The following is an excerpt from an article that will appear in the forthcoming issue of Hibbleton Independent magazine. It was written by Fullerton College student Nataly Palma. Images courtesy of the Launer Local History Room of the Fullerton Public Library.
In the middle of the 20th century, Norton Simon created a multi-million dollar business (Hunt Foods), and with his grand wealth, he accumulated one of the most impressive private art collections in the world. Works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Degas, and other masters grace the walls of his collection's permanent home, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA. As one enters the doors, viewers are greeted by a vast collection of Degas' famous ballerina sculptures and Rodin's The Burghers of Calais. It's hard to imagine the collection in any other city, but if not for the short-sightedness of City Council, Fullerton would have been the home of Simon's priceless collection.
Norton Simon's roots were deeply embedded in Fullerton, CA when early on in his life he invested in the Hunt Foods Company and turned it into a successful business. For many years, Simon (a resident of Fullerton) displayed his priceless collection in the Hunt offices, placing Rodin and Giacometti sculptures outside on the lawn, and hanging works by Van Gogh, Picasso, and Raphael in the Hunt Branch Library on Commonwealth, which he gifted to the city of Fullerton.
Simon also displayed his growing art collection at the Hunt Branch Library in exhibits for the annual Night in Fullerton celebration.
Simon needed a permanent home for his prized possessions, and the obvious choice was Fullerton. He offered the city a start-up gift of half a million dollars in 1964, asking in return that the city provide the land and security.
But the City Council argued that they could not afford the security guards, the Fullerton School Board argued that it needed the land for a bus depot, and local homeowners were also not too keen on the idea. Instead of embracing the proposed museum, Fullerton politicians and residents (with the exception of some local artists and gallerists) argued and complained.
Simon's offered, as a location for the Museum, the Hunt Branch library, which he had already gifted to city. He also planned to purchase several houses on the same street, to make room for the Museum. But the City Council did not approve the project.
After two years of waiting for Fullerton to approve his project, Simon took the hint, and took his collection elsewhere, to Pasadena, though Fullerton had clearly been his first choice.
Local artist Marjorie Kerr, who was living in Fullerton during the Norton Simon Museum loss, remembers this incident with sadness. "I don't' think we'll ever know the truth about why it didn't happen," she said in a recent interview in her Fullerton studio, "It was here, you could see the sculptures, and suddenly it was gone."
Though the truth may be buried in complexities of the past, we might speculate possible reasons for this unfathomable blunder. Fullerton, during the 1960s, was a very conservative place and modern artwork might have been seen as something that might attract "the wrong crowd." As a gallery owner myself, I know and understand the difficulty of getting politically and socially conservative folks to embrace modern art. Let us hope that, with understanding, Fullerton leaders and residents will not repeat the terrible mistakes of the past.