategic plan to upgrade the museum's encyclopedic collection. In an effort spearheaded by the board of trustees' collections committee six years ago, curators filed reports outlining "areas where we could and should fill in, and areas where there were opportunities to do really significant things," she said.

That led to targeting three areas that needed bolstering: Latin American, Korean and Islamic art, Rich said. The museum acquired the Bernard and Edith Lewin collection of more than 1,800 paintings and works on paper by Latin American modernists in 1997. The Robert W. Moore collection of Korean art--consisting of 250 works that range from ceramics and textiles to paintings and spanning 2,000 years--was added in 1999.

The Madina collection fulfills the mandate for Islamic art, but other challenges lie ahead, Rich said. At the time the reports were made, the museum was looking for new leadership in the departments of American art, decorative art and prints and drawings.

"We now have new, vibrant, active curators in those departments," Rich said. "They will be doing the same kind of analysis and we will set our sights for the areas that will really help us."

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