Friendships rooted in farming and a passion for art have inspired a California cattle breeder to give the Minneapolis Institute of Arts $25 million worth of Japanese art.
The gift, announced Tuesday, is among the largest in the MIA’s history, consisting of nearly 1,700 objects — paintings, sculpture, ceramics, woodblock prints, bamboo baskets — spanning more than 1,000 years.
Combined with a pending bequest of about 500 Japanese objects from a New York collector, the Californian’s gift will transform the Minneapolis museum into one of the country’s largest and most comprehensive centers of Japanese art.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” said MIA director Kaywin Feldman. She has known the donors, Libby and Bill Clark, since the mid-1990s, when she ran Fresno’s art museum, not far from the tiny Japanese museum and study center the Clarks set up at their home in Hanford, Calif., southeast of San Francisco.
Their friendship blossomed over almonds. Feldman’s architect husband, Jim Lutz, is from an almond-growing family whose land is near almond farms owned by Clark.
“At art events, Bill would introduce me saying, ‘This is Kaywin Feldman. She’s a farmer’s wife’,” the director said, laughing.
Clark’s interest in Japanese culture was spurred during tours of Japan while serving in the U.S. Navy. Back in the States, he built his family’s dairy farm into an international leader in artificial insemination as founder and former CEO of World Wide Sires. Japan has twice awarded him honors for improving its dairy industry and promoting the study of Japanese art.
In the 1970s he began collecting seriously and, in 1995, launched the nonprofit Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture. As the collection outgrew its one-gallery home, they loaned art to other museums and organized traveling shows.
But the institution’s long term future remained in question. Clark is 83 and his three adult children do not have the resources or desire to continue his commitment. So the center’s board gave the entire collection to the MIA. The museum is acquiring additional pieces from the Clarks through a $5 million “partial gift, partial purchase” arrangement, using money from a special endowment for art purchases.
“I’m a fifth-generation central Californian and I wanted it to be on the West Coast if possible,” Clark said Monday by telephone. “But when I considered the options, to be honest, they weren’t there.” The collection would have “overwhelmed” the University of California at Berkeley and would “just sit in storage” at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, he said.
By contrast, Minneapolis has space, complementary collections, and a commitment to Japanese art since the museum opened in 1915.
“Minneapolis is one of the great cities in our country,” Clark enthused. “I think it’s the perfect home for our collection because they’re going to continue our programs.”
Exhibit to open in October
The MIA will sample the Clark gift in “The Audacious Eye,” an exhibit of more than 100 pieces, on view from Oct. 6 to Jan. 12.
It already devotes 15 galleries to its 5,000-piece Japanese collection, more display space than the country’s other top Japanese collections, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C.
The museum has also hired the Clark Center’s director, Andreas Marks, to head the museum’s department of Japanese and Korean Art. It promised to continue the Clark’s fellowship program for interns and scholars, and will produce exhibitions for the Clark Center for five years.
The museum expects to absorb into its $26 million annual budget most of the costs associated with the gift — about $200,000 in the short term for packing, shipping and new storage “furniture,” and another $200,000 annually, some of which will come from earnings on a $5 million 2012 bequest from Alfred Pillsbury Gale for programs in Asian art.
The Clark collection is strong in Edo period paintings (1615-1868), including hanging scrolls and folding screens in every school and style from literary motifs to decorative florals and depictions of zombie-like ghosts. Clark also has a penchant for humorous subjects rarely found in museum collections, among them a painting of a courtesan trimming a god’s beard, and a crab snapping the foot of a deity.
One of the collection’s most important pieces is a life-size 13th century wooden sculpture of a multi-armed Buddhist deity astride a kneeling bull.
“I’ve been coveting something like that for years,” said Matthew Welch, the museum’s deputy director and present Japanese curator. “When anyone says Buddhism in America, people think serenity and tranquility because that’s what people collect here, but there is a much more energetic side of Buddhist imagery like these protectors of the faith that scowl, grimace and wave their six arms and hands.”
‘They’re like children’
The Clarks’ robust, sometimes bawdy imagery and idiosyncratic motifs will fill many gaps in the institute’s collection. That includes historic and contemporary bamboo baskets, some as elaborate as sculptures, as well as 80 ceramics by Fukami Sueharu, a contemporary artist known for sculptural abstractions.
The gift would complement a promised bequest from St. Paul-born, New York-based collector Mary Griggs Burke, who, at her death in December, divided her legendary Japanese collection between the MIA and the Met in New York. That might bring roughly 500 pieces to Minneapolis, including early paintings, lacquerware, sculpture and calligraphy dating from about 3000 B.C. to the mid-19th-century.
Officially, Clark’s wife is involved with the collection, but “she’s a passive collector,” Bill Clark said. “She says, ‘Honey, I don’t care what you buy, just don’t tell me what it costs.’ ”
As for Clark, he loves every piece.
“They’re like children, everyone has a story,” he said. “But I know they’re going to a good home.”