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Central California Life Magazine

Our Valley: After 20 years world-renowned Clark Center says good-bye

Feb 17, 2015 10:59PM ● By Cen Cali Life Magazine

Our Valley

After 20 years world-renowned Clark Center says good-bye

by Judith House Menezes

Sometimes in a spare moment, art collector and fifth-generation rancher Willard G. “Bill” Clark would sit alone in his museum with a martini and quietly enjoy his dream: the world renowned collection of Japanese art he had amassed over the years.

The museum he founded, the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in rural Hanford, is one of a small number of museums in the U.S. dedicated solely to the promotion and study of Japanese art.

After a 20-year run, the Clark Center is closing for good June 30. In a combined gift and purchase, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts acquired the center’s collection as well as the Clark’s private collection in 2013. The Clarks received $5 million; the priceless objects have an estimated value of $25 million.

The Clarks, both in their 80s, did not want to worry about the future of the center, according to director Yoko Ueno, a native of Japan. The decision to close in 2015, the 20th anniversary, also had cultural significance. At age 20, children in Japan are recognized as adults and it is a meaningful year for family and community, Ueno explained.

The last exhibition in Hanford will open in February and is called “Elegant Pastime: Masterpieces of Japanese art from the Clark Collections at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.”

Bill Clark’s dream

The museum was the dream of Clark and his wife, Elizabeth “Libby.” They began seriously collecting Japanese art in the 1970s.

According to an interview he did in the late ’90s, Clark’s passion for the Japanese aesthetic began in sixth grade when he saw a picture of a Japanese garden in a geography book. He remembered nothing about the rest of the book, but he was fascinated with Japan. Later, as a naval officer in Japan, he and his wife visited temples, gardens and old farmhouses and purchased their first Japanese art. He returned to Hanford to farm and run his family’s dairy, which he built into an industry leader with his founding of World Wide Sires, the world’s leading exporter of bovine semen.

He was honored twice by Japan, which is unusual, for improving its dairy industry and for promoting the study of Japanese art.

Clark designed their home in Hanford, a blend of the Japanese aesthetic and California Arts and Crafts. A beautiful Japanese garden with a pond surrounds the home.

A place for their art

When their acquisitions greatly accelerated in 1985 and the Clarks realized they did not have enough space to properly store and present the art, he designed the museum including the big Japanese gate at the entrance. It is located a stone’s throw away from their residence and near a building that houses a library, offices and a small gift shop.

At its peak, when there were four exhibitions a year, the center had about 5,000 visitors annually. About 2,000 visitors are expected this year.

The museum – intimate, impressive and climate controlled – is located down a gravel drive surrounded by almond trees and farmland, an unlikely place for acclaimed art. Despite its status in the art world, the museum has remained virtually unknown by most people in the Central Valley. Most of the visitors are from out of the area.

On a November Friday, a mother and daughter from Paso Robles and New York respectively, visited the museum for the first time. They wanted to see it before it closed.

“I don’t need to tell you it’s a pretty remarkable place,” said Janet Abraham of New York, who was there with her mother, Dalene Eimon. “It’s a privilege to be here. It’s known among people who know Japanese art.”

Location is a surprise to many

“Almost everyone is surprised about the location of the Clark Center,” said director Ueno. “ ‘Why is it located here?’” is the foremost question we hear.”

The short answer is that Bill Clark loves Japanese art and wanted a proper place for him and others to enjoy it. If an out-of-town visitor drove up on a day the museum was closed he would open it for them.

Administrator Barbara McCasland, with the museum for 18 years, almost since its start when it was just she and Bill Clark, remembered when entry to the museum was by appointment only. She said that if Clark was around, he would greet visitors.

“He would go in a lot of times. He would sit and dictate letters to people,” she recalled. “Maybe take a martini in with him.”

Scholarly program and events

In September 1997, the center had its first curatorial intern who then became the museum’s first curator. The center received funding for interns who had their master’s in Japanese art and were working toward a doctorate. There were 18 interns over the years. They were given a stipend, an apartment on the grounds and the use of a car. The last intern left last March. The scholar programs made the museum special in the art world, McCasland said.

“It is sad,” McCasland said of the museum’s closing. “Over the years I’ve seen so many people come in.” She noted that many people stopped on the way from L.A. to San Francisco.

“We used to have such great events. A horrible foggy day and the people [still] came out,” she said. She described the spring festival with origami classes for children, calligraphy, taiko drummers, ikebana flower demonstrations and a Japanese orchestra from the Los Angeles area. A fundraising gala each year was a highlight, as was the two times she got to meet the artist Sueharu Fukami, who does large celadon ceramic pieces.

The Clark Center held lectures, seminars, workshops and performances often related to exhibitions. There were tea ceremonies and sake tastings, among other events.

Clark: A passionate collector

McCasland described Bill Clark as an appreciative boss – a quiet, private man, respectful and grateful.

“He can tell stories about the pieces of art he bought. He can tell you how he acquired it,” she said.

She said it was “amazing” for her to experience the passion that Clark brought to collecting art and putting together the museum. She also said she was happy his collection would not be stored away.

“All the collections will stay together in one place,” she said, adding that it was a fitting legacy. “That leaves it on a happy note.”

Ueno said the crowning achievement for the Clark Center during her time was a samurai exhibition titled “Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor,” which toured the nation.

Personally, her proudest moment came at a well-known gallery in Kyoto as she searched for a teacup, similar to her own, to purchase for her daughter.

“Without knowing that I work at the Clark Center, the owner introduced a cup by a ceramic artist to me and mentioned the name of the Clark Center as a place that collected his works,” she recalled.

The Clark Center’s permanent collection spanned 1,000 years of Japanese art and included more than 1,700 objects – paintings, sculptures, prints, ceramics and bamboo works. One highlight of the collection is an exquisite Buddhist sculpture and painting from the Kamakura period.

The trees from the bonsai garden adjacent to the museum, the only public display of its kind in the Central Valley, have been donated to the Shinzen Garden in Fresno’s Woodward Park. The 8,000-volume library of books has also been given to the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Though Bill Clark no longer collects Japanese art, he still owns some pieces. (Some of the Clark’s private collection also went to Minneapolis.)

“I think Bill cannot live without Japanese art,” Ueno observed.

She said the lasting legacy of the center is the generosity of the Clarks.

“I don’t know anyone or any art collector who built a building and made it an organization to share a great collection with the public, but Bill and Libby Clark did,” she said.

Ueno said the closing is a loss for the Valley.

“There are so few places (in the Valley) where you can see high-level art,” she said.

But, she added, “The collection is now in good hands and the bonsai trees will be too. And we should be happy that we all had this opportunity to experience the Clark Center and see so many interesting exhibitions there.”