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The Nice New Norton Simon

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena could hang its paintings in an army barracks, stick its sculptures out on the firing range, and its collection would still be better than the Getty’s, no matter how long the waiting list is to get up the hill. But these being economic boom times, and what with architect Frank Gehry hanging around, the Norton Simon decided to give itself a $6.5 million face-lift.

The outside of the museum remains as unassumingly ugly as ever, but the inside has been transformed. Gehry has raised the ceilings, added skylights and rooms, and put in wood and limestone floors. In the meantime, French designer Philippe B. Oates has replaced the old ‘60s-style steel-framed black leather benches with minimalist slabs of white oak, designed new sculpture bases and run riot on the walls. Earth tones, or possibly culinary ones, predominate: aubergine, almond, mustard . . . Strange colors, colors of no known name, are everywhere on the main floor, growing steadily deeper and hotter toward the end of each wing. Canalettos and Tiepolos hang in a color field of muddy violet (“smoky violet” was how the publicist who showed me around described it); a Botticelli Madonna and Child floats in what looks like the inside of an avocado.

Surprisingly, the colors don’t overwhelm the paintings; on the contrary, the paintings stand out with renewed vigor. But the colors do seem rather ostentatious. This becomes apparent in the downstairs gallery, where the museum‘s special exhibitions are displayed. There the ceilings are low, and the walls done not by Philippe de Somebody but by guys with rollers and buckets of white paint to which a hint of gray has been added by the occasional dropped cigarette ash. It feels pleasantly familiar in there, yet oddly retro too, like wandering into L’Avventura 10 minutes after seeing American Beauty. The effect is cerebral rather than sumptuous, and in a way it feels just right. It clears the head.

The real news, though, is what Gehry and art historian Pratapaditya Pal have done with the rest of the downstairs galleries, in which the museum‘s Indian and Southeast Asian artworks are housed. There are about 600 objects in the collection, of which only about 180 were displayed in the past. Now approximately 300 pieces are on exhibit, and they look wonderful, set off to gleaming perfection by Gehry’s sandstone floors and pillars, giving the whole the feel of a treasure-filled grotto. Between the cross-legged Buddhas and multi-armed Shivas, the Saiva scrolls and the sublimely timeworn torsos, you can‘t go wrong here. Afterward, you can wander out into the garden, where there are more sculptures, along with a brand-new sculpture garden with a tres Monet pond at its center.

Still, I have mixed feelings about the renovation. I liked the old Norton Simon. I liked it a lot. I liked the no-bullshit dreariness of it, the fact that you didn’t notice the walls or the floors and that it was obviously years since an interior decorator had set foot in the place. It had the best art collection in town, and it never seemed to be crowded. What more could you ask?

Apparently, a lot more. For the L.A. Times editorial board, it seems, there was something almost distasteful about the old Simon. An editorial of September 27 stated, “The few who did visit the Norton Simon often felt they were entering a private club, a dark, hushed place of wood-paneled exclusivity, not an institution welcoming to all.” This strikes me as amazingly loaded language with which to describe a museum that charged people $4 (now, post-renovation, raised to $6) to look at its collection. Just how “welcoming” does a museum have to be? You‘d think it would be enough simply to open the doors and keep ticket prices low, but apparently this is no longer the case. In the Times world-view, evidently, hospitality is synonymous with hype, and the Times hypes those who hype themselves. If the old Simon was too exclusive, what does this make the Museum of Jurassic Technology (a “dark, hushed place” if ever there was one)?

Just to make sure I wasn’t alone in having found nothing objectionable in the Simon‘s previous incarnation, I looked up its entry in the Rough Guide to L.A. There the Simon is described as “sidestep[ping] the hype of the L.A. art world to concentrate on the quality of its presentation. You could easily spend a whole day wandering through the spacious galleries.” Nothing about “wood-paneled exclusivity” here, just a damn good museum that allowed you to exercise your legs and look at the paintings without distraction.

Though Sara Campbell, the Norton Simon’s art director, denies that the plan to renovate the museum was influenced by a perceived need to keep up with the Gettys, it must have been a factor. The last quarter of a century has been the age of the Blockbuster Art Show, but how many artists have true Blockbuster potential? Not many, and therein lies the problem for those who want to make serious money out of museums. The solution, it appears, is to create buildings so stunning in themselves that they are the blockbusters. The Guggenheim in Bilbao and the new Getty are the prototypes, and almost as I was typing this sentence The New York Times reported that the Guggenheim has submitted a proposal for an $850 million new museum designed by our man Gehry for the West Side of Manhattan. The plan calls for a building as high as 45 stories, containing exhibition space, a theater (“sponsored by an entertainment giant like Sony, Samsung or Warner Bros.”), a film department, library, park, skating rink and “other public amenities” -- in short, a massive arts-complex-cum-entertainment-center, but not exactly a museum.

To this generation‘s museum builders, I suspect, art lovers are what the left has been to the Clinton White House: voters you can count on to show up anyway. It’s the voters in the middle they want to attract. This is fine, even welcome, in theory, but as anyone who has visited a packed art exhibition knows, it‘s not much fun trying to look at a painting when 20 people are standing in front of you. (Critics and editorial writers don’t have to do this, of course; they can go to private viewings.) There is also something profoundly depressing about being at a museum crammed with people who have been cajoled into going there for reasons other than art. After all, people don‘t go to basketball games to look at the arena.

The new Norton Simon is hardly in the same league as the Guggenheims and Gettys, but it’s after a piece of the action. To wit, the museum‘s ad pitch: “Now, the setting is a masterpiece as well.” Campbell, to her credit, is aware of the dangers of overcrowding. She puts the museum’s current annual attendance rate at 150,000, and expects it will rise to 200,000 or even 250,000 as a result of the redesign and increased publicity. But, she notes, the museum will be open another day each week to accommodate the extra crowds, and will also stay open on Friday evenings. “We hope attendance will increase without impacting one‘s pleasure in the visit,” she told me. “I don’t ever want us to be in a position where people are uncomfortable or have to stand in line to see something. I don‘t see that as a worthwhile experience, and I don’t imagine it will happen.”

Let‘s hope she’s right.

Admission to the Norton Simon is free through October 10.


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