Times Staff Writer

At the South Coast Plaza mall recently, Susan Faul, a Cal State Fullerton student, was on hand to mix a little culture with a little shopping.

Like the nearly 17,000 others who have dropped in on the Laguna Beach Museum of Art's storefront gallery at the Costa Mesa mall since it opened three months ago, Faul was curious about the place.

"I had read about it in the newspaper and I wondered how it would come off--you know--a mall of all places," said Faul, a La Mirada resident, as she studied a William Wendt landscape that is part of the "Southern California Impressionism Reviewed" show at the facility. "I'm still not so sure (about the mall site), but I have to admit it's a very intriguing idea."

Another drop-in shopper, Matthew Smith of Costa Mesa, a former schoolteacher from New York, put it this way: "I like it. It's quite a novel way to bring a museum to a lot more people. I hope it catches on."

What is happening with the Great Mall Experiment--the Laguna Beach Museum of Art's attempt to bring the visual arts to the shopping-center masses? According to museum director William Otton, the mall venture--the first in Orange County--is doing very nicely, thank you. "The attendance, more than 6,000 in December alone, has been better than we expected. We're really quite pleased," he said.

Nancy Carlson, who ran the mall facility in the opening months and is now the museum's development officer, added, "We feel we're meeting our (mall) mission, that is, to reach those people who seldom visit a museum and those who had never gone to one."

But the museum's "satellite facility" is still on trial. It opened Oct. 9 in a 3,000-square-foot lease-free storefront, near the mall's Carrousel Court and next to a pricey sports-apparel shop and a popular, stylish restaurant-deli. The current lease is up in October, but C.J. Segerstrom and Sons, the firm that owns the mall, isn't saying whether it will extend the venture. "Naturally, we're delighted with the whole concept, but we're still studying just how well the project is doing," said Maura Eggan, the mall's marketing director.

Attendance at the facility (which opened with an "Artists' Quilts" show) started relatively modestly--3,765 in October. The figure then rose to 5,115 in November and 6,408 in December (during which the current show, "Southern California Impressionism Reviewed," opened). The January attendance thus far is only 1,600.

To museum aides, the December mark is noteworthy. "Right after Thanksgiving, people really started to come in during the Christmas (shopping) rush. Last month's (6,408) mark compares very well with the attendance at our main facility," said Linda Whitfield, manager of the museum's mall facility. (Overall attendance last year at the main facility in Laguna Beach reached a record 73,000--averaging slightly more than 6,000 a month.)

"Most people are shoppers who said they didn't realize we were here. So many seem rather tentative when they come in, not sure who we are or what we are," Whitfield said. "We usually get no more than 20 people at a time here, but it's steady, especially the afternoons. Our (gift shop) sales were really high, better than even those at the main facility."

For most of 1985, the mall gallery will be the only Laguna Beach Museum of Art facility in operation. The museum's main structure--a beach-bluff landmark for more than 50 years--is scheduled to be shut down in April for an $850,000 expansion and renovation. The building project, expected to last at least eight months, will add four galleries, new staff and storage areas and other spaces.

(The building project, already approved by the city, was approved by the state Coastal Commission Jan. 8. In compliance with a commission requirement, the museum will pay parking-related fees of up to $73,500 to the city, Otton said Wednesday. Since the museum does not provide off-street parking, the city fees are imposed in lieu of providing actual parking spaces.)

The "Impressionism" show closes Feb. 3 at the mall site, to be followed by "On and Off the Wall" (Feb. 8-April 7), an 18-artist collection of experimental works mixing painting, sculpture and other forms. Later exhibitions will include those on fashion artist Zandra Rhodes, photographer Roger Camp and works from the museum's permanent collection, dating back to the turn of the century.

Bolstered by what they consider "the highly encouraging" attendance in the first three months, museum officials said the mall-gallery hours may be extended in the next month or so. (Current hours: 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday, noon-4:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Admission is free.)

Officials said they also are expanding the mall site's special-events program for adults and children (there's already a Children's Corner space for showcasing schoolchildren art). A weekly noon-hour lecture series, "Art Sandwiched In," which began Jan. 16 and featured a talk on the "Impressionism" show by Sharon Pike, curator of the exhibition, will continue on occasional Wednesdays. For infomration, call 662-3366.

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