Donald Munro

An appreciation: Willard G. ‘Bill’ Clark was an unlikely world-class collector

Willard G. “Bill” Clark stands in front of the museum he built outside Hanford to display his collection of Japanese art for a 1996 photo.
Willard G. “Bill” Clark stands in front of the museum he built outside Hanford to display his collection of Japanese art for a 1996 photo. Fresno Bee file

Willard G. “Bill” Clark knew a heck of a lot about frozen bull semen.

He also could talk your ear off about Japan’s famed Edo period, a golden age of art in the 17th century.

If one of the marks of a truly fascinating person is the ability to surprise, then Mr. Clark, who died Nov. 22 at his Hanford ranch at age 85, certainly fit the bill. There are many unlikely candidates you could imagine for a person going on to amass a world-class collection of Japanese art, but Mr. Clark – a fifth-generation central San Joaquin Valley son of longtime dairy farmers, educated in a rural school in which eight grade levels were taught by one teacher – has to rank high on the list.

To put it simply, Mr. Clark fell in love with Japan and its art.

The result of that passion was the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, founded by Mr. Clark and his wife, Elizabeth (“Libby”). He put the center, a small complex consisting of a state-of-the-art gallery, administrative center and library, in what was essentially his (very large) front yard.

An unlikely location for a specialized museum, to be sure. But that was the charm of the place. I’d be driving south of Hanford on Avenue 10, the flat agricultural landscape whirring by, and suddenly it was there: a cultural oasis with almond trees instead of palms.

The center closed in June as part of a planned transition of the Clark collection to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. (The bonsai collection, however, went to the Shinzen Friendship Garden at Woodward Park.) The Clarks had always subsidized the center. As they got older, they didn’t want it to be a burden for their children, so they gave the collection to the museum.

A Japanese art center smack in the middle of ag land was always going to be a tough sell on a grand scale, of course. Did people in Hanford, and by extension the rest of the Valley, know what a jewel was in their midst? Some did, certainly. Many more didn’t. The center had a small but loyal cadre of fans who trekked to its rotating shows. But in terms of the bigger picture, it was unsustainable, and Mr. Clark knew it.

Still, he wanted his neighbors to share in his passion.

“He felt an obligation and a joy in giving back to the community that had nurtured him and his family,” says Kaywin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis museum – and a blast-from-the-past Fresno name. She headed the now-defunct Fresno Metropolitan Museum during a happier period in its history, a time in which she met and befriended the Clarks.

Mr. Clark’s fascination with Japan began with a glimpse in a sixth-grade geography textbook of a photograph of a Japanese garden. From then on, he was hooked. (“My wife kids me that I was Japanese in an earlier life,” he told Orientations, a magazine for art collectors, in a 1998 interview.)

A stint in the U.S. Naval Air Force after graduation from the University of California at Davis gave him a chance to explore Japan. When he and Libby spent several weeks traveling in the country, they had little money but bought their first art: some minor kakemonos, or scrolls, and a single screen.

How did he parlay those first acquisitions into the 1,700-piece collection that would eventually go to Minneapolis?

“He definitely had a great eye for Japanese art,” Feldman says.

But Mr. Clark also had a great head for business. In 1958, he took over managing his family’s ranching and dairy operation, winding up with one of the top Holstein herds in the United States. And as founder of World Wide Sires Inc., he developed the company into the world's largest broker of frozen bull semen.

He had a way to pay for his fascination with Japanese art.

His is the ultimate pack-rat story: Mr. Clark accumulated so much art, and had both the means and canny taste to choose such excellent work, that he pretty much didn’t have a choice but build a museum for it. As the story goes, his wife told him he needed to find a new space after he started taking visiting scholars into his bedroom to show the paintings hanging there.

Does part of me wish that he could have found a way to keep the Clark Center open in his beloved Valley after he was gone? Absolutely. But it wasn’t meant to be. Japanese art can be astonishingly fascinating and beautiful, and I learned a lot from Mr. Clark’s collection, but it’s also a niche interest. Garnering support outside a major urban area would have been difficult.

Those who took advantage of the opportunity had a good 20 years to enjoy the Clarks’ vision. For that we should be thankful. And it’s nice to know that Minneapolis is continuing the legacy. That sixth-grade geography text kicked off a journey that helped form a remarkable life.

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