Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a two-part series about the life and career of Dr. Richard Simms. Read Part I here.
Dr. Richard A. Simms devoted himself to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for 33 years. From the time it opened its doors, he gave it money, over 65 works of art and a lot of himself. A recognized art collector, he eventually served on its board of trustees for 12 years, the board’s sole African-American at that time and only the third then to sit on that governing body.
He and his wife were honored on the gleaming black marble wall that lists donors beside the wide stairs leading into the museum from Wilshire Boulevard. He foresaw making LACMA, as the museum is widely known, the home for his significant art collection anchored in the work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz.
Respected by fellow trustees, Simms held a four-year term at one point as chairman of the powerful Acquisitions Committee at LACMA, a museum funded partly by public money and the largest art museum west of Chicago. He oversaw art purchases across curatorial departments that held more than 150,000 objects from antiquity to contemporary art, gaining a level of influence at a major American museum almost unknown for an African-American at that time and still rare.
But on June 5, 1998, Simms abruptly resigned from the LACMA board, and began seeking another home for his loyalty and his art. In 2016, Simms placed his collection of more than 650 prints and drawings across town, at the Getty Research Institute (GRI) part of the J. Paul Getty Center art complex above the 405 Freeway.
The fraying of his devotion to LACMA had more than one cause, but the final one was a policy memo dated May 28, 1998 that Simms viewed as unfair and offensive because it labeled him only as one of the board’s two “minorities,” at the same time that his name was omitted from a list of trustees known as art collectors, reducing him in his mind to a form of token rather than acknowledging him as a trustee known for his forceful, discerning collecting for decades.
“I was so (angry) when all I was recognized as (at LACMA) was a minority. I was so (angry) about it, I resigned,” Simms said, his well-mannered vocabulary breaking open to saltier language than is used here. “I had stayed on that board for three, five-year appointments. And they write that, that I am a minority, and that is my only contribution to the entire place!”
Simms has described key elements of the memo to close art world friends for decades and did so in interviews for a story about him and his art. Often, starting with warm recollections of LACMA, he would turn to the unfairness of the memo and his decision to resign from the board. The Forward was able to confirm the memo’s existence and elements of it that Simms described.
Daniel Belin, a Jewish former president of the LACMA board and long-time attorney, who has spoken with Simms about the memo episode, said he believes Simms experienced “clumsy and insensitive” treatment that stemmed from the lack of “sensitivity” of a governing body that was “basically an all-white board for all those years.”
Why Did This Pioneering Trustee Leave LACMA And Place His Prized Collection With The Getty?
The memo was a blueprint for ways to strengthen and expand the board in preparation for an ambitious capital campaign to improve the museum. It had on its last page the signature of Eli Broad, a long-time LACMA trustee, and appeared on stationery of SunAmerica, Broad’s giant financial services company, before he sold it in 1999. Broad is well-known for his philanthropic efforts, including ones in education and culture. He built a museum in downtown LA, called The Broad Museum, partly to house much of the art collection built by himself and his wife.
Broad, born in the Bronx to Lithuanian Jewish parents, declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story after its focus on his role was described to his representative. “He remembers Simms and he remembers discussions about expanding the board,” said the spokesperson, Swati Pandey. “But he does not recall the memo, or why Simms left the board.”
At the center of the memo, which emerged from a May 26, 1998 meeting at with other trustees and top LACMA administrators were present, was a kind of spreadsheet with seven columns listing existing trustees in different categories. It called for an increase from 37 trustees to 45 over the next two years. Existing trustees were placed under headings—”Business,” “Civic Leaders” and other general areas that included, “Collectors” and, “Minorities.” Above each grouping, the memo projected a number by which the number of trustees might be increased.
Seeing his name as one of two listed in the “Minorities” column, while it did not appear in that of “Collectors” is what Simms said caused his anger and then his resignation.
Asked if he held Broad accountable for how the document categorized him, Simms said, “Absolutely not,” adding: “From what I know of Eli Broad, from watching him on the board and observing him in general, he would not have prepared that document. He might have signed it, but he would never get into the nitty gritty of putting that thing together.”
Interviews with people who were familiar with behind-the-scenes policy discussions at LACMA around the time the memo was created said that it actually stemmed from a drive to increase the number of minorities on the board. From two trustees who appeared in the list of existing “Minorities,” Simms and a Latino businessman also on the board, the memo projected a “desired” increase to four.
Melody Kanschat, a high-ranking LACMA official who worked closely with Andrea L. Rich, director of the museum when Simms left, said in an interview that Rich pushed to reshape the board to better reflect the diversity of Los Angeles. The memo, she said, likely grew from her goal of making that a priority. Simms said he had an encounter with Rich, listed on the twenty-year-old memo as having taken part in the meeting that produced it, in which she spoke of it. “When she saw me, she said: ‘When I heard about it, I knew you were gone,’” Simms recalled.
Rich, raised in a Jewish family in San Diego, resigned from her LACMA post in 2005, and died nine years later, at 71. Her professional papers were lost in a wildfire that destroyed her home, and no record appears to exist elsewhere that might have shed light on Simms’s resignation.
To this day, Simms said, he wonders why Rich made no effort to apologize, or to change his mind about leaving. LACMA has had a history of struggles to hold on to wavering trustee-collectors, who in some prominent cases placed their art with other institutions or created their own museums. Simms said he didn’t try to break through her seeming detachment for more of a discussion about how the memo defined him: “I was not going to grovel.”
Of Rich’s seeming detachment from Simms’s resignation, Kanchat said, “I will give you a piece of information about Andrea. Andrea was not one, if someone was offended, to run after them and try to change their mind. She respected it if someone was hurt in that way and made a decision like a resignation, and I believe Andrea would have said, ‘I’m sorry that this happened and I respect your decision to resign,’ and that would have been that.”
Asked if he realized that the intent of the memo was to increase minority membership on the LACMA board, Simms said that he did. In the end, he said, what angered him most was being excluded from the category of trustee-collectors. Simms said that if he’d seen himself listed in the “minority” column, but also named as one of the board’s collectors, “I probably might have stayed.”
The memo incident, according to two close friends of Simms, came after years in which he’d told them of feeling like a token as the only black person on the board. Also, friends said, he was unhappy that he received certain invitations to board-related events late or not at all. Kanchat said there was a stretch when her office, in charge of such things, had a general problem getting certain communications out to trustees effectively.
Stephanie Barron, LACMA’s senior curator and department head for Modern Art, whose 43-year career at the museum overlapped with Simms’s time there, recalled him in a recent interview as a “very community-oriented” trustee. In 2016, Barron reached out to Simms to explore with him a preliminary idea that LACMA might purchase his collection in a joint arrangement with the GRI, a sign that the memory of Simms and desire for his Kollwitz collection endured at LACMA two decades after his resignation.
Simms told her that the deal to place his collection with the GRI was all but complete. He asked her if she knew the story of the memo and his resignation, and she said she did not, according to interviews with both of them. Recalling the phone call recently, Barron said the memo was not a matter that she, as a curator, would have known about. Despite discussions of possibly making Simms a lifetime LACMA trustee, an honorary position, the joint purchase idea went nowhere.
To understand the intensity with which Simms describes his long-ago break with LACMA, one must know his deeply felt connection to the museum, the extent to which he was close to the people who conceived of it, built it and ran it from the earliest years.
According to Simms, two board members at the time became his supporters as he made his ascent: Dr. Franklin D. Murphy and Richard Sherwood. Murphy was a committed philo-Semitic pillar of the city’s establishment who helped forge a new alliance of the LA Jewish Community and the WASP old guard that played a big role in the birth of the museum. Sherwood was a prominent Jewish lawyer.
Murphy, when Simms worked with him at LACMA, was chairman and chief executive of the Times Mirror Company, then owner of the Los Angeles Times, positions he held from 1968 through 1980, remaining with Times Mirror director until 1986.
He was a civic and business leader in Los Angeles who turned his positions at the head of major institutions into opportunities to reshape the city so effectively that a 2007 biography of him by Margaret Leslie Davis was titled: “The Culture Broker: Franklin D. Murphy and the Transformation of Los Angeles.”
A medical doctor, he became dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Kansas, then chancellor. Then, he became the leader of the University of California at Los Angeles, through the struggles over Vietnam and Civil Rights, resigning after speaking out against budget cuts imposed by the administration of Gov. Ronald Reagan.
His consuming focus on culture, especially the visual arts, engrossed him as a graduate student in Germany during the early Nazi period, which included an episode in which he was so upset when an anti-Nazi professor suddenly disappeared from the university, that he quit the program to travel in Europe and look at art. He is said to have admired the art of Käthe Kollwitz. He was chairman of the board of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and also served a four-year term during his long, influential trusteeship at LACMA as president of the board.
Simms describes personal exchanges with Murphy, always with a touch of awe, saying: “He was the king-maker of the West Side. He was a nice man. He appeared to be not pretentious.”
Sherwood’s ascent to partnership in the major downtown Los Angeles law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, in 1964, was described in an LA Times story as coming “in an era when the city’s major law firms, as well as cultural institutions, remained less than welcoming to Jews.”
An approachable man known widely as Dick, openly liberal in his politics, he served as chairman of the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles chapter, and as president of the LACMA board from 1974 to 1978, remaining on after that as a trustee.
“Dick Sherwood was a giant,” Simms said. “He was a Harvard graduate and when he came out of school, he clerked for Felix Frankfurter, and he was a giant as a Jewish associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. “One day, in 1985, I received a call from Richard Sherwood, and he invited me to join the board of LACMA,” Simms continued. “He did that, together with Franklin Murphy. The two of them, together, brought me onto that board. It couldn’t have been done without Murphy being in favor of it, but Sherwood was the one who did it.” Simms said that he felt sure that the reasons Murphy and Sherwood elevated him to the LACMA board had nothing to do with race, but drew only on his long-proven abilities at navigating the art world and building his collection, and also as a leader for decades among LACMA’s collectors and donors.
“Neither Franklin Murphy or Richard Sherwood ever raised any hint that they wanted me for that board because I was black,” he said with a tinge of anger at even being asked about it. ”I never experienced that kind of attitude at all.”
Daniel Belin agreed, saying Simms’s acumen and general suitability for the post formed the interest Murphy and Sherwood had in selecting him. Belin remembered talks with the two LACMA leaders about bringing Simms onto the board: “We were color-blind in those conversations, totally color-blind. We respected Simms for what he’d achieved and who he was.”
Simms speaks of one-on-one meetings he had with Murphy in an executive dining room of the LA Times, called the Picasso Room in honor of works by the artist that hung on its walls. The collector recounted the feeling of mutual respect that marked his exchanges with Murphy: “Quite often, when I had museum business to discuss with him, he made it a priority even when he was busy with other matters. He’d say, ‘Come on over’, and I’d go over and we’d talk about it.”
In one story describing his relationship with Murphy, Simms told how trustees gathered for a board meeting applauded Murphy for a certain approach to a situation that he’d articulated to them: “He told them to not applaud him, and said: ‘Give your applause to Simms, because it was his idea.’ That’s the kind of man he was,” Simms added.
Murphy brought onto the board its first African-American trustee, Charles Z. Wilson. It happened in 1971, and Murphy sought him out mainly to work on administrative matters that related to LACMA’s sometimes complex early fiscal dealings with Los Angeles County.
An economist, Wilson (usually called C.Z.) rose from poverty in the Mississippi Delta to become the first African-American vice chancellor at UCLA, in charge of academic programs. He was close with Murphy from his time at the university, and grew close with Richard Sherwood at LACMA.
He said in a recent interview that Sherwood introduced a resolution on the LACMA board in the mid-1970s that called an Affirmative Action policy to guide decisions about who might join the board.
“You have moments in your life that are gems,” Wilson said. “Moments you are proud of because they represent what you are trying to achieve with your whole life, and that moment when I got to second Dick Sherwood’s Affirmative Action resolution for the board at LACMA was that moment.”
Wilson sat near his wife in the living room of their airy home in the Pacific Palisades, whose walls are covered with an eclectic array of art, some key pieces by Noah Purifoy, Richard Wyatt, Jr., and other leading African-American artists. The Purifoy, a vibrantly colorful assemblage, was built from debris the artist salvaged from the Watts riots that convulsed Los Angeles in 1965.
A Wyatt piece hanging on the wall also had a sense of salvaged wreckage, and Wilson said it was made in response to the riots that tore through sections of LA after the acquittal of four police officers charged in the 1991 beating of Rodney King.
Wilson spoke warmly of Sherwood, recalling that, “his Judaism was a form of the way he lived and his thoughts, and the way he approached everything.” He responded warmly to Sherwood and other Jews he met at LACMA and elsewhere in large part because he’d grown up knowing many Jews in his boyhood hometown of Greenville, Mississippi.
Wilson said he knew from conversations with Sherwood that he was considering Simms as a potential board member before his decisive effort in 1985 to make it happen.
“Dick Sherwood was part of the liberal community that was trying to bring about change,” Wilson said. “And his priority of bringing Simms onto that board was part of that. Simms was not an industrialist who was wealthy, certainly not at that level of wealth they were looking for. He was not an internationally known art scholar.
“Dick Simms was an activist for art. Dick Simms was a collector,” Wilson added. “There was a strong bottom-up growth in that museum, and Dick Simms came from the grass roots, from the Graphic Arts Council.”
The Graphic Arts Council (GAC) was a group of volunteers, including many collectors, who worked closely with LACMA’s prints and drawings curator to build the museum’s collection. Simms played several leadership roles in the GAC, and his name can be seen in the lists of group purchases that developed LACMA’s strong reputation for works on paper.
Dorothy “Dee” Sherwood, Richard Sherwood’s wife, was also active at LACMA. They knew Simms well in the museum’s first years.
In a telephone interview she gave a few months before her recent death, she recalled her own volunteer engagement with the museum in its early years and meeting Simms “the very first year” after LACMA opened its doors on Wilshire Boulevard. He was, she said, “a gregarious, gracious person and had a great sense of humor, and delighted in seeing unusual things.”
Ranging more broadly, she said that “Dick (Simms) and my husband weren’t close friends, but they were board member friends and they worked together on acquisitions — that was the point of it, the whole point of it, to bring in the art, to get the museum’s curators the money to buy it. We didn’t have an Eli Broad then. We didn’t have people with all the money in the world.”
Sherwood spoke of how well Simms, “adroit in conversation,” got along with Franklin Murphy, saying the two shared a “voracious curiosity.”
She described how Simms fit in with the new era in which Jews were invited in increasing numbers to become part of the LACMA hierarchy. “There weren’t many at first, and then it started to happen.”
Sherwood talked of how she and her husband worked “to know lots of people in many communities. We felt we were very fortunate to be included at decision-making levels in different groups and we felt an obligation to take advantage of that and to give back. Dick Simms was a part of that.”
Her memories of Simms in those years matched those of Wilson, who spoke of Simms as a collector “interested in making and helping that museum grow.” He added: “The race thing was a secondary consideration, but it would have been a consideration under any situation. It would always be there, no matter what. But Dick Sherwood had the power to bring him onto that board, and he did it.
“He was the first minority to move forward inside the council movement, and the first to move up from that onto the board,” Wilson added.
“He knew a lot, and he knew how to share it in a way that was unpretentious, clear, and that came with a deep and real devotion to the museum,” said Timothy O. Benson, curator of the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies at LACMA. Benson was one of the curators from LACMA and other institutions who climbed the stairs to the private print room Simms kept above his dental offices in Harbor City, south of downtown LA, to view the Kollwitz collection.
Barron, who is Jewish and especially well-known for exhibitions that have deeply explored German culture and history, called Simms, “very community-oriented.”
For decades, according to past and current LACMA officials, Simms involved himself across a variety of museum efforts, from the buying of art for its collection, to arranging for buses to bring school children to LACMA, to brainstorming new methods to bring in money.
Simms played a decisive role in the LACMA board’s adoption for its own use of an approach to raising money for art acquisitions that had worked at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It was called the Collectors Committee, and in the 32 years since LACMA began using it, it has become what the Los Angeles Times called “one of the institution’s biggest fundraisers.”
Held every spring since 1986, the Collectors Committee Weekend is open to LACMA supporters who pay handsomely — in 2017, between $15,000 and $60,000 — to attend a party and vote on which artworks from a wish-list drawn up by LACMA curators to buy for the museum’s permanent collection. It is a kind of temporary open house acquisitions committee, and the price of admission includes gourmet meals during the weekend that are served at the homes of LACMA trustees.
The approach has paid LACMA back handsomely. The number of works by different artists that the museum has acquired through the Collectors Committee gatherings are too many to easily mention. It has become what Michael Govan, LACMA’s director since 2006, has called, “The American Idol” of the art world.
LACMA archivist Jessica Gambling sent me an email distilling board minutes that detailed the progress of the idea from a board subcommittee to the full board, a process in which several trustees played key roles to advance it. Simms appears as a clear advocate for its approval. Gambling’s email described how Simms was praised, on May 7, 1986, along with others on the board, for his efforts.
Charles Wilson had moved on from LACMA to run a newspaper publishing enterprise by the time Simms joined the LACMA board, did not know the fuller story behind Simms’s resignation until I told it to him recently. But his wife, Kelly Wilson, had learned the outline of it directly from Simms.
Kelly Wilson is associated these days with the J. Paul Getty Center as a docent, but she said she has also served on the advisory board of the Department of Education at LACMA in the 1980s, and served on the board of the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.
Kelly Wilson ran into Simms on a day in November, 2017, at the Getty Center, after not seeing him for a time, and he explained to her that he was at the Getty to be honored at a dinner for his efforts as the founding head of the GRI Donor Council.
In those moments before the dinner, Wilson said, Simms spoke to her about what had happened at LACMA twenty years before.
“He told me that he’d resigned from the board because he’d been labelled as a black man after his long service to LACMA, and that it was too much for him,” she said. “It had happened 20 years before, but what struck me was that he was still so hurt.”
Simms soon left in the company of GRI officials for his dinner, but Wilson kept thinking about their encounter, trying to make sense of what he’d told her.
She is 57, 33 years younger than her husband, to whom she has been married for 33 years. In her experience, said Wilson, who is African-American and whose interest in history took shape as a history major at Dartmouth College, African-Americans who came of age before the Civil Rights Movement, who experienced levels of raw exclusion and racial aggression of that time, tended to sustain strong habits for protecting themselves emotionally.
“I think back to my mother and her generation, and I think how they had everything done to them,” she said. “They generally got thick skins, and had learned to not be so sensitive. What hit me was that Simms was sensitive, that he suffered strongly from that black designation. When I think back to my mother and her generation, I think he’s unusual.”
Though she didn’t directly witness what happened to Simms, Wilson said she perceived his departure as the result of a general failure of LACMA leaders at the time to understand him.
“Were they actively discriminating against him? Probably not,” she said. “They were insensitive to him. They really didn’t know who he was, after all those years…Franklin Murphy pulled C.Z. onto that board for his administrative skills. C.Z. wasn’t an art collector. Simms was a really good one, and it seems to me that if you are going to bring people who are sensitive enough to art to be good collectors onto a board, you must figure out how to work with sensitive people.
“If they are going to bring in an African-American onto the board,” she added, “and if he is the only African-American, then you are accountable for making the effort to feel the world as he feels it.” Through the first years of the 1990s, Simms said, he felt a general sense of encouragement on a LACMA board whose overall tone he said was influenced by Murphy and Sherwood.
Then, Sherwood died suddenly from a massive cerebral hemorrhage, in April, 1993. For Simms, the shock of the loss seems to reverberate to this day: “He was 64 when he died. And I liked the man. I really liked him.” Simms said he paid for bag-pipers to perform at memorial service for Sherwood held at LACMA. Franklin Murphy died, at 78, in June, 1994. a little more than a year later, from cancer.
“The board was never really the same after they were gone,” Simms said. “It’s hard to put my finger on it. There were some others there who I respected, but Murphy and Sherwood were people you could not just replace.”
Andrew Robison, who recently retired as the Andrew W. Mellon senior curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Art and has been Simms’s long-time friend, said the collector spoke to him repeatedly of his growing unhappiness on the LACMA board. Robison said the Murphy-Sherwood era was “a golden age” to Simms and that its end affected him strongly.
“I don’t think he ever felt as comfortable on that board again,” Robison said.