How did Loma Linda University end up with a $12 million painting? – San Bernardino Sun

Loma Linda University is in the news for an unexpected reason: art.

A painting by Kerry James Marshall, “Beauty Examined,” that is owned by the university is going up for auction Thursday, May 19 from Sotheby’s, where it’s expected to fetch $8 million to $12 million.

This news got a paragraph in a Christopher Knight piece in the L.A. Times about the Toledo Museum of Art putting a Cezanne, a Matisse and a Renoir on auction Tuesday at Sotheby’s. From my standpoint, if an art museum in Ohio wants less art, not more, well, that’s why I don’t want to live in Ohio.

What grabs me, though, is that an Inland Empire medical school has a world-class piece of art — or at least did. How’d that happen?

The donor was Charles Sims, a 1960 alumnus and pathologist who in 1977 co-founded California Cryobank, the nation’s largest human sperm bank. (That fun fact is what sold me on telling this story.)

At the time, “donor sperm was a new idea,” Sims, 89, tells me by phone from his Brentwood home. Cryobank expanded with egg and embryo storage and stem-cell services before Sims and his business partner sold the business in 2014 for an undisclosed amount.

Sims is also an active art collector whose more than 300 pieces, while including Old Master drawings and vintage photos, are largely by living artists. They include John Nava, who made tapestries for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and assemblage artist Alison Saar.

Sims owns a half-dozen pieces by Marshall, a Black painter who is among the most acclaimed artists today.

I first encountered his work at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016 in a major retrospective of nearly 80 paintings. It was revelatory. (Sims loaned “Beauty Examined” for the show, which means I’ve seen it personally.)

Marshall paints Black subjects exclusively, uses jet black for skin tones and plays with art history and folk art in his presentation, thereby putting Black people squarely within art’s continuum.

Sims, who is White and grew up in the segregated South, was onto him early.

He’d been eyeing a $5,000 Marshall painting at a gallery in Santa Monica in 1993 but missed out on buying it. A month later, a new painting, “Beauty Examined,” was part of a show at the Koplin Gallery. This time Sims didn’t dawdle.

The 7-foot-by-8-foot canvas shows the body of a nude, overweight woman on a morgue table, the skin of her left forearm removed as if for dissection. Knight, the critic, says the painting “melds elements drawn from sources as diverse as Rembrandt, Charles White, Paul Gauguin and Yoruba court paintings.” (I’ll take his word for it.)

Sims liked the art-history references and the underlying themes of representation and beauty. The title, “Beauty Examined,” is a challenge.

“It reminds you beauty is skin deep,” Sims tells me. “Beauty is what people really are inside and what they do with their lives.”

The painting hung in his dining room — where the morbid scene evidently didn’t cost anyone their appetite — until he donated it in December 2018 to his alma mater. He did so partly to help the university, where he is a significant donor, and partly for the tax advantages.

“I made a gift to an institution that I owe an enormous debt to,” Sims says.

“Beauty Examined” is prepared for removal from the living room of its donor before its relocation to Loma Linda University in 2018. The university has now put the painting up for auction. (Courtesy Charles Sims)

The university, established in 1905 by members of the Seventh-day Adventist faith, has eight schools, 4,500 students and a $1 billion endowment.

The painting was placed in its Museum of Embryology. It was, Sims says, not universally accepted by the faculty. “It wasn’t a pretty picture. It wasn’t a religious piece,” Sims says. “It made them uncomfortable.”

Rachelle Bussell, Loma Linda’s senior vice president for advancement, tells me in a separate conversation that not everyone understood “Beauty Examined.”

“How do you interpret it? That’s certainly not our area of expertise,” Bussell admits cheerfully. Its three years in the university’s hands sparked discussions and thus provided value beyond the monetary, she says, even if fewer people saw it during two years of COVID-19 than would have otherwise.

She calls Sims a model alumnus who has stayed involved in the university as an adviser aside from his philanthropy.

The sale of “Beauty Examined” will help fund the school’s Center for Genomics, which was established in 2013 and studies the molecular mechanisms of human disease and health disparities. The fledgling Center will get a big boost from the auction proceeds.

“What a gift of this magnitude does is it allows us to significantly grow that and have endowed funds that will produce revenue for the Center,” Bussell explains.

Sims, who says genetics is the future of medicine, tells me he always meant the painting to be sold to endow the Center.

He believes the price will go higher than the upper estimate of $12 million because “Beauty Examined” is one of Marshall’s most significant paintings.

“I think it’s better than the Marilyn Monroe paintings of Andy Warhol,” Sims jokes of the piece that recently sold for $195 million. “And better than anything by Jeff Koons.”

What did Sims pay for it in 1993?

“You don’t want to know,” Sims says.

Of course I do.

“I paid $8,000, and I think I strung it out over two or three months. That was without the tax, another $300,” Sims says. He adds, “I was single at the time so I didn’t have to negotiate my tastes with another person.”

My events

Two appearances around my new book, “100 Years of the Los Angeles County Fair, 25 Years of Stories,” are taking place this week.

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