2009 / Bill Clark: Sowing the world with seeds of Japanese art scholarship

Clark with Medal

Bill Clark of Hanford in Central Valley of California receives Japanese government medal for his contribution to the promotion of Japanese art Cultural News Photo)

Cultural News, 2009 July

By Meher McArthur

Visitors to the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, a small town in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, pass through field after field of grazing cattle and groves of walnut trees and finally find themselves in a little corner of Japan, in a gem of a museum housing a world-class collection of Japanese paintings, ceramics, sculpture, baskets and other art works. The Center was founded by Bill and Libby Clark in 1995, and since then, the Clark Center has evolved into a formidable force in the Japanese art world in the United States, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in Japan.

This May, the Japanese government awarded Bill Clark The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon in recognition for his accomplishments in introducing Japanese art and promoting cultural and educational exchange between Japan and the United States of America.

A large part of Bill Clark’s contribution to the promotion of Japanese art is apparent at the Clark Center itself. Born out of the Clarks’ desire to share their remarkable Japanese art collection with both the local and international community, the Center is at once a museum and a research institution. Its Japanese-style buildings, designed by Bill himself, currently houses more than 1,500 art works, ranging from early esoteric Buddhist sculpture to contemporary works of basketry and ceramics.

Clark Center Staff

Bill Clark (left edge) who receives Japanese government medal for his contribution to the promotion of Japanese art, attributes the award to the effort of many people who have helped him including his center staff: (from left to right) Cora Wuermell, Curatorial Assistant; Barbara McCasland, Administrative Supervisor; Keiko Tanaka, Curatorial Assistant; Cathy Baker, Administrative Assistant; Stacy Asuncion, Membership Services; Andreas Marks, Director (Courtesy of the Clark Center)

In-house curators research the collection and mount three exhibitions every year focusing on diverse aspects of the collection. For example, the current exhibit, Japanese Beauties: Glamorous, Decadent, Sensuous, and Bizarre, highlights some of the Center’s finest (and funniest!) paintings of beautiful women, or bijin. Later this year, the center will feature art relating to the samurai. Past exhibitions have included Japanese screens, hanging scrolls, bamboo baskets, woodblock prints and Nanga, a type of Japanese painting patterned after Chinese literati painting.

Soon after its creation, the Clark Center became a research facility for scholars of Japanese art and culture, offering training in Japanese art to graduate students from all around the world in the form of one-year internships. The internships provide valuable practical experience in the handling, exhibiting and conservation of Japanese art works, and many of the fourteen Clark Center interns so far now have museum jobs in at least  five countries.

With the help of the U.S.-Japan Foundation, Bill Clark also established the Drucker Fellowship, named for management guru and fellow Japanese art collector Peter E. Drucker, to enable students to conduct research into aspects of Japanese art at the Center for shorter periods. For the local community, which had very little exposure to any of the fine arts, let alone those of Asia, prior to 1995, the Center offers lectures, exhibition tours, movies and Japanese cultural activities for families, and has given over 700 children from local grammar schools classes in origami and other Japanese cultural activities.

However, Bill Clark’s contribution to the promotion of Japanese art in the U.S. extends far beyond the Center itself. Over the years, he has shared his enthusiasm for Japanese art with organizations all over the country.

As well as lending art works from the Clark Center collection to other museums throughout the country and training interns for positions in Japanese art departments in other museums, Clark also sits or has sat on advisory boards and committees at several of the country’s foremost art organizations, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Freer and Sackler galleries of the Smithsonian, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Florida, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  He served for many years on the Board of Directors and Board of  Commissioners at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum.

His goal at these institutions, as well as at the Clark Center, is to make Japanese art more approachable to a general audience. The award of the Order of the Rising Sun from Japan, the very source of the art and culture that he admires so much, is certainly a significant acknowledgement of his efforts, and one which he finds humbling.

“It is the greatest honor I will ever receive in my life,” Clark says. “I am indebted to the Japanese government for recognizing us in this way. It was achieved due to the effort of  many people who have helped me and they deserve to be acknowledged too.

” Such modesty is typical of Clark’s character,” agrees Andreas Marks, a specialist in 19th century Japanese woodblock prints who joined the Clark Center last year from Germany as Director and Chief Curator. Marks, whose newest book Japanese Prints: Artists and Publishers from the 17th to the early 20th century will be published in March 2010, describes Bill as a passionate collector with strong opinions, who is keen to let others know about the beauty of Japanese art and to promote Japanese culture in the U.S., but adds, “Bill simply is a great guy! He is modest, funny, kind, and just a lot of fun to work with.”

Following the receipt of such an honor as the Order of the Rising Sun, it might be tempting for some individuals to just retire and enjoy the fruits of their hard work, but Bill Clark has not changed gears at all. At 78 years of age, he is as busy as ever working to develop the museum’s collection in new areas.

“We are collecting more art from the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras, and we’re exploring areas of Japanese art that are not so popular,” he reveals.

The museum recently received two major donations (one a promised gift) of postwar Japanese ceramics, bringing the total of its contemporary ceramics collection to over 600 pieces, the largest of its kind in any US museum.

In 2011, he and his staff are planning a major exhibition of the breathtaking sculptural works of contemporary ceramic artist Fukami Sueharu  (b.1947), of whose work the Center already owns eighty pieces. As well as contemporary ceramics, Bill is also continuing to build the Center’s collection of contemporary bamboo baskets and sculptures by some of Japan’s foremost bamboo artists.

The Center recently lent some of its collection to a ground-breaking exhibit New Bamboo: Contemporary Japanese Masters at the Japan Society in New York and staged a smaller version of the exhibit in its own galleries.

In addition to bamboo, Clark is also promoting the art of bonsai. The Center’s bonsai garden is now one of the top four such gardens in California and features trees that have been worked by members of the local bonsai society. Although Japanese art may be relatively new to Hanford, bonsai is apparently not; the Hanford Bonsai Society is about 60 years old, one of the oldest bonsai groups in the country.

Clark is also committed to expanding the Center’s research library, which currently contains over 11,000 volumes, most of which are books on Japanese art and culture and two-thirds of which are in Japanese. The Center also houses the country’s largest collection of Japanese art history slides – over 75,000 – which Clark hopes will be scanned into digital images and made available on-line as valuable resource for scholars.

Recently, Clark admits, much of his time is spent traveling in search of funding for the Center, in particular, to support students of Japanese art who wish to study and work at the Center on internships or Drucker Fellowships. “I hope that my legacy will be to nurture a whole new group of people to be scholars of Japanese art.”

On his ranch in Hanford in Central California, Bill Clark, a man born and raised close to the soil of Hanford, has certainly produced fertile ground for an abundant harvest of future scholars and lovers of Japanese art.

Meher McArthur is a freelance Asian art curator, specializing in Japanese art. She is also an author of several books on Asian art and educator working with local museums on Asian art-related programming.

Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture