Steven Koblik, Huntington Library’s major domo

AT THE HELM: Steven S. Koblick, president of the Huntington Library, has guided the refurbishment of the collection down to the last detail.
AT THE HELM: Steven S. Koblick, president of the Huntington Library, has guided the refurbishment of the collection down to the last detail.
(Richard Hartog, Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

STEVEN S. KOBLIK wants to make a point. He strides into the president’s conference room, across the hall from his office at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and stops in front of three framed photographs. Shot in the 1880s by Carleton E. Watkins, the images depict the San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica as pristine landscapes and downtown Los Angeles as a fledgling commercial center with Hispanic-flavored architecture.

“These photographs say: ‘We are a young place and a Mexican-Spanish place.’ And they are three of more than a million historical photographs at the Huntington,” he says. “We have an extraordinary collection of not only written records but also fabulous photographs. It’s the most important archive on the history of California that exists.”

Huntington: An article in the May 25 Calendar section on Steven S. Koblik, president of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, said an installation of American art would open in the Erburu Gallery in May 2010. It will open in May 2009. —

Koblik, 66, made his way back to Southern California seven years ago to take charge of the stately San Marino institution after serving for nine years as president of Reed College in Portland, Ore. And he wants the world to know that the Huntington is more than the home of a Gutenberg Bible, Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” and Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie” -- even as the extensively refurbished Huntington Art Gallery prepares to open its doors and show off its European art and furnishings.

“I’m a European historian by training, but I was fully aware of the importance of the Huntington to scholars of California and the West when I came here,” says Koblik, a native who spent 24 years at the Claremont Colleges as a professor and administrator. “The history of California has been written at the Huntington since the early 1930s. Scholars understand this, but the public does not.”

He may have to beat that drum a while longer, but he’s had notable success in other projects. As successor to Robert Skotheim, who awakened the Huntington from a long slumber, shored up its tottering financial base and kick-started a slew of initiatives, Koblik has overseen a parade of additions to the 206-acre campus -- the Botanical Center, the Munger Research Center, the Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery and the Chinese garden, known as the Garden of Flowing Fragrance. He also has helped the Huntington define itself while expanding its collections, community outreach and collegial collaborations.

“He hasn’t missed a beat,” says Ruth B. Shannon, a long-time Huntington overseer. “He is wearing us all out, he’s so full of energy.”

Some of that activity shows up in numbers. Multimillion-dollar gifts from foundations and individuals have launched major projects, the endowment has climbed from $146 million to $265 million and membership has grown from 19,000 to 28,000.

On Koblik’s watch, the Huntington also has forged working relationships with public schools and universities, including the formation of two institutes -- one devoted to modern history, the other to California and the West -- in cooperation with USC.

Kevin Starr, a former California state librarian who teaches at USC, regards the Huntington as “one of the great libraries on the planet” and one that can play an important role in the surrounding region. Koblik has guided “a wonderful evolution of the Huntington in broader vistas” as well as “an intensification of its scholarship,” he says, and its venture with USC is a boon to the university.

USC President Steven B. Sample describes the collaboration as “a really good fit,” partly because the university puts the bulk of its library resources into providing high-speed access to major libraries around the world rather than buying books. “The Huntington has material, much of which is priceless,” he says. “We have faculty. Why should we spend money to duplicate what the other side has? That has been the most important growth in our professional relationship.”

At the Huntington, Koblik’s colleagues describe him as a people person with a big smile and an ear for ideas and contrary opinions. With a jampacked calendar and a residence on the grounds -- where he lives with his wife, Kerstein, an urban planner -- he’s the face of the institution. But he is never happier than when he’s poking around in the bowels of the Munger Research Center, where tens of thousands of books and manuscripts reside on metal shelves in a compact storage system.

“This is the fun part,” he says, pointing out boxes of drawings by Paul Conrad, The Times’ longtime cartoonist; the corporate records of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., founded in 1848 to carry mail from the isthmus of Panama to California; and a collection of cookbooks going back to the 12th century. “How can you not love this? You’d have to be brain-dead.”

A key acquisition

HE’S particularly pleased with a 2006 gift, the Burndy Library. Its 67,000-volume collection on the history of science, including 40,000 rare books, was assembled by Bern Dibner, a Connecticut inventor and industrialist who founded Burndy Engineering Co., and his son, David. The Dibners gave a smaller part of the collection to the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains. They lent the rest to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but eventually decided to give that portion to another institution. The Huntington competed with 16 other suitors, Koblik says, “including great universities like Michigan and Yale and Columbia and Cal and Stanford and independent research centers. The family chose us and they have endowed five positions in the library and established a scholarship program so that the Huntington is now one of the great centers in the world for the study of the history of science.”

Ever the diplomat, Koblik won’t say why the Burndy Library landed in San Marino, except that the donors were looking for a home that would “treat the materials properly, get them in use and celebrate the family that built the collection.” The Dibner Hall of the History of Science, Medicine and Technology, a permanent exhibition on the evolution of scientific knowledge, will open in the Huntington’s main library in November.

It’s probably natural for a scholar to start a Huntington tour at the library, but Koblik is equally proud of the art collections and gardens. Emerging from the Munger, he hops into a golf cart and drives visitors through the grounds, calling out to staff members along the way.

“We’ll be there in a minute,” he shouts at a guard in front of the Erburu Gallery, which opened in 2005. Although it was designed as a home for the rapidly expanding collection of American art, the gallery debuted as a showcase of European art while the traditional gallery was renovated.

“It wasn’t just a practical solution,” he says of the dual-purpose structure. “It was a bold innovation, and I think it has worked wonderfully well. Now we are excited about the new American exhibition that will open in May 2010.”

Moving on to the Botanical Center, a project that he inherited, Koblik parks then fiddles with keys to a building featuring hands-on exhibits of botanical environments. A children’s garden and a learning center with a library and laboratories fill out the complex.

“One of the dilemmas facing us was that when most people think of the Huntington, they think of the gardens,” he says. “They are beautiful and one of the finest botanical collections in the world. But the institution itself had not defined the role of the garden vis-à-vis the library and the art. There wasn’t a clear vision about how to make them work together.

“Jim Folsom, director of the gardens, had that vision -- this idea of a botanical center that combines teaching, research facilities and exhibitions. It has pulled the gardens, with the library and the art collections, into a common definition. And the definition is: We are a collections-based research and education institution.”

That said, he drives through the cactus garden, chatting about a new, self-guided tour that’s accessible by cellphone, and pointing out one of his favorite plants, the puya, a South American bromeliad. Then he rolls on to the Japanese garden, established by founder Henry E. Huntington. Next comes the new Chinese garden, inspired by traditional private gardens designed for contemplation and built by Chinese workers.

“Why build a Chinese garden?” Koblik asks. “We, in this country, don’t have a very good understanding of Chinese culture. It’s one of the most important in world history, and there’s been almost a systematic ignorance of things Chinese.” What’s more, he says, the garden is a way of connecting with the San Gabriel Valley’s huge Chinese community, which has provided considerable support for the project.

Back in his office, Koblik says he didn’t have a vision when he came to the Huntington.

“I had a sense of the importance of the institution, and that’s where I started,” he says. “I started with the notion that there was power in extraordinary collections. But a collections-based institution isn’t a fixed thing. To some extent, it’s the beast you create. We are still very much in the testing mode: testing ideas, seeing what works and where we should put our resources. We can’t be everything to everybody. We are a small institution, relatively speaking.”