Hunt­ing­ton’s chief leav­ing with pride

Steven Kob­lik’s 14- year run marked by sig­nif­i­cant up­grades

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY MIKE BOEHM

Even in the home stretch of his 14- year run as pres­i­dent of the Hunt­ing­ton Li­brary, Art Col­lec­tions and Botan­i­cal Gar­dens, Steven Kob­lik was still learn­ing on the job.

Re­cently lead­ing a visi­tor on a tour of some of his fa­vorite things on the 207- acre spread in San Marino, Kob­lik be­gan with the read­ing room where scholars writ­ing books come from around the world to comb through manuscripts and rare books from the Hunt­ing­ton’s huge col­lec­tions.

The sculpted heads of Ben­jamin Franklin, Abra­ham Lin­coln, Joseph Con­rad, Dante Alighieri and other great au­thors and states­men whose pa­pers and rare edi­tions re­side at the Hunt­ing­ton looked down on read­ers from arched perches above the book­shelves.

Keep­ing his usu­ally ex­u­ber­ant voice down in def­er­ence to the re­searchers, Kob­lik nod­ded to the carved vis­age of Richard Fran­cis Bur­ton, who scan­dal­ized Vic­to­rian Eng­land with his un­ex­pur­gated trans­la­tions of “The Ara­bian Nights” and the Kama Su­tra.

“We have a great col­lec­tion of Bur­ton,” Kob­lik said. “The guy was a mad­man.”

Then some­thing about the heads dawned on him. “The writ­ers are on one side and the politi­cians are on the other. I’d never no­ticed be­fore. You can work here 40 years and dis­cover new things.”

When he re­tires Tues­day at 72, the cam­pus Kob­lik leaves to his suc­ces­sor, Pitzer Col­lege pres­i­dent Laura Tromb­ley, will be full of things that weren’t there when he ar­rived: 277,000 square feet of new or ren­o­vated build­ings, 20 acres of new or re­stored gar­dens and ex­panded col­lec­tions that now in­clude books of coded tele­graph mes­sages from the front lines to Pres­i­dent Lin­coln dur­ing the Civil War and a mas­sive trove of books and manuscripts on the history of science.

Kob­lik has been a pow­er­ful fundraiser. On his watch, the Hunt­ing­ton re­ceived $ 636 mil­lion in cash do­na­tions and saw its en­dow­ment nearly triple to $ 480 mil­lion. It spent $ 168 mil­lion on con­struc­tion and ren­o­va­tions with­out tak­ing on debt — yield­ing, among other things, a Chi­nese gar­den, the Munger Re­search Cen­ter, which houses the li­brary col­lec­tion, and the Er­buru Gallery for Amer­i­can art. The op­er­at­ing bud­get dou­bled to $ 56 mil­lion.

“It’s been an ex­plo­sion of vi­tal­ity,” said

Selma Holo, di­rec­tor of USC’s Fisher Mu­seum of Art. She said the Hunt­ing­ton un­der Kob­lik con­trasts wildly with the in­sti­tu­tion she f irst en­coun­tered decades ago. “You had a kind of spe­cial­ists’ re­treat, and now the whole re­gion is wel­comed by the di­ver­sity of the of­fer­ings.”

Kob­lik said his f irst pro­ject set the tone: fix­ing up the ag­ing man­sion where rail­road and de­vel­op­ment baron Henry Hunt­ing­ton lived un­til his death in 1927, leav­ing the build­ings, gar­dens, books and art for scholars to use and An­ge­lenos to en­joy.

The last new build­ings on Kob­lik’s watch opened this year and are named for him: an en­trance pav­il­ion that in­cludes a large book­store, cafe, class­rooms, a 380- seat au­di­to­rium and 28,000 square feet of un­der­ground stor­age for the li­brary’s ev­er­ex­pand­ing col­lec­tions.

Kob­lik loves to pep­per his con­ver­sa­tion with quips, and he says he made sure run­ning the Hunt­ing­ton didn’t stop him from hav­ing fun. As a man­ager, he said, “I’m play­ful but se­ri­ous. A lit­tle needling goes a long way, and I like to laugh.” Legacy of ac­tivism

He grew up in Sacra­mento, the son of an ar­chi­tect and grand­son of Rus­sian- Jewish left­ists who ag­i­tated against the czar un­til they were forced to f lee to San Fran­cisco in 1905. There, Kob­lik says proudly, they picked up where they had left off — “try­ing to fo­ment revo­lu­tion and ac­tive in rad­i­cal and paci­fist pol­i­tics un­til the time they died.”

Kob­lik f irst ex­pe­ri­enced the Hunt­ing­ton in 1968 as a re­cently ar­rived pro­fes­sor of Swedish history and in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics at Pomona Col­lege.

“I had a mus­tache like Pan­cho Villa and hair that stuck out in all di­rec­tions,” he re­called. He was greeted by his­to­rian Ray Billing­ton, one of the Hunt­ing­ton’s most em­i­nent in- house scholars, with the words “Steve, we don’t let peo­ple like you in the li­brary.”

“Ray was a big jokester,” Kob­lik said.

Kob­lik veered from schol­ar­ship to ad­min­is­tra­tion in the late 1980s as dean of the fac­ulty of Scripps Col­lege, which he said was mired in aca­demic ri­val­ries com­pounded by f is­cal woes. Then Reed Col­lege in Port­land, Ore., sum­moned him to be its pres­i­dent — another lib­eral- arts school where the f inances were bad and the fac­ulty’s mood was sour.

“No one ever hires me un­til they’ve pan­icked,” Kob­lik joked. His way of over­com­ing panic was to cul­ti­vate do­na­tions that can as­suage in­sti­tu­tional nerves.

At the Hunt­ing­ton he won over Charles Munger, War­ren Buf­fett’s right- hand man at Berk­shire Hath­away and now the third- most­gen­er­ous donor in its history af­ter Henry Hunt­ing­ton and Frances Brody, an art col­lec­tor and phi­lan­thropist who died in 2009, be­queath­ing $ 123 mil­lion.

Munger gave $ 21 mil­lion for the re­search cen­ter and $ 32 mil­lion for the new en­trance build­ings.

“He just had a force­ful, pleas­ant per­son­al­ity and had ac­com­plished a lot,” Munger said, re­call­ing his first im­pres­sion.

Now, he said, “I hate it that he’s re­tir­ing. The new per­son may be won­der­ful, but Steve is as good at run­ning the Hunt­ing­ton as War­ren Buf­fett is at run­ning Berk­shire Hath­away. He has a lot of savvy for an aca­demic.”

Kob­lik cred­its his pre­de­ces­sor, Robert Skotheim, with lay­ing the ground­work for the Hunt­ing­ton’s suc­cess by re­vers­ing its fi­nan­cial de­cline and end­ing its long­time in­dif­fer­ence to at­tract­ing and serv­ing the public.

Af­ter re­tir­ing to Washington state, Skotheim stayed in touch to see what would hap­pen next. Un­der Kob­lik, at­ten­dance soared to about 600,000 a year — all but max­ing out what the Hunt­ing­ton can ac­com­mo­date be­cause the city of San Marino re­stricts the num­ber of cars that can en­ter.

“The reclu­sive Pasadena [ area] in­sti­tu­tion with its fa­bled anti- Semitism be­came a leader in all sorts of ways in­tel­lec­tu­ally and eth­ni­cally,” Skotheim said. “You now have sub­ver­sive fem­i­nists, po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cals and all kinds of crit­ics of the sta­tus quo study­ing the ma­te­rial that Henry Hunt­ing­ton pur­chased, and it’s all be­ing f inanced to this day by wealthy Amer­i­cans. The irony is quite de­li­cious.”

Kob­lik has kept a fairly low pro­file, work­ing be­hind the scenes in­stead of chas­ing head­lines, cul­ti­vat­ing donors in­stead of the press.

“Fundrais­ing is about re­la­tion­ships and [ con­vey­ing] what’s im­por­tant to the in­sti­tu­tion,” he said. “My job is to get to know peo­ple and know what they think is im­por­tant, play around in my mind what the Hunt­ing­ton needs, and see if there is any com­mon­al­ity.”

There was no court­ing the strong- willed Brody, Kob­lik said. She was a staunch backer of the Hunt­ing­ton who es­pe­cially loved its gar­dens. Kob­lik said he never pro­posed a sum — he usu­ally doesn’t — and that it would have been use­less any­way.

He did re­call sug­gest­ing to Brody that, since the Hunt­ing­ton fo­cuses on Bri­tish and Amer­i­can art, she con­sider giv­ing prime works from her col­lec­tion of Euro­pean Mod­ernists to the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art, where she and her late hus­band, Sid­ney, were long­time sup­port­ers.

“She said no, and if you knew Frances Brody, that was the end of the con­ver­sa­tion,” Kob­lik said. “I and oth­ers at the Hunt­ing­ton were over to her house a lot, but there were no num­bers men­tioned.” Brody’s will spec­i­fied that her home and most of her art should be sold, with the Hunt­ing­ton re­ceiv­ing a large share of the pro­ceeds. Kob­lik told the Chron­i­cle of Phi­lan­thropy in 2010 that the wind­fall was “a bril­liant ac­ci­dent.”

LACMA got a lovely ce­ramic mu­ral by Matisse that had graced Brody’s pa­tio. Costly but cru­cial

James Folsom, the Hunt­ing­ton’s di­rec­tor of botan­i­cal gar­dens since the 1980s, said one of Kob­lik’s most im­por­tant de­ci­sions was en­thu­si­as­ti­cally sup­port­ing the costli­est way pos­si­ble to cre­ate a Chi­nese gar­den.

The Hunt­ing­ton com­mis­sioned scores of scholars and ar­ti­sans in China to de­sign it, build it, and cull lime­stone de­posits that look like sculp­tures from un­der­wa­ter for­ma­tions in a Chi­nese lake. Then they came to San Marino to over­see in­stal­la­tion.

Kob­lik and Folsom went to the world’s ex­perts be­cause they wanted the gar­den to fully em­body the sym­bol­ism, har­monies and shift­ing per­spec­tives that are hall­marks of a cen­turies- old tra­di­tion.

“We knew how dis­ap­point­ing it would be for the Chi­nese Amer­i­can com­mu­nity to f ind out we kind of faked it in­stead of do­ing it as it’s done in China,” Folsom said. That com­mu­nity do­nated heav­ily to the pro­ject and Kob­lik said that lo­cal Chi­nese now ac­count for more than a quar­ter of the Hunt­ing­ton’s 38,000 mem­bers. Tromb­ley’s agenda will in­clude rais­ing about $ 9 mil­lion needed to carry out a fi­nal con­struc­tion phase that will in­crease the Chi­nese gar­den to 12 acres.

Af­ter nearly 14 years of liv­ing in a stately guest house on the Hunt­ing­ton’s grounds — a re­quire­ment as well as a perk — Kob­lik and his Swedish- born wife, Kirsten, will move back to the mod­est home in Clare­mont where they lived when he was a pro­fes­sor and where they raised their son and daugh­ter.

Kob­lik is work­ing on a history of small north­ern Euro­pean coun­tries since World War II, ten­ta­tively called “Em­brac­ing Democ­racy.” Af­ter that, he’ll de­cide whether to tackle a history of the Hunt­ing­ton.

Some peo­ple at the Hunt­ing­ton think its worst mo­ment un­der Kob­lik may have been his f in­est. With the en­dow­ment plum­met­ing in the mar­ket melt­down of 2008- 09, he had to lay off some em­ploy­ees and cut pay for all who re­mained. But it was done on a slid­ing scale of 3% to 10% to pro­tect lower- paid work­ers, and all had a choice whether to have it taken out of their pay or their re­tire­ment ben­e­fits.

When Kob­lik called the staff to­gether to de­liver the bad news, “one of the most re­mark­able things hap- pened,” said David Zei­d­berg, di­rec­tor of the li­brary di­vi­sion. “There was ap­plause, be­cause they rec­og­nized he had made a gen­uine ef­fort” to be fair and give ev­ery­one the dig­nity of choice.

Kob­lik re­mem­bers it a lit­tle dif­fer­ently. It wasn’t just ap­plause, he said. “I got a stand­ing ova­tion.”

Un­like the read­ing room, the Chi­nese gar­den and other spots that most sig­nify his years at the Hunt­ing­ton, Kob­lik can’t show a visi­tor where this hap­pened. The meet­ing hall is gone. The Steven S. Kob­lik Ed­u­ca­tion and Visi­tors Cen­ter stands in its place.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

“I JUST HATE I T that he’s re­tir­ing,” said donor Charles Munger of Steven Kob­lik, above. “He has a lot of savvy for an aca­demic.”

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