Norton Simon: The Best Museum You Haven't Visited The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., just might be America's least known great museum. NPR's Susan Stamberg explores the vast collection, amassed by a businessman who had a knack for finding great art.
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Norton Simon: The Best Museum You Haven't Visited

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Norton Simon: The Best Museum You Haven't Visited

Norton Simon: The Best Museum You Haven't Visited

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The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, may be America's least-known great museum. It's filled with first-rate Old Masters, Renoirs, C´┐Żzannes, Picassos and South Asian sculptures. The place often has more European than American visitors - Europeans know about it, Americans do not. Even Californians who live nearby claim they've always meant to get there but, you know, it doesn't work out.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg, though, did get there. And she says a big, new book sheds light on the museum and the man who founded it.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Businessman Norton Simon - Hunt-Wesson Foods, Canada Dry, Avis, so many others - filled the galleries with his fabulous art collection. But making a visit, he never lingered.

Ms. SARA CAMPBELL (Senior Curator, Norton Simon Museum of Art): When he would come to the museum, he would make a circuit of every single work of art and walk as fast as he could.

STAMBERG: Senior Curator Sara Campbell is author of "Collector without Walls: Norton Simon and His Hunt for the Best."

Forty-one years ago, Mr. Simon hired Campbell as his typist. He was a wonderful boss, she says, loved soliciting opinions.

Ms. CAMPBELL: He asked everybody what they thought about the collection. And he would ask me, he would ask the most prestigious museum director, and he would ask his cook.

STAMBERG: Very democratic. But, Campbell says, usually he would go do whatever he wanted to do. Norton Simon asked a lot of questions.

Chief Curator Carol Togneri met him when she worked at the Getty Museum.

Ms. CAROL TOGNERI (Chief Curator): Mr. Simon was looking for my boss, who was the curator, and he wanted me to pass on the question to him: Of all the Raphaels in the world, which are the five best - and where does mine come in, in that top five? This was something that he did constantly.

STAMBERG: He wanted to have the best, be the best, get the best. And most often, he did - some 8,000 works of art, collected over three decades, starting in 1954. No more than 800 or 900 of them are on view at any one time in Pasadena, which means the Norton Simon Museum is small enough that you can see everything on a single visit, without getting exhausted or sore feet.

The place is rarely jammed, so visitors get a good look at the Degas dancers, the early Flemish tapestries, the 14th century Italian altarpieces, and Rembrandt's "Portrait Of A Boy" - thought to be his son Titus.

Ms. TOGNERI: He's adorable; those lips, those rosebud lips, those very innocent, sweet eyes looking out at you. And here's this young boy with golden locks, a furry hat that's bedecked with red feathers, and what may be some sort of a fur.

STAMBERG: You left out the adorable, little, rosy cheeks.

Ms. TOGNERI: The rosebud cheeks. It almost looks like his mother had lipstick and kissed him on one cheek.

STAMBERG: There are three Rembrandt paintings at the Norton Simon Museum. But the big one got away. Simon planned to bid against the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the master's "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer." But he wouldn't go as high as $2.3 million for it. So it's in New York.

Author Sara Campbell says Mr. Simon kept careful track of the numbers.

Ms. CAMPBELL: He remembered every price he ever paid, what currency he bought it in, and what that currency traded for at the time, with dollars.

STAMBERG: Twenty years after he lost Rembrandt's "Aristotle," Norton Simon's purse strings had loosened considerably. He bought his most expensive artwork: 4.2 million for a 15th century resurrection scene by Flemish painter Derek Bouts.

Chief Curator Carol Togneri.

Ms. TOGNERI: There, in regal majesty, is the risen Jesus Christ.

STAMBERG: In red and - red robes wrapped...

Ms. TOGNERI: Beautiful red cloak, holding on to a cross with flying red banners.

STAMBERG: Is this a great painting? Is this a $4 million painting?

Ms. TOGNERI: It is. Indeed, it was worth $4 million then, and it's worth much more now.

STAMBERG: That's not what I'm asking.

Ms. TOGNERI: It is a $4 million painting, for its rarity.

STAMBERG: Is it a great painting?

Ms. TOGNERI: It is a great painting. I mean, look at the detail. Look at the way that that armor is painted - the reflection of that morning light, that brooding sky.

STAMBERG: Norton Simon's first buys were a late Renoir for $16,000; and a Dan Lutz, a 20th century American painter, for $300.

Senior Curator Sara Campbell tells why he bought them.

Ms. CAMPBELL: To decorate his house. He was building a new house in Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, and his wife found a decorator and started looking at artworks, and he was not pleased about the choices. And - happened to know an art gallery in Los Angeles in the Old Ambassador Hotel, and the art gallery was next door to his barbershop. And he would go in every Saturday morning to have his hair cut, and would see the artwork in the windows of this gallery.

STAMBERG: Over the next five years, Norton Simon bought 80 works of art, and spent about one and a half million dollars. He was a quick learner - important dealers in New York were his tutors - and a big spender.

Ms. CAMPBELL: Mr. Simon was an industrialist, businessman. And one of the practices that he used in his business was to acquire companies that were not doing well, and to turn them around. It was almost as if he collected companies. And I think that he became feverish about art in the same way.

STAMBERG: Doesn't sound as if this was a man who fell in love with a piece of art and simply had to have it.

Ms. CAMPBELL: I think he tried to keep a distance, an emotional distance, from artworks. There are times that he's been quoted saying: I have to maintain some distance from this or it will consume me - the collecting itself will consume me.

STAMBERG: I don't understand that. How do you understand that?

Ms. CAMPBELL: He wanted to be able to say: I'm going to be able to make enough money with this; I need to get rid of it - or walk away from a deal if a dealer is being too difficult. And sometimes it worked, that the dealers quickly lowered their price, and sometimes they didn't. But he had to be prepared to do that.

STAMBERG: Since 1974, the artworks Norton Simon collected have been on view at the handsome Pasadena museum that bears his name. In many ways, it's a museum of don'ts. They don't buy. And usually, they don't lend. They don't borrow. They don't put on blockbuster shows.

And yet what they do, displaying glorious works of art to any visitor who makes time for the voyage, they do with elegance and great style.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Southern California.

INSKEEP: And you can see the most expensive works Simon ever purchased, plus other art, at

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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