Theater & Arts

Willard G. ‘Bill’ Clark, rancher and Japanese art collector, dies at 85

Willard G. “Bill” Clark, founder of the Clark Center for Japanese Art near Hanford, poses in 2000 with his first piece, a Japanese hanging scroll titled the Hawk and Egret by artist Ohara Keizan.
Willard G. “Bill” Clark, founder of the Clark Center for Japanese Art near Hanford, poses in 2000 with his first piece, a Japanese hanging scroll titled the Hawk and Egret by artist Ohara Keizan. Fresno Bee file

Willard G. “Bill” Clark, the Hanford rancher-turned-export-businessman whose love of Japanese art and canny eye for purchasing priceless objects turned him into a world-renowned collector, died Sunday on the ranch where he lived for all his 85 years.

A cause of death was not released by his family.

In 2009, the Japanese government awarded Willard G. “Bill” Clark a high honor in recognition for his “accomplishments in contributing to the introduction of Japanese art and toward the promotion of cultural and educational exchange” between Japan and the U.S.

Mr. Clark founded the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford in 1995 with his wife, Elizabeth “Libby” Clark. The small but prestigious institution, which attracted followers of Japanese art from all over the world, was an unlikely sight on Avenue 10 south of Hanford, tucked into the middle of almond orchards just down the street from a dairy farm.

When you walked through the center’s 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. Visitors were asked to remove their shoes in a tiny alcove.

It was the type of small but beautifully curated experience that could envelop you for an hour or two in a reflective, unhurried setting.

The center closed at the end of June. In 2013, the Clarks gave the center’s entire collection – nearly 1,700 objects spanning a period of 10 centuries, with an estimated value of $25 million – to the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Along with the center’s collection, the Clarks offered their private collection in an arrangement that was part gift and part purchase.

For Mr. Clark, who started collecting Japanese art in earnest during the late 1970s, sending off his collection to Minnesota was bittersweet.

“My heart is in the Valley,” he said in a 2013 Bee interview. “I’m fifth generation. But I have to be realistic. There isn’t enough population in the Valley to support the museum.”

The Clarks had always subsidized the museum, and they did not want the costs to be a burden for their children.

The one part of the center that stayed in the central San Joaquin Valley was the bonsai collection, which was moved to the Shinzen Friendship Garden at Woodward Park.

Mr. Clark’s fascination with Japanese art began in a sixth-grade geography class and ripened through his days at the University of California at Davis and stints in Japan during military service in the Navy.

He served in the U.S. Naval Air Force for four years, and from 1958 on managed the family ranching and dairy operation that eventually had one of the top Holstein herds in the United States, according to a statement issued by the family, who through a spokesperson declined interviews. Mr. Clark founded World Wide Sires and developed it into the world’s largest broker of frozen bull semen for artificial insemination, with distributors in 66 countries, including Japan.

In 2009, the Japanese government awarded him a high honor in recognition for his “accomplishments in contributing to the introduction of Japanese art and toward the promotion of cultural and educational exchange” between Japan and the U.S.

His legacy lives on in good company: The collection donated by the Clarks has helped turn the Minneapolis museum into a powerhouse player in the field. The permanent display space for Japanese art at the museum is the largest in the Western world with more than 10,000 square feet and 15 galleries.

Willard G. ‘Bill’ Clark

  • Born: Oct. 2, 1930
  • Died: Nov. 22, 2015
  • Education: Hanford High School, University of California at Davis and Harvard Business School
  • Occupation: Rancher, founder of World Wide Sires
  • Survivors: Wife Elizabeth (“Libby”); daughter Catherine (Joseph Joyce) of Wellesley, Mass.; son Stuart and daughter-in-law Lena of Carmel; and son Wesley and daughter-in-law Shaida of Danville; eight grandchildren
  • Services: A memorial service will be held in spring
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