An Interview with the Founder Willard G. "Bill" Clark
From Orientations Magazine, December 1998
In May 1995, The Clark Foundation for the Study of Art was opened in Hanford, California by Japanese art collector Willard G. Clark and his wife. Now renamed The Clark Center for Japanese Art, it has attracted well over 1,000 guests and visitors so far. Among the aims of the Center are the advancement of the scholarly study of Japanese art, and with this in mind it will host three symposia funded by Sanwa Bank California, the first of which will take place next year. Clark, who began seriously collecting Japanese art in the 1970s, explains how he first entered the field and how The Clark Center for Japanese Art has developed since its founding.
O: Where and how did your interest in Asian Art, or more specifically Japanese art, begin?
WBC: This is the most frequently asked question and the most difficult to answer. I grew up in rural California where the eight grades of the local grammar school were taught by one teacher. I remember most vividly that when I was twelve, the 6th grade geography book's section on Japan, which was probably only three quarters of a page, had a photograph of a Japanese garden. I remember nothing about the other countries but Japan was a revelation to me.My wife kids me that I was Japanese in an earlier life.
O: It appears that the Japanese aesthetic has also influenced your lifestyle in that your home and garden are in Japanese style. Can you comment on this?
WBC: I had great interest in architecture while at the University of California and roamed the Berkeley hills to see homes by Maybeck, Julia Morgan, and post-war homes by Eichler & Allen. I read about Greene and Greene homes in Los Angeles, which had Japanese influences and I began to appreciate how the Japanese aesthetic impacted many of these architects. Shortly after marriage, Libby gave me the book, Form and Space of Japan's Architecture by Norman Carver, Jr. (Tokyo, 1955). It is the most influential architecture book I've ever owned.
O: How did your collection itself develop?
WBC: I remember that in 1976, Libby heard about the exhibition, "Birds, Beasts, Blossoms and Bugs: The Nature of Japan" (sponsored by the Los Angeles Art Council and the Frederick S. Wight Gallery; see "Birds, Beasts, Blossoms and Bugs", in Orientations, August 1976, pp. 37-54), and got the catalog from the local library. We looked over it in absolute amazement and delight, and decided that maybe we were at the point where we could again start acquiring Japanese art, albeit in a very modest way. We made some inquiries and learned that many works in the exhibition were from the Shin'enkan collection of Joe and Etsuko Price. I called Joe in Oklahoma and he asked me to stop by. I really liked the Edo period paintings the Prices showed me, and as I expressed the wish to also collect Edo art, the Prices were incredibly generous in giving me the names of their dealers. They also contacted those dealers on my behalf, I'm sure, with reservations! It was the Prices who gave us the most encouragement during those early years.
O: Your relationship with Sherman Lee, the former Director of The Cleveland Museum of Art, is well known. How did this start?
WBC: In 1977, we saw a Japanese sculpture that interested us greatly in a New York auction catalog. Knowing nothing about sculpture, I asked who could help, and was given Dr. Lee's name. I called him out of the blue, and expressed my interest in the sculpture. As I was flying to New York for the auction I asked if it would be possible to see him in route, and I remember most clearly him saying: "My door is always open." I arrived at the Cleveland Museum in Levis, a Stetson and cowboy boots, my normal dress at the ranch. Dr. Lee was most cordial. I explained my hopes of creating a museum of Japanese art for our little agricultural town, that I might afford US$10,000 to US$20,000 per year and that I wanted to buy the very best in Japanese art.
O: What was his reaction?
WBC: He gently suggested that the piece of sculpture was not outstanding, and advised that I wait, offering to give advice in the future. Also many years later, I was told that after my departure that day, Sherman mentioned with amusement: "John Wayne was just in my office, and thinks that for $20,000 a year he can establish a Japanese museum in a small California town!" He supposedly also said: "However, I think he's solid." Our collecting accelerated about the time Sherman retired from Cleveland, and as he had more time, we started working more closely together. When I later asked if he would consider being our advisor he agreed. By then we were also collecting quite heavily in southeast Asian sculpture as well as 19th Century American painting, and seemingly received a transparency every week. Sherman enjoyed staying abreast of the market, and I enjoyed discussing the items with him. As our relationship became better known, dealers sometimes circumvented me and sent the transparencies directly to Sherman, figuring that he was making the decisions anyway! However the final decision, for better or worse, was always made by me.
O: What do you feel is the most important acquisition you have made?
WBC: This question is difficult because one always has favorites. I prefer to split it into three parts. The first part would be sculpture. When I was in Japan in 1982, at Setsu Gatodo in Tokyo I saw a Daiitoku myoo that electrified me. It was all I could think of, but was advised that there was a reserve on it. I was heart-broken but later the reserve was lifted and after some almost comical proceedings too long to relate here, we were able to acquire it. I've been told it could not be exported now. It has become the "signature piece" of our collection. [shown on the homepage]
O: Your interests are also philanthropic in that a significant part of your collection has been gifted to the Center. Can you give us some background as to how the Center came about?
WBC: Well, after our acquisitions greatly accelerated in 1985, we found we didn't have enough space to properly store and present the art. While building a wing on the house, we constructed a concrete storage chamber in the basement with double fire doors and so on. As we continued to buy at a rapid rate, our visitors increased, but it was hard work packing all the screens and scroll boxes up from the basement each time, as the only proper viewing area we had was a very large tokonoma in our bedroom. On some occasions we even had to take out the bed to have enough chairs for everyone!
O: Who sits on the Board of Directors?
WBC: We were delighted that an exemplary group accepted our invitation to form the board including Samuel Morse (Chairman), Amy Poster (Secretary), Milo C. Beach and Tadashi Kobayashi. Our three children also serve.We have four committees with many distinguished members such as Sherman Lee and John Rosenfield, to name just two.
O: What are the major aims of the Center?
WBC: Our concept has never been to see how many visitors we could attract. Instead, we envision the "scholar's studio" approach where everyone is welcome to quietly contemplate and study the art in a rural setting. Our aims are three-fold: firstly, we want to enhance the cultural fabric of the area of California in which we live, especially by exposing good Japanese art to people who seldom see it; secondly, we aim to encourage the study and research in the field, by creating whatever programs we can afford, to give scholars an opportunity to study, publish and become better known--then the Center can become a true research center; thirdly, we wish to add to the collection as rapidly as we can find and afford works of art, and to exhibit when appropriate.
O: How does your Center differ from the Mary Griggs Burke Foundation and the Shin'enkan Foundation?
WBC: One must remember that we are a very young organization, so all of our plans are not yet finalized. But I believe our goals are similar to Mary Burke's Foundation and the Price's Shin'enkan, namely to support students and exhibitions, among other things. However, since we are not near a large urban area, we tend to emphasize the rural "scholar's studio" approach, as mentioned. I believe our experience encouraged Dr. and Mrs. Kurt Gitter to establish the Gitter-Yelen Foundation and I keep prodding other major collectors to establish foundations as well. By doing so, we can enhance each other's efforts in promoting Japanese art history.
O: Given the problems that cultural institutions are facing such as dwindling public funds, membership and attendance, what do you envision for the future? What are the solutions?
WBC: That's a tough one! There is no easy answer. The public likes art, and therefore, the politicians' lack of interest in funding confounds me. I do feel that the pendulum always swings back, and in another two decades fine arts will be much more appreciated and public support will again grow. In the meantime, it looks rather bleak, except for active private collectors and those institutions with large endowments. I strongly feel you get "more beauty for the buck" in Japanese art as it is still fairly priced and there are wonderful things available.Given these circumstances, I am always surprised that there are not more people collecting in this field.
O: Finally, there is much controversy regarding the trade of art objects, particularly with taxes on works of art in Europe and UNESCO's proposed convention to restrict import and export of art. While Japan has a pragmatic approach with its registration system, there is a fear that legislation in Europe will severely impede the art market. What are your views on this?
WBC: The Japanese government is fair in their evaluation of applications and granting export permits. This enlightened policy is another excellent reason for collecting Japanese art. If you mean the VAT (value-added-tax) tax on art sold in Europe, I doubt it will greatly affect Japanese art as more would just come to N.Y. auction houses. However, the UNESCO proposal is futile. It is a politically correct "quick fix" to a much deeper problem. I would compare it to prohibition in the United States. It will drive much private collecting underground while potentially stripping major Asian art works from Western museums that have safeguarded them for long periods. I do not think the US should be a party to it until it is more realistically drafted to prevent outright pillage, but realistically allow art of all cultures to move in international trade.
Reprinted by permission from Orientations Magazine, 12/98