When Selma Holo first met the charismatic collector in 1977, she was green as grass. She was also bold as brass. Three years earlier, the Chicago-born art history student had bulldozed her way into the Getty Museum shortly after the Roman-style villa in Malibu opened. A doctoral candidate at UC Santa Barbara and an instructor at the Art Center College of Design, Holo had come to pitch an idea to teach an on-site course at the Getty. Jiri Frel, the new museum’s curator of anti-quities, liked the idea so much he stole it and ended up teaching the course himself. But Holo had made an impression, and the two remained friends. Frel eventually repaid the favor: he called Holo one day with a mysterious invitation to meet “somebody.” That somebody turned out to be museum builder Norton Simon. The millionaire businessman owned a number of Goya prints and paintings and was eager for expert feedback on his collection. As luck would have it, the Spanish master happened to be Holo’s specialty — she was then writing her dissertation on Goya’s “Tauromaquia,” a series of 33 etchings on bullfighting. In 1977, Simon hired Holo as a consultant. Soon after, he asked her to become his museum’s permanent curator of acquisitions.
“He took advantage of my naïveté,” Holo laughs, contemplating the strangeness of such an offer to a doctoral student with no real-world museum background. “I was inexperienced and didn’t have my mind set by too many prejudices,” she says. “Mr. Simon knew he could mold me and shape me. He liked people who he thought were smart but not overly trained.”
Holo got plenty of on-the-job training soon enough.
“Selma worked for Mr. Simon during the years he was actively buying — during the golden years of his collecting,” says her former student Gloria Williams, who is now curator of the Norton Simon Museum.
Simon was a master of the intricacies of timing, of playing dealers against each other, of swapping art, and of countless unorthodox maneuvers, says Williams. He relished the art of the deal almost as much as the art itself. “Selma had to be very much on her toes. She became very savvy about the market,” Williams says.
Holo recalls the most exciting acquisition she ever oversaw. It was the purchase of “The Three Graces” by French 20th-century sculptor Aristide Maillol.
Simon had sent Holo to Paris to meet with Dina Vierney, the late artist’s flamboyant model, muse and mistress. Under Maillol’s will, Vierney had the right to cast a limited number of extra copies of his works. Holo’s assignment was to look over a brand new casting of “The Three Graces,” to check if the patina was up to snuff.
“I was surprised at how I knew,” Holo says. “But if you’ve seen enough pieces done right, you know when it’s wrong. On this piece, the patina was more like shoe polish than skin. If you go now to the Norton Simon Museum, the patina looks like a natural outgrowth of the surface. It’s gorgeous.”
Holo stayed in Paris for two weeks, haggling with Vierney to refine the patina by a combination of chemical processes. “I got to talk to Vierney. She was a very sexy, fabulous 70-ish old lady. I got to be intimidated by her, stand up to her and eventually come back with this wonderful piece.”
The Simon years left an indelible mark on Holo, but by 1981, she was ready to move on to something different. Her luck once again came to the fore.
“I got a call out of the blue from USC,” she recalls. She had been working on a Dali exhibition in Tokyo when John Gordon, then dean of the School of Fine Arts, telephoned to ask whether she’d be interested in becoming director of the Fisher Gallery. “I actually wasn’t that interested in running a university gallery, so I said no,” Holo recalls. A few weeks later, Gordon came back with a better offer: How about running the Fisher Gallery and directing the brand-new Museum Studies Program? Holo jumped at the chance.
“I had gotten a little tired of being just in the museum world,” she says. “I wanted to be involved with the university world. But I didn’t want to just teach. This was a way to do both. That was heaven. It turned out to be the dream job for me.”
The arrangement turned out to be a brilliant stroke from the university’s perspective, too. Over the years Holo has made some stunning innovations. For example, she made USC a pioneer in teaching preventive conservation to future museum professionals.
Fifteen years ago, Holo heard conservation superstar Gael de Guichen speak at a conference in Rome. De Guichen was the inventor of the idea of preventive conservation, a new movement in the art world that regarded the conservator not as a repairman for damaged art but as a patrolman making sure art doesn’t get damaged in the first place. Holo decided she wanted MSP
students exposed to de Guichen’s concepts, so she cornered the venerable conservator at the meeting and prodded him to lecture at USC. Though reluctant, de Guichen eventually agreed on one condition:
“He said, ‘If I come out there, you must bring some young conservator along to shadow me and continue the work after I’m gone,’ ” Holo recalls.
That person ended up being Jerry Podany, now the conservator of antiquities at the Getty Museum and a 13-year veteran instructor in the Museum Studies Program.
“I do a three-session lecture every year,” Podany says. “The more people who understand the intricacies of the discipline, the more successful we are at protecting our cultural heritage. It’s gratifying to see [the students] carry this information away and incorporate it into their profession in a real way.”
Amazing as it seems, between teaching most of the museum studies seminars, running the Fisher Gallery, chasing down student internships and recruiting instructors, Holo finds time for scholarship. In 1994, she spent a year in Spain on a Fulbright senior fellowship doing research for her forthcoming book, Beyond the Prado: Museums and Identity in Democratic Spain. The book, to be published by Smithsonian Institution Press later this year, explores how Spain’s passage from dictatorship to democracy is reflected in an “efflorescence of museums.”
During her sabbatical next year, she plans to go to Mexico on a project designed with USC geography professor Michael Dear to study “border art” — not the mainstream art of Mexico City but the fringe art of outlying areas, “the secret, democratic museums that have been spawned by the people, not the government,” as she puts it. In the past Holo has collaborated with USC School of Cinema-Television professor of critical studies Marsha Kinder, who shares her interest in Spanish arts as an expression of Spain’s political climate. Holo has also worked with USC engineers and computer scientists on an innovative Internet installation that allowed remote users to rotate and view “The Drinking Maiden,” an 800-pound marble sculpture by German artist Ernst Wenck.
But whenever Holo starts feeling dizzy from breathing the thin air in the Ivory Tower, she comes back down to the hustle and bustle of the museum world.
Recently, she went to New York to auction off “Twinings Farm,” a painting by American primitive artist Edward Hicks. The work had been left in irrevocable trust to USC and was earmarked for sale to raise money for the Fisher Gallery and the School of Medicine. When the painting sold for $1.3 million, Holo realized she had just set a new record in American folk art.
“It was very exciting,” she says.
The excitement fizzled fast, however. In the very next lot, the new record was broken by the sale of a more famous painting by the same artist.
Somewhere up there, Norton Simon was probably chortling.