Last year, philanthropist, art patron and heiress Huguette Clark passed away at the age of 104, leaving behind a 23-acre estate that is now the topic of a heated legal dispute.
Clark left behind two different wills, written six weeks apart in 2005, regarding her estimated $400 million in properties including Santa Barbara’s oceanfront Bellosguardo mansion, which Clark is said to have left uninhabited for over 50 years while she lived in New York. Her first will left $5 million to her nurse and divided the rest among her relatives while the second gave $34 million to the nurse and none to the relatives and expressed her desire to transform the Bellosguardo estate into Santa Barbara’s next art museum.
The second document calls for much of her fortune to go into creating the Bellosguardo Foundation to further development of the city’s artistic community and house her collection of rare books, paintings and instruments. The estate would be managed by Clark’s attorney and accountant, both of whom received $500,000 from her will and are under investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office for their management of Clark’s wealth.
Many in Santa Barbara’s community, including Mayor Helene Schneider and other community leaders, have expressed support for Bellosguardo to become a museum for community members to enjoy.
Elyse Gonzales, Curator of Exhibitions at the UCSB Art Museum, said the art community will greatly benefit should Bellosguardo ultimately become a museum.
“I think it would be terrific, because then Santa Barbara would become even more of an art destination,” Gonzales said. “From what I understand, the collection is extraordinary. It’s a real representation of a discerning collecting eye.”
Clark was known throughout the community for her historically valuable collection and was a member of the Santa Barbara Art museum since 1949.
Gonzales said Santa Barbara has always had a reputation as an art-centered city.
“I think Santa Barbara has a real history of appreciating and celebrating the arts, and I think that is reflected in the number of theatrical companies, music companies and art institutions,” Gonzales said.
According to Gonzales, an art museum at Bellosguardo would establish another accessible art venue for UCSB students.
“I think that any time there is a new institution [in] town, everybody gets affected — for better — because it just brings more attention to the art being done here or exhibited here,” Gonzales said. “For UCSB students specifically, it’s another venue for art studios or art history majors or people who are just interested in arts to have access to this cache of wonderful objects.”
The potential exhibit at the Bellosguardo may feature 19th century French impressionist art from the Romantic era, according to Gonzales.
Rachel Smith, a student employee at the UCSB art museum, said public access to the collection would be creatively beneficial to the university’s art students.
“This sounds like a great opportunity for the UCSB art community to become more involved and knowledgeable on different types of art. The variety of art that it will contain will surely inspire aspiring artists at UCSB,” Smith said in an email. “If the UCSB Museum of Art, Design, and Architecture were able to borrow any displays [or] exhibits, I think that would be a perfect way to publicize both of the museums, as most students do not even know we have a museum on campus.”
According to Smith, a Bellosguardo museum could interest and inspire Gauchos from many different academic backgrounds.
“I think a lot of students (including myself) would be very interested in visiting Bellosguardo. It seems like a unique way to be exposed to both art and architecture, since the mansion itself is a piece of art, too,” Smith said. “I think this would renew my interest in art, as sometimes it is hard to make time for this type of creative indulgence among the stressful and busy life at UCSB.”
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of November 13th, 2012’s print edition of the Nexus.