Theater & Arts

Sad, final day for Clark Center museum: 'We're losing a treasure'

Administrative assistant Stephanie Carreiro, middle, wipes tears away as she prepares to lock the museum with the last two visitors waiting behind her on the last day of The Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture in Hanford on Tuesday, June 30, 2015.
Administrative assistant Stephanie Carreiro, middle, wipes tears away as she prepares to lock the museum with the last two visitors waiting behind her on the last day of The Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture in Hanford on Tuesday, June 30, 2015. ezamora@fresnobee.com

When a museum is born, there’s grandeur in the air: ribbon-cutting ceremonies, gala dinners, people standing in line for blocks waiting to get in on the first day.

When a museum dies, the public rituals are a lot less effusive. On the last day, a few chocolate cupcakes and a smattering of fruit salad still linger hours after a potluck lunch for the docents in the staff room. A shipment of precious art books from the library is loaded on a truck, bound for another institution. A couple from the Bay Area makes a special trip to be there, cutting it close, arriving with just a few hours to spare.

And the sign. Someone had to make the sign to stick on the door. On Tuesday afternoon it sits in the office ready to go: “The Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture is now closed to the public.”

Stephen Cano of Hanford is the last paying customer, paying his $5 with less than half an hour to go before the final 5 p.m. closing. He rushed the 10 minutes it took to get from work to see the final exhibition, titled “Elegant Pastimes,” for the third time. His favorite piece is two big folding screens with paintings on gold leaf of 19th century Japanese people enjoying music, painting, calligraphy and the game “Go,” and he says he could put a chair in front of it and look at it for a long time.

“We’re losing a treasure,” he says. “Much of Hanford might not realize what we just lost.”

The words “jewel” and “treasure” gets bandied about a fair amount on this last day, and with good reason: The Clark Center for 20 years, tucked as it was in the middle of almond orchards just down the street from a dairy farm, offered a sliver of world-class greatness to the central San Joaquin Valley. Scholars and art aficionados from around the world came to visit. When you walked through its heavy wooden doors, a small but intense world awaited in the form of rotating exhibitions: priceless 16th century Japanese scrolls. Exquisitely painted folding screens. Ceramics with azure glazes so beautiful it was as if the artist had captured a piece of sky.

It enriched lives in the Valley for so many years.

Andreas Marks, former Clark Center director

Yet in the end the center, built to house the remarkable collection of Willard “Bill” and Elizabeth “Libby” Clark, stalwart Hanford farmers who fell in love with the art of Japan, wasn’t sustainable. The Clarks struggled to find a way to keep the collection together without making it a financial burden on their heirs.

Their solution: to donate the Clark Center collection plus a large number of works from their personal collection to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. (The center’s celebrated bonsai collection, however, is going to a new home at Woodward Park’s Shinzen Friendship Garden.)

The Clarks couldn’t be there for the last day. Bill Clark has been in poor health, and his wife has been caring for him. But she took a moment on Monday to simply say of the center: “It has been close to our hearts for so many years.”

It was all decided long ago, so the longtime staff and docents had time to prepare. But it’s still hard. “I’ve been sad ever since I heard it was closing,” says Fern Takahashi, who volunteered as a docent for five years. She’s one of three docents who get to be here on the last day.

In the final weeks, attendance surged at the center, with 100 people showing up on the last Saturday. Some were like Richard Yamaguchi, who went on the last day at the urging of his wife, Irma.

“I didn’t even know it existed,” he admits.

Much of the art is already gone, safe and sound in Minneapolis. Andreas Marks, who for five years was director at the Clark — and who moved to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to oversee the Clark collection there — has a pensive afternoon.

“I’ve been thinking about it all day,” he says in a phone interview. “It is a sad day, but I’m trying to see the positive side of it. That’s easy for me to say because I’ve got the art here with me in Minneapolis. But it enriched lives in the Valley for so many years.”

On this last day, there’s a lot to do besides think about loss. Yoko Ueno, the current director, has the important job of overseeing the shutting down of the center, including loads of paperwork. Staff will remain through July as things wind down. No decision has been made about any new use for the state-of-the-art museum building.

For Barbara McCasland, the center’s administrative supervisor, the day is bittersweet. (“Four months ago, this day seemed so far away,” she says.) She has been at the center since the beginning in 1995, and she understands why the collection had to be moved. “Knowing why it was done and knowing that Mr. Clark is happy makes it much easier for me,” she says. “He wanted the collection to live on.”

The Clark Center’s bonsai collection is going to a new home at Woodward Park’s Shinzen Friendship Garden.

It’s getting close to 5 p.m., and Mike Quinn, a longtime fan of the Clark Center, lingers at the office saying farewells. He’s in a philosophical mood. Borrowing an idea from Joseph Campbell, he likens the center to the Zen story of a world being born when the creator Brahma opens his eyes — and ending when he closes his eyes.

“That’s what happened here,” he says. “Bill Clark created this place, and now it’s gone.”

It’s time. A few minutes past 5. A few lingerers in the gallery pay their final respects, and then it’s lights off. Just as she did on that first day when the Clark Center opened, McCasland locks the door. It’s time to go home.

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