OCMA’s deaccessioning merry-go-round


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Here’s a puzzlement: The Orange County Museum of Art has said it sold 18 early-20th century California paintings from its collection because the works no longer fit OCMA’s focus, which in 2003 shifted to art created after 1950. Furthermore, the museum said, there are no plans to sell any other works.

Yet, OCMA still owns important California art made before 1950. Why are those paintings being kept, despite the shift in museum focus, while the 18 paintings recently sold to an anonymous private collector were deemed worthy of liquidation?


One explanation, I suppose, is that OCMA is trapped on a deaccessioning merry-go-round. Let me explain.

Among the notable works still in the museum’s collection are Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s ‘Untitled (Vase of Flowers),’ 1924, and Agnes Pelton’s ‘The Guide,’ 1929 (pictured). The two abstractions first went on view in OCMA’s permanent collection galleries 11 years ago this month, shortly after they were purchased. The Pelton graces the cover of the catalog to OCMA’s current exhibition, ‘Illumination: The Paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin and Florence Miller Pierce.’

In the 1990s, the money to buy the Pelton and the Macdonald-Wright came from the controversial sale of 29 photographs by Modernist innovator Paul Outerbridge Jr. Those photographs had been bequeathed to the Laguna Art Museum by the artist’s widow, Lois. Outerbridge had settled in Laguna in 1943, at the age of 47, after a successful advertising career in New York, married a local woman two years later and died there in 1958.

The controversial deaccession of Outerbridge’s photographs in 1996 was part of the equally controversial merger of the Laguna Art Museum and the Newport Harbor Art Museum into OCMA. (Are you still with me? Merry-go-rounds can be dizzying.) At the time, I likened the fraught union to a hostile corporate takeover, engineered by aggressive Newport trustees against a weak and unwilling Laguna.

In the deaccessioning merry-go-round, the Outerbridge photographs were sold, paintings were bought, the merger came apart, OCMA changed its focus, paintings were sold -- and now the museum owns paintings it says it won’t sell even though they don’t fit the new mission. What will happen to them is anybody’s guess. Deep storage? Long-term loan? Something as yet unimagined?

Time will tell. But, apparently, this is a merry-go-round with no brass ring.

--Christopher Knight