Billionaire Norton Simon, the wild man of art, industry and politics is at it again.
Simon, going strong at 70, announced the reorganization of the Norton Simon Museum yesterday with the modest aim of making it "one of the great international museum's of the world." He said the museum's $250-million collection already makes it the best art museum in the West.
"I don't take seriously the argument that all the masterpieces have been acquired," Simon said in an interview. "New masterpieces are always coming to light. And taste changes."
Characteristically, Simon was the feature of the reorganization of his museum, formerly known as the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art. Simon relinquished chairmanship of the board of directors to his wife, actress Jennifer Jones, and announced that he would become director of the museum. This role will put Simon, who has a high school education, against art directors with advanced degrees, but Simon relishes the challenge.
For one thing, he has the money. In a single art sale in 1971. Simon sold 73 Impressionist and post-Impressionist works for $6.5 million, including a Van Gogh to Armand Hammer that brought $1.2 million.
For another thing, Simon has the confidence that his 23 years of buying and selling masterpieces has taught him as much about art as anyone else.
"I've got the same experience in art that I have in business - life experience," Simon said.
Simon always has been something of an indiviual, free-wheeling capitalist in an age of corporate facelessness.
Starting with a small food processing plant in Fullerton. Calif., Simon parlayed his business knowledge into control through mergers of a billion-dollar organization, Norton Simon Inc., which controlled Canada Dry Corp., Glass Containers Corp., Hunt-Wesson Foods Inc., McCall Corp., United Can Co. and others. After a year and a half of exercising control, Simon resigned to devote more time to cultural and education pursuits.
In 1970, Simon disregarded the advice of fellow Republicans and ran against incumbent U.S. Sen. George Murphy in the GOP primary, Simon, a total political novice surprised everyone by winning nearly a third of the vote and damaging Murphy so badly that he was an easy mark for Democrat John V. Tunney in the general election.
"I spent $2 million on that campaign and wouldn't sell my experience for twice that amount," Simon said yesterday in looking back on his political fling.
In 1974, Simon was back in the business news when he resigned as a director of Burlington Northern Inc. with a letter to the president of the firm which charged that most of the American railroad system is "inefficient, mismanaged and screwing the American public."
Simon revels in the role of iconoclast and sees his efforts to make the Norton Simon Museum internationally renowned of a piece with what he accomplished as a businessman.
"I've tried to change the status quo where I can without the extremes of rebellion or revolution," Simon said. "It's like walking a tightrope or, as e.e. Cummings put it in one of his poems, like sitting on a chair on a highwire."
What Simon wants to change now is the prevalent impression that there are no really good art museums in the West. He says this impression is particularly vivid in eastern America and that the Pasadena museum already had more acclaim in Europe than in many sections of this country.
The collection at the Norton Simon Museum is particularly strong in Southeast Asian. Indian and Western European art, especially of the Impressionist and post-Impressionist painters.
One of the rare treasures from India is the "Shivapuram Nataraja," a 10th-century bronze sculpture belived by some authorities to be the finest Indian bronze in the world.
The museum has an extensive collection of paintings of Degas and works by Monet, Manet, Rousseau, Seurat, Cezanne and Van Gogh.
Artists active in the School of Paris in the first decades of the century are well represented. Works include Matisse's "Odalisque With Tambourine," Roualt's "The Sirens" and Modigliani's "La Femme de I'Artiste."
Works by Dutch and Flemish painters include "Titus" and "Self Portrait" by Rembrandt, "Holy Women at the Sepulchre" by Ruebens and "Christ Blessing" by Memling.
There are also notable works of early Italian paintings by Guariento, Filippo Lippi and Lorenzetti and Raphael's "Madonna and Child With Book."
And the museum boasts and extensive collection of Asian stone and bronze sculpture and 19th and 20th-century European sculpture.
It also has three well-recognized Cubist paintings: Picasso's "Pointe de La Cite." George Braque's "Still Life With Pipe" and Juan Gris "Still Life With a Poem."
Simon took effective control of the museum in 1974 when the organizers of the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art ran into financial difficulty. The reorganization yesterday reemphasized Simon's control of the board and also pushed the museum in the direction of what Simon called "the creative industry most dominant in this area," Hollywood.
At the same time that Jennifer Jones was becoming chairman of the board, actress Candice Bergen was named as a new trustee. Alvin E. Toffel, a long-time Simon business associate, was named both a trustee and president of the museum.
Simon said at a press conference that he hoped the changes would prompt persons prominent in the movie business to take a new interest in the museum.
Simon expects to devote most of his immediate future to acquiring new works and strengthening the reputation of the museum, which has had 115,000 visitors this year but is not well known even to many Southern Californians. It is popular with those who know of it, partly because each person who pays the $1.50 admission receives a free reproduction of one of the masterpieces in the museum.
Simon says he looks forward to being freed of administrative duties that have preoccupied him in rescuing the museum from its deficits.
"You can't be fussing about the lights and the burglary alarm system and get the job done." Simon said yesterday. "i'm going to concentrate on the creative aspects now."