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Mixed reactions to Gilbert gift of £75 million decorative arts donation

It has been well received in Britain. In Los Angeles, there are divided opinions on the collection and its owner

A long-cherished aim within Britain’s heritage lobby—to liberate Somerset House on the Strand from the government offices which have occupied them since their construction in the eighteenth century—took a major step forward with the Gilbert donation last month.

British born, Los Angeles real estate tycoon Arthur Gilbert has promised his collection of silver, gold, micro-mosaics and gold boxes as a gift to Britain. The collection is valued at £75 million, and a grant of £15.5 million has been announced by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will also be providing start-up costs and an endowment.

The Gilbert collection was started in the 1970s with purchases from dealers and auctions and is considered unique of its kind. A large part of it has been on display in recent years at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), under the care of ex-V&A curator Martin Chapman who was appointed the Gilbert Curator.

If the mood in Britain is one of cordial satisfaction, the atmosphere in Los Angeles is anything but. On 15 May Mr Gilbert paid for space in the Los Angeles Times, see above, in order to answer a series of rhetorical questions, which included, “Why are these collections being removed from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art”, to which he provided his own answer, “The museum was unable, or chose not to adhere to their written agreement to provide room for expansion amongst other commitments”.

Opinions are sharply divided in Los Angeles about the removal of the collection, which was very prominently displayed at LACMA. Its curator Martin Chapman said, “It’s a very sad outcome for us. I had hoped we could keep it at the museum much as Arthur originally intended. It’s a great collection”.

But, speaking to The Art Newspaper, the president of the board of trustees of the museum, William A. Mingst, noted that despite the prime site accorded to the collection, “Arthur gave us no money for the upkeep of his ever expanding collection. He would say to us, “my job is to collect”. It seems that Mr Gilbert’s refusal to contribute towards the upkeep of the collection deterred other potential institutions, including the Israel Museum, who tried to woo him away from LACMA last year, when selections from his collection were shown there along with objets d’art from the Rothschild and Thyssen collections.

LACMA’s inability or unwillingness to guarantee the collection space in perpetuity seems to be the root cause of the dispute. Mr Mingst explained: “There were a series of agreements that started in 1975-77 when the collection first went on view here. The collection grew dramatically in the early 1980s. Arthur sponsored some galleries in a building campaign which resulted in him having around 11,000 square feet of space. Over the years there were discussions to increase the space to 15,000 square feet, primarily at the expense of the two collections of American paintings and sculpture which shared the floor with Arthur”.

“After LACMA purchased the adjacent property next door we offered him up to 25,000 square feet in this new space, but we could only guarantee him this amount for five years. Mr Gilbert then insisted that he would require 25,000 square feet in any future move and he demanded that all the collection be on permanent display and that after his death nothing be deaccessioned”.

Arthur Gilbert has not made himself universally popular among the LA art community. In an article in the LA Times in 1993 he stated, “Everything in the Anderson building [LACMA’s modern and contemporary art wing] is junk”. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Christopher Knight, art critic of the LA Times, noted, “Gilbert basically wanted LACMA to take down its collection of American painting and sculpture”. Other sources note that it was this attitude that particularly infuriated a number of trustees, notably American art collector Julian Ganz.

A few voices, have, however, been heard in defence of the collection. Art consultant and historian Mumsey Nemiroff says, “I am astounded that LACMA’s trustees have allowed Gilbert’s collection to leave here, but I can see why it happened. In Los Angeles our cultural fallback is very shallow; our museums all pretty new. There isn’t any tradition here of collecting decorative arts of really high quality. LA does have some collecting tradition with the movie directors and producers who bought the French Impressionists in the 1930s and 40s; then the next generation moved on to modern and contemporary art. But most people didn’t seriously consider buying art until the early Eighties, when all the wrong people began collecting for all the wrong reasons”.

“Arthur really stuck out from the crowd”, she continues. “He always collected with love and passion, and he collected for the public. He got such a kick out of visiting the museum every Saturday and chatting to people about his collection. He bought magnifying glasses for the galleries so that visitors could see the quality of workmanship in his mosaics”. She concludes, “Doesn’t anybody here in Los Angeles see how great a loss this is for us? Apparently not”.

GILBERT COLLECTION OF SILVER, GOLD AND MOSAICS AT THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART

To : Friends and Viewers of These Collections

"LACMA WILL REMOVE TRUSTEE'S COLLECTION"

- Los Angeles Times (April 19, 1996)

Q : Why are these collections being removed from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art?

A : The museum was unable, or chose not to adhere to their written agreement to provide room for expansion amongst other commitments.

Q : Why am I paying for this announcement ?

A : Because the Los Angeles Times did not feel this reply was newsworthy although it did publish the museum's version which was not accurate. (see article mentioned above)

Q : People have called to ask if the museum's decision was due to the new director, Andrea Rich.

A: To my knowledge, this is not accurate, the problem started way before her arrival.

Q : Why are so many important collections that were offered to LACMA not accepted ?

A: You can guess!

If the public wishes to express their opinions or feelings about this, please write to me at the following address :

9536 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 420

Beverly Hills, California 90212

The last day to view these collections will be June 9, 1996. I encourage everyone to do so!

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Mixed reactions to Gilbert gift'