The One about the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture

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For over 20 years, the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture(formerly known as the Ruth & Sherman Lee Institute for Japanese Art at the Clark Center) in Hanford, California, has provided magnificent exhibitions of artwork to many people in the local area but also many who travel to see artwork that you will never see at many of the major art museums in the country.

Founded by Willard “Bill” Clark and Elizabeth “Libby” Clark, the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture is a fascinating place to visit. For one, it’s not your typical museum type of location. In fact, it’s located far from Los Angeles and San Francisco and it’s located an hour south of Fresno, California and hidden in an almond orchard where the Clark’s reside.

And several yards away from their home is where the Clark’s private collection was held. With one office featuring staff offices and the local store, the other was an exhibition room featuring artwork that revolved around a certain theme every three months.

As small as the location was, the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture housed nearly 1,700 priceless objects (valued at $25 million) dating back for as far as seven centuries and was no doubt one of California’s rare gems dedicated to Japanese art.

But one may wonder, how is it that a farmer in a rural town could obtain all this artwork and how did he get involved with it?

It began back in the 1950’s, when Bill and Elizabeth “Libby” went to Japan and they were amazed by the architecture, gardens, art and the kindness of the people.  They purchased a few paintings and it became a hobby for the couple.

In 1977, Bill would contact Dr. Sherman Lee, who was the Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the man who would turn the museum to a global art museum and was one man who was renown for his knowledge of art from Asia.  Also, for advising Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, helping to form the permanent collection at Asia Society in New York.

When Bill met with Dr. Sherman Lee, he told him his plans to create an important museum of Japanese art in the small town of Hanford.  His desire was to acquire major Momoyama period screens with the annual budget of $10,000.

As Bill would continue to work hard at the ranch and move from a breeder of registered Holstein dairy cattle to become an international broker/distributor of frozen bull semen for artificial insemination in all breeds of cattle, the business would allow Bill and Libby to purchase more art and become more serious in art collecting.

After Lee’s retirement from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Bill connected with Dr. Lee to advise him to assemble a major collection and when Bill asked him about how much it would cost for his time and advice, Lee told Bill, “Only our expenses but Ruth must go with us on every trip.”

In the 1990’s, Bill, Dr. Lee and his wife Ruth would travel to Japan (note: Elizabeth Clark dislikes riding on airplanes, so she did not go with them).    And because Dr. Sherman Lee was well-known in Japan by Japanese art dealers, the works that Bill was able to see were among the best.

And this friendship and business relationship would help Bill acquire many of the pieces that are featured at the Clark Center.  The two would meet dealers during the day, compare notes at night as they would talk about the positive and negatives of an art piece and had developed their own plan via a “code” and appraisal system.

And as the Clark’s would amass their art collection (you can see many of the Clark Center’s collection online via the UC Merced Library), many would travel hundreds of miles to the Clark Center to see it.

But as Bill and Elizabeth are in their 80’s, the Clark’s decided to donate their private collection to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and not leave their children the financial burden involved in preserving the fragile artwork.

The acquisition by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts will now make the museum, one of the top five museums in the nation with an extensive collection of Japanese art.

A farewell exhibition is currently being displayed through June 30 and the Center’s extensive bonsai collection will be transferred to the Golden State Bonsai Federation and will be placed in the Shinzen Friendship Garden in Fresno.

I personally have visited the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture since I was in college.  As I have visited art museums in different parts of the country and making my way to visit various museums around the world, the Clark Center will always have a special place in my heart.

As a fan of classic antiques, especially from Japan, I have always been passionate about traditional Japanese art (and also modern art) and what made the Clark Center so different from any museum I have went to is that you are looking at the personal collection of Bill Clark.

His passion for Japanese art was no doubt an expensive endeavor, but not only did he open up a museum in an area where there is a very small Japanese population (there was once a larger Japanese population in the Central California area prior to World War II), but his museum was special to me.

Having worked with major Japanese entertainment companies and always been enamored by Japanese culture, despite how small the exhibit was, it was one of the few places where I would find certain pieces of art that were not seen at other metropolitan museums.

And today, I decided to visit the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture once more to say goodbye.

I was the first one to arrive at the location as I wanted to let it all soak in that the center is closing.

While its big rocks still remain, gone were the hundred year old Bonsai trees and its fence surrounding and all that was left was the tea house.  It didn’t seem all that long when I attended a tea ceremony at the Clark Center back in October and the place was packed.

With the removal of all bonsai trees and the fence around it, patrons can now get a better look at the Clark’s home which showcased Japanese influenced landscaping.  The property still remains blocked off, as it is private property, but of all the years I have attend the Clark Center, this is probably the best look at the Clark home.

Fortunately, the two guarding statues remain in place but once again, it was a somber feeling knowing that many of the artwork that I saw over the years, will and have been moved to Minneapolis.

As I had more than a half hour until the museum opened, I visited the office and store, visiting the articles and awards honoring Bill Clark.  As a lot of the merchandise were on sale, I can easily remember visiting the store and how it was like a library to art and culture.

You can just sit and immerse yourself with the many books that were kept in the room, the memory of visiting that room for many years… and it’s hard for me to imagine that everything will be gone in the next few months.

As I saw a good gathering of people waiting for the museum to open and check out the final exhibit titled, “Elegant Pastimes: Masterpieces of Japanese Art from the Clark Collections at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts”.  The exhibition highlights a selection of 1,200 years of Japanese art from the 8th century to 2013.

According to the Clark Center of Japanese Art & Culture:

From the restrained to the exuberant, refined to bold, naturalistic to abstract, humorous to resolute, conventional to eccentric, Japanese art is characterized by polarities that derive from cultural traditions formed through native as well as imported and then adapted ideas and aesthetics, especially from China. Since the late 19th century, captivated by the various motifs, media, and expressions of Japanese art, collectors from Western countries embarked on amassing impressive collections. Bill and Libby Clark are firmly placed in this tradition of curiosity and treasure-hunting and succeeded in assembling one of the finest collections of Japanese art in private hands.

Since 1978, Bill has been a relentlessly active “unrestrained, undisciplined, crazy collector,” to use his own words, and did not follow market trends or restrict himself to a specific medium, time period, artist, or motif. He strove to find strange, peculiar, curious, intriguing, works that “spoke to him.” Elegant Pastimes therefore offers unusually rich and personal insights into the scope of Japanese art and the nature of connoisseurship. This is a last, joyful celebration showcasing the stunning creative range and eccentricity of Japanese art.

 

And this is just a few of the various artwork featured at the final exhibit.

If anything, if you love Japanese art and you will be driving through Central California, definitely visit the Clark Center of Japanese Art & Culture. It may not be as large as LACMA or metropolitan museums but it was a special museum dedicated to Japanese antiques, including traditional and modern art.

The final exhibit will end on June 30th.  For more information, please visit their official website.

Dennis A. Amith