LACMA mend fences with the Prices

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

JOE AND Etsuko Price are back.

Twenty-five years ago, they joined with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to fulfill a dream. The Prices donated $5 million to help construct the Pavilion for Japanese Art and promised a spectacular collection of Japanese paintings to the museum. Five years later, the building was completed: an eye-popping, lotus-like structure on the east end of the museum campus. But five years after that, the marriage between the Prices and LACMA fell apart -- compounded by a lawsuit.

When “The Age of Imagination: Japanese Art, 1615-1868, From the Price Collection” opens today, it will mark the end of a 15-year estrangement. The sprawling exhibition of 109 meticulously painted screens and scrolls from the Edo period ) -- combining some of the 161 long-promised gifts to LACMA with additional pieces from the collectors’ personal holdings -- will fill the Pavilion and the plaza level of the nearby Hammer Building.

What happened?

The Prices have two words: Michael Govan.

“We are very happy,” Etsuko Price says on a recent weekday, flashing a smile as she inhales the pleasures of the seductive artworks in LACMA’s galleries.


The exhibition is making its final stand at LACMA after touring Japan and stopping at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. Govan got wind of it in early 2006, soon after he took charge of the L.A. museum and visited the Prices in Corona del Mar, where they reside and maintain a private study center for hundreds of works acquired in the last couple of decades.

“When Michael Govan found out about our show in Tokyo, he said, ‘I will come,’ ” Etsuko Price says, recalling their first meeting. “He has a passion for art, a passion for education and people. He also has common sense.”

The exhibition’s itinerary was planned with no thought of including Los Angeles, Joe Price says. Then Govan suggested “a homecoming.” “By the time he went to Tokyo with us, I thought it would be nice to do that,” Joe says. “It will be a beautiful exhibition.”

Joe Price is a self-styled collector credited with reviving a chapter of Japanese art history that was out of favor when he took a shine to it. And he loves to talk about the paintings he has pursued for 55 years. Speaking softly but with passionate outbursts, he expounds on the artists’ economy of means and technical prowess.

The artworks were made to be seen in natural light, in the soft glow that comes through traditional paper shoji screens, he says, reciting a mantra. Electric lights are never quite right, but a technician is working on that.

A few special pieces -- including a pair of black-and-white folding screens depicting rabbits and crows in a snow storm and a mosaic-like scene of birds, animals and flowering plants -- will be illuminated by a system that varies brightness in brief rotations, as if compressing a day’s sunlight into a few minutes.


Etsuko Price, who has become an active partner in the collection, points out details in the paintings that might by missed by Western observers. The life-size bull in a pair of nearly 12-foot-wide screens is more than a drop-dead amazing image of a beast, she says. It’s a symbol of the Shinto religion, and it’s face-to-face with an elephant that represents Buddhism. In a series of silk scrolls, “Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months,” insects appear in warm-weather panels and disappear in those depicting fall and winter.

No one wants to recount past grievances. Govan says he doesn’t even know all of them.

“I’m a latecomer,” he says, “but I can do a lot for the future. It was not rocket science to figure out how important that collection is to LACMA or that having a Japanese Pavilion devoted to Japanese art identifies the museum as being ahead of the game. It was an architectural risk that is turning out to be a masterpiece.” The concept of housing an extraordinary collection in a made-to-order landmark with a study center is a model of cultural patronage, he says. “It’s one of the most important cultural assets of Southern California.”

Courting the collectors

MUSEUMS’ relationships with donors are rarely without tension. In an age of escalating art prices, most museums must balance patrons’ wishes with the institutions’ missions and resources. And it can be especially difficult to strike a deal with a collector who has a fixed idea about how the art should be displayed.

In a case dating to 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York landed a collection of nearly 3,000 artworks assembled by one of its trustees, Robert Lehman, by building a wing that emulated his house on West 54th Street, outfitted with the same wall fabrics, draperies, rugs and furniture. Another Met trustee, Walter Annenberg, had a falling out with the museum, but finally agreed to donate his collection of Impressionist and postimpressionist paintings to the Met in 1991 on the condition that it be kept intact in its own gallery.

The Dallas Museum of Art built its version of the Lehman Wing in 1985. The Texas museum snagged an eclectic, 1,400-piece collection amassed by Emery and Wendy Reves by re-creating five rooms of the donors’ villa in the south of France.


At LACMA, Arthur Gilbert -- a trustee who collected silver, micro-mosaics and gold snuff boxes -- also had visions of permanent grandeur. He parted company with the museum in 1996, when officials refused his demands for bigger and better exhibition space and his own curator. A native of England, Gilbert gave his collection to Britain’s Department of National Heritage in return for a knighthood and a showcase for the art at Somerset House in London.

The collection was installed with a life-size wax effigy of Gilbert, as he required. But after the opening excitement died down, attendance declined and the exhibit became too expensive to maintain. Gilbert died in 2001 and the collection was recently transferred to the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Joe Price’s dream was different.

Born in 1929, the son of an oilman who built pipelines, he grew up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the town where J. Paul Getty earned his first dollar delivering newspapers and worked in his own father’s oil fields. The young Price was educated as an engineer, but what excited him was modern architecture. As a student at the University of Oklahoma, he struck up a friendship with Bruce Goff, a visionary and unconventional thinker who headed the architecture department. Before long, Goff introduced Price to his mentor, the far more eminent Frank Lloyd Wright. Price fell under Wright’s spell and persuaded his father to hire the celebrated modernist as the designer of H.C. Price Co.’s new office building. The result was a cantilevered skyscraper known as Price Tower.

As Price tells the story, Wright took him under his wing and inadvertently inspired the younger man to collect Japanese art. In 1953, when they were walking from the site of the Guggenheim Museum to the Plaza Hotel in New York, Wright, a collector of Japanese prints, suggested stopping at a Madison Avenue gallery run by Joe Seo. Price was smitten with an 18th century ink painting of grapevines by Ito Jakuchu and soon returned to buy it.

Over the next 10 years, he continued making purchases intuitively and found that his heart and eye always took him to Japanese art of the Edo period. He was blown away by the technical prowess of artists such as Jakuchu who could eloquently describe an animal’s form and expression with a single line. He was amazed to find that white areas in many Edo paintings are not paint but silk, left untouched by artists who could create an entire palette of grays from black ink. And he was dazzled by highly detailed images with overlapping shapes, executed without a single line of ink crossing another.

“If it’s unbelievable,” he says, “I’ll buy it.”

The fact that the works were unfashionably decorative and commissioned by the merchant class of what was perceived as a hopelessly outdated feudal society meant that Price had little competition. Hardly anyone knew the artists’ names, and owners of the old paintings were glad to get rid of them, he says.


“You have to understand that the Japanese have categories. Everything in its place,” Price says. “If you don’t fit, you are nothing. You don’t belong. They didn’t know what to do with artists like Jakuchu.”

At 31 and bored with engineering, Price left the pipeline business and took off to sail the South Seas -- with his father’s blessing and enough money to sustain his adventures. He made his first trip to Japan in 1963, met Etsuko and began to discover the country.

The couple eventually settled in Bartlesville, in a house designed by Goff, and had two daughters, Shinobu and Sachi. “But with this art, it was very lonely,” Joe says. “Nobody wanted to see it, so I started to look for a place where I could show it. I made a list of all the pieces, and I had an architect [Goff] design the building. Then I went out asking where I could give this, someplace that would build the building. A year later, after asking universities where I really wanted to build, I realized that universities had no mandate to preserve art, so I switched to museums.”

Dream finds a home

THAT took him to LACMA, then under the direction of Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III, who was open to the Prices’ idea. With their help, the museum raised an additional $7.5 million and built an organic structure with translucent walls, a roof that appears to float and an exhibition space that leads visitors on a winding path from one artwork to another. It opened in 1988.

All went well enough for a while, but there were disagreements over the stewardship of the collection and various physical features of the facility -- including lighting, which evolved into a still-problematic system of using electric lights to enhance the soft, natural light that comes through the walls. Little by little, the Prices stepped away from the museum, developed their own study center and continued to build a collection that now numbers about 350 museum-quality pieces.


Their dissatisfaction finally came to a head in 1993, when they filed a lawsuit against LACMA asking the museum to return artworks that were not promised gifts to their facility in Corona del Mar. A major sticking point, Joe Price says, was that the museum had put an office in the study center. The suit was dropped when the office was moved and a storage vault installed, but the rift didn’t heal. Although Graham W.J. Beal, who oversaw the museum’s art programs in the late 1990s under Andrea Rich’s leadership, made friendly visits to the Prices, the divorce seemed to be final.

In 2001, when the museum seriously considered a radical redo that would have leveled several of its buildings, no one suggested that the Pavilion for Japanese Art be torn down. But Joe Price wasn’t so sure.

“I was kind of hoping they would,” he says, “so I could get the art back.”

He’s in a different frame of mind now.

“I get embarrassed about all this attention,” he says. “I never wanted anything for myself. I want people to enjoy the art the way I have.”

“Joe had a very clear intention,” Govan says. “My role is to try to facilitate that and see if we can put it all together. I’d love to see the dream realized. It is essential that more of the collection stay here.”

As to that, Joe Price says: “I have refused to talk to anybody about what happens next. This is what I wanted to experience. I am very happy with it.”