California industrialist Norton Simon bought his first major painting on a whim. He'd just built a new home in Los Angeles and needed something to decorate the walls.
Nearly 50 years later, the museum that now bears his name - and houses more than 12,000 items - has just completed a three-year, $6.5 million renovation by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, who also recently completed The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to international acclaim.
The interior overhaul at the Norton Simon aims to attract a wider audience to what has been called one of the world's greatest private collections, assembled in its entirety since World War II. Mr. Gehry redesigned the museum's 51,000 square feet of gallery space by raising ceilings, improving lighting, and transforming large corridors into more intimate spaces.
While the exterior of the single-story, 30-year-old H-shaped building was untouched, the addition of a sculpture garden takes advantage of California's moderate weather to extend the museum an additional 79,000 square feet. For the first time, say critics, who have watched the museum languish discreetly in the cultural background of Los Angeles for years, this "jewel" has a home worthy of its art work (see 'what's there?' below), which includes an extensive collection of Impressionists, from Claude Monet to more than 100 works by Edgar Degas.
A visit to the refurbished Norton Simon shows the promise and challenges faced by a museum based on the fancy - and fortune - of a single man.
The museum, which has a $28 million endowment, benefited from the powerful guidance of its founder until his death in 1993. Now that his personal influence and purchasing are over, the museum must learn to compete with more seasoned institutions for audiences.
In southern California, a region at home with hype (witness the media circus that accompanied the debut of the Getty Center two years ago), the Norton Simon has begun to face the same challenges that confront other cultural institutions: how to compete in a world of movie multiplexes and video games - not to mention the $5 billion endowment of the aforementioned Getty.
"We realize that our regular patron base is getting older, and we need to reach out to a wider community," reflects Sara Campbell, Norton Simon Museum director of art, as she strolls through Simon's Impressionist collection that's now bathed in filtered natural light.
The skylights are only one of the many subtle, yet significant changes that have moved critics from both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to states of rapturous praise ("the Simon collection never looked better," and "the graceful renovation valorizes what's inside," respectively).
Degas's many sculptures of dancers, their faces upturned in the act of stretching, seem to be paying homage to the new influx of light.
The museum entry path still features an oversized Rodin sculpture, "The Burghers of Calais," an impressive and emotional bronze that sets the tone for what's to come.
Once inside, a judicious rearrangement of walls and an introduction of a variety of multihued walls and floorings give the galleries new life. The monumental Buddhist sculpture that dominates the entryway picks up the drama of the first Rodin and welcomes guests.
These changes pull the viewer through a series of rooms that used to be dead ends. But perhaps the most dramatic improvement occurs on the lower floor, where the Asian art collection is featured. What was previously a series of warren-like alcoves is now rearranged and covered in rough-hewn stones. The collection of Asian art, considered one of the finest in the world, is set off to good effect as the whole environment gives the impression of a hidden grotto of devotional objects.
Outside, the new outdoor sculpture garden, based around a Monet-like pond and color-coordinated plantings, extends the experience of the art outdoors.
The renovation is a major step toward making the museum more visible to the general public. It has been accompanied by longer hours for public viewing and a restored auditorium for community programs. Ms. Campbell says the museum's founder would have approved of these changes because his passion was to show people the deeper function of art.
"One of the most profound means of human communication is the visual arts," says a statement from Norton Simon on the museum's Web site. "By establishing a meaningful dialogue between the artist's vision of the world and our own perceptions, art can help us to understand ourselves more fully."
Simon's own path to establishing a meaningful dialogue between his collection and an audience, however, has been difficult at best. When he came to the struggling Pasadena (Calif.) Art Museum in 1974, rather than adapt his collection to a public museum, he took it over as a home for his own collection.
This says much about the role of culture in American life, says Lewis Hyde, Luce professor of art and politics at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
"One of the functions of art in America," Professor Hyde says, "is that it's part of how we sanctify our riches." Simon followed a familiar path of many individuals who devoted their lives to the accumulation of wealth. "It's the same old tension in America," Hyde says. "We're given great permission to make money and then at some point, people have to stop and say, why are you doing this?"
"It is interesting that people who accumulate great amounts of money tend to collect art," says Andrea Rich, president of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Simon was once a trustee and where he also briefly flirted with the idea of installing his collection.
Simon, Ms. Rich says, like many other businessmen-turned-collector (Armand Hammer and J. Paul Getty, to name two), opted for a private museum rather than joining an existing public one. Rich says this has as much to do with power and ego as art.
"At the end of their life," she adds, "the collection has a point of view, an identity that will last beyond them."
Handled properly, these private collections can greatly enhance the cultural and civic life of a city, Rich adds. "Diversity of cultural institutions in any city is fabulous; it creates a creative energy that plays off each other."
But establishing that energy is a challenge for any institution that begins as the private plaything of a wealthy individual, as evidenced by the ongoing struggles of the billion-dollar Getty complex in Los Angeles to establish an identity and an audience.
The key to making the transition from boutique curiosity to an institution of genuine public value is a sense of accountability, says Robert Pamplin, a philanthropist and extensive collector of rare Chinese ceramics and native American artifacts. From his own collection, he has created a "museum without walls" by loaning his works to existing museums.
"Individuals can collect art for a variety of reasons," Dr. Pamplin says. "It can be for ego reasons, to appear in a better light to others, or to provide a service. I choose service."
"We're all competing for the same recreational dollar," says Norton Simon director Campbell. "Our first job is to get the audiences in here."
After that, "the collection will sell itself."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society