By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
A message posted by Los Angeles County Museum of Art curators Sharon Takeda and Hollis Goddall expressed what many who knew Jacqueline Avant have felt since her tragic death on Dec. 1.
“Jacquie’s fairy-tale life, which ended so tragically, fills our hearts with endless rain.”
Avant, 81, was a passionate collector of Japanese lacquerware, which grew from a lifetime fascination with Japan that started as a youth reading Lafcadio Hearn and “The Tale of Genji.” That interest was just one aspect of what was a remarkable life with husband Clarence Avant, the legendary music executive who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in October.
She was shot and killed on Dec. 1 during an apparent break-in at the couple’s Trousdale Estates home in Beverly Hills. Aariel Maynor, 29, is to be arraigned on a murder charge and other counts at the Airport Branch courthouse, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
Avant was born March 6, 1940, in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., and was a former Ebony Fashion Fair model. The Netflix documentary “The Black Godfather” portrays the couple’s relationship as the foundation of Clarence Avant’s remarkable ascent in both entertainment and political circles. The couple’s daughter Nicole served as ambassador to the Bahamas during the Obama Administration and is married to Ted Sarandos, co-chief executive officer for Netflix.
“The Avants came from very humble backgrounds and they never forgot that. They dealt with you on a very personal level. They treated everyone equally,” said Robert Hori, Huntington Library Gardens cultural curator and programs director.
“They would get a call from Hillary Clinton and she’d say, ‘Hi Hillary! How are you?’ They were able to bring things down to a basic level.”
In a joint statement, Goddall and Takeda said that Avant was a friend, confidante and mother figure, who supported the museum’s efforts in Japanese arts and education. Avant volunteered as a docent in LACMA’s Pavilion for Japanese Art. In 2013, Goddall curated an exhibition at the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas of 40 works from Avant’s collection of lacquerware.
“She was a very unique person who bridged a lot of different worlds, very quietly and lovingly,” said Takeda. “Jacquie made an impression, without anybody feeling hierarchical, it was all very personal and one-on-one and very genuine.”
At LACMA, Avant helped underwrite an acquisition of an incense box by foremost lacquer artist Yamamura Shinya, a contemporary print by Hasegawa Yūichi with lacquer used as pigment, and, with her husband Clarence, supported acquisitions of three Kakiemon porcelain pieces, a book of modernist designs by Furuya Kōrin, and an ink painting of a hawk by Tenryū Dōjin.
She served as co-president of the Nichi Bei Fujin Kai from 2016 to 2018 and was an active member. Avant was with the members of Nichi Bei Fujin Kai on Nov. 17 for a luncheon at the consul general’s residence to mark the organization’s 90th anniversary.
Misako Muto, Nichi Bei Fujin Kai honorary president, said, “It is with grief and sadness that my husband and I have learned of the passing of Mrs. Jacqueline Avant, and we have sent our sincere condolences to the family.
“Jacqueline contributed to Japan-United States ties as well as mutual understanding for both countries through her work as a co-president of the Japan-U.S. Women’s Association and by helping women’s interactions between Japan and the U.S. for many years. Jacqueline also loved Japanese art and introduced Japanese culture to the U.S. through her collections and through exhibitions at the LACMA and Crow Museum of Asian Art. We reflect on and greatly appreciate those efforts.”
In a statement, the Avant family said, “Jacqueline was an amazing woman, wife, mother and philanthropist and a 55-year resident of Beverly Hills who has made an immeasurable positive impact on the arts community. She will be missed by her family, friends and all of the people she has helped throughout her amazing life.”
Janet LeBlanc, who served as co-president with Avant, noted that despite her busy schedule, Avant was always willing to help, citing the creation of a new pin for Nichi Bei Fujin Kai’s 80th anniversary in 2010.
“Jacquie tapped me on my shoulder and said, ‘Can I help?’ That was the beginning of a precious friendship. As it turned out, as in the usual Jacquie-fashion, she helped to get the job done beautifully and efficiently,” LeBlanc said. “From that time on, we enjoyed sharing stories about our families, health, travels, etc. the usual girlfriend talks, always inspiring and lifting me up … On many occasions her kind voice was exactly the encouragement I needed to get through the day.”
Bruce Coats, art history professor at Scripps College, recalled that Avant loaned some of her lacquerware collection to Scripps for exhibitions in 2010 and 2016 and supported a lecture series.
“Many of her lacquer pieces were decorated with scenes from the novel or with symbols of its 54 chapters. Over the years, Jacquie and I had enthusiastic conversations about the narrative, and she attended exhibitions on campus that highlighted ‘Genji’ and Japanese arts. Jacquie also supported the Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection that features African American artists and in 2007 helped fund the bronze casting of ‘Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial’ sculpture by Alison Saar, a Scripps graduate,” Coats said.
A shared love of Japanese arts and culture drew Avant to a tight circle of friends. Recently she joined Toshie Mosher when The Huntington Library honored her with the naming of a new rose hybrid, “Peace and Harmony.”
Hori explained that the essence of Clarence and Jacquie was their ability to connect and form relationships: “The talent and the skill of the Avants is being able to make and create connections and facilitate relations. Which is really an important skill, that matchmaking,”
An example of that talent is the 320-year-old magistrate house from Marugame, Kagawa Prefecture, donated to The Huntington in 2016. The historic home of Yohko and Akira Yokoi is currently being restored and will be a centerpiece of the Japanese garden. Also coming to The Huntington are two smaller structures, known as kura, or “treasure houses,” that once served as storage facilities for the village’s rice and family treasures; other features to come include stones, lanterns, and a bridge.
Hori explained that The Huntington has been in discussion with Avant to bring her lacquerware collection to the museum. The Yokoi home came up during a small gathering at Avant’s home in March 2015.
“I told Jacquie that we needed a place to house the collection. Mrs. Yokoi said at the birthday party, ‘Oh, we have a house.’ That’s how the relationship and the Yokoi house coming to The Huntington started,” Hori said.
“Some of her collection were of utilitarian items — mirrors, cosmetic boxes and combs —so we thought the Yokoi house would be a perfect place to display them. Mrs. Yokoi and Jacquie became friends because Jacquie collected these things and Mrs. Yokoi knew what they were.”
A celebration of Avant’s life will take place after the holidays. Her family has established the Jacqueline Avant Memorial Fund for the new MLK Children’s Center in Watts, in accordance with her wishes.
“She believed in past lives. She was a very sensitive person,” Hori said. “She would say, ‘I feel that in some past life I must have been Japanese.’”