LACMA’s loss is the Huntington’s gain: Ahmanson Foundation to fund art purchases in San Marino

A painting of a waterfall through cliffs
Thomas Cole’sPortage Falls on the Genesee” (1839) is the inaugural acquisition to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens’ permanent collection, to come out of a new partnership between the museum and the Ahmanson Foundation.
(From the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.)

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens announced on Monday a major acquisitions partnership with the Ahmanson Foundation, which will fund the purchase of important European and American works of art, the Huntington said.

In an interview, Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence wouldn’t reveal a dollar amount for the funding, which the museum called “significant.” She did say that over 45 years, the Ahmanson Foundation has given the Huntington “almost $30 million, ballpark,” toward the institution’s art galleries, library and gardens.

“The agreement is ongoing,” Lawrence said, “and it’s for the Ahmanson to help the Huntington acquire historic masterpieces. So it’s about the quality of the paintings and what they’ll add to the Huntington’s collections, complementing and supplementing our collections.”


The Huntington has already acquired one work with funds from the new partnership: Thomas Cole’s 19th-century masterwork “Portage Falls on the Genesee.” The grand, 7-foot-by-5-foot painting is the first work by Cole in the museum’s collection.

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Last year the Ahmanson Foundation quite publicly ended its longtime partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it had been the largest donor of European Old Master paintings and sculptures. The Ahmanson was dissatisfied with how LACMA Director Michael Govan is reformatting the museum — particularly how the new, Peter Zumthor-designed building under construction won’t permanently display key works from the museum’s encyclopedic art collection.

The Ahmanson’s gift program paid for 114 paintings and 15 sculptures at LACMA. The Ahmanson also underwrote LACMA’s purchase of a signature work: Georges de La Tour’s painting “The Magdalen With the Smoking Flame” (circa 1635-37).

The Ahmanson has supported the Huntington since 1976. Ahmanson funding has gone toward the Huntington’s $10.3-million, 5,000-square-foot expansion of its Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, which debuted in 2016, as well as to the construction of its Chinese Garden, Liu Fang Yuan (the Garden of Flowing Fragrance). The final $24-million-plus phase of the Chinese Garden debuted in fall 2020.

The new Ahmanson partnership, Lawrence said, aims to diversify the collection with more important works by women and artists of color.


“To bring new voices, new interpretations, art pieces and collections that we haven’t had but that build on our historic collections,” Lawrence said, adding that since 2019 the Huntington has acquired Alice Mary Chambers’ “Portrait of a Young Woman” (circa 1880s) and Romare Bearden’s “Blue Monday” (1969). “But the truth is, we’ve been limited in our budget for acquisitions. We’ve really relied, at the Huntington, on the generosity of our donors. Much of our [art] collection comes from gifts and bequests. We are making an absolute effort, now, to add artists of color and women.”

Why, then, is the program’s inaugural acquisition a work by a white landscape painter?

Another goal of the partnership, Lawrence said, is to acquire works that enhance connections between the Huntington’s galleries, library and gardens.

“This is an incredible, epic painting which relates directly to environmentalism. It’s a commentary on the conflict between nature and creeping industrial development,” Lawrence said. “It also relates to our library holdings regarding the Civil War — [William H.] Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, was an owner of the painting — and it relates to other paintings in the collection from the Hudson River School.”

“Portage Falls on the Genesee” will go on view at the Huntington on Nov. 20.

Ahmanson Foundation President William H. Ahmanson said in the announcement that the organization was confident it could “make a meaningful, positive difference, helping the Huntington advance its vision by adding works of the highest quality and relevance to its galleries, where they can be seen by millions for generations to come.”

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