Developer Dreams of Art Museum in Egg-Packing Plant

Times Staff Writer

At first glance, the former Edgemar Farms egg processing plant on Santa Monica's Main Street seems like an unlikely place to view the works of contemporary artists.

But a Santa Monica woman hopes to provide a showcase for local artists by converting the 77-year-old wood structure, in which eggs were once graded and packed, into the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Last year, Abby Sher, a linguist and documentary film maker-turned-developer, bought the processing plant, which was built in 1908 by the Imperial Ice Co. for making ice.

Her idea has received the unanimous approval of the Santa Monica Planning Commission but still needs the green light from the state Coastal Commission.

Sher has selected an architect and museum director but is negotiating with a bank to finance the $5-million project. She said, however, that she is determined to complete the project and open the museum in the spring of 1986.

She envisions a museum that would focus on contemporary and modern art as well as documenting the city's art history. The first show, "Artists of Santa Monica," would include 40 to 60 works by local artists. The museum would publish a book on local studios and artistic haunts as part of the show.

"We feel that if somebody doesn't document the work that has gone on here, it may disappear," Sher said at the plant, which is now being used for light industry.

Her plans for the site also include a 75-seat restaurant in a wood-paneled room once used as a refrigerator, a 49-seat theater in what was once a pump room, and, on the other side of a central courtyard, a two-story building with offices and stores. Some large refrigerator rooms adjoining the main plant would be converted into shops.

She has selected Frank O. Gehry, who designed the Temporary Contemporary museum, as the architect, and Hal Glicksman, former director of museums at the Otis Art Institute and the University of California, Irvine, as director.

Both are Santa Monica residents and sympathetic to the needs of local artists.

"I've always felt that Santa Monica and Venice had an enormous investment in art," said Gehry, who said he has been influenced by contemporary artists. "Some of the best artists in California were here. They were pushed out by high rents. . . . The area represented a tremendous melting pot for art."

Glicksman, who said he has worked with local artists for the last 20 years, decried the lack of support for them.

"There is a perception that somehow the Los Angeles art community understands and supports the arts," Glicksman said. "That has not been true. The rest of the world has supported and understood the Los Angeles art world more than people living here."

The importance of California art has blossomed worldwide in the last two or three generations, Glicksman said. "We want a museum that will tell that story."

Glicksman said that the museum would produce retrospective exhibits as well as group and thematic shows. The museum would be devoted primarily to established artists and traveling exhibitions, he said, but would also attempt to show the works of lesser known artists.

Glicksman, who has written several books on computers, said he would also like to put information about the area's art history on computer data bases.

Must 'Restrain Ego'

Inside the egg processing room, which would be renovated for the museum, Gehry said that his goal is "not to wreck" the structure.

"It's not so easy," Gehry said. "You have to restrain your ego. I really don't want to ruin it. It's a beautiful space. I will have to add some things. How to do it unobtrusively is the issue."

The room has 25-foot ceilings with high clerestory windows that allow light to filter softly to the wood floors.

The remnants of the poultry enterprise are evident throughout: Leftover egg crates are piled high in one corner and piping and old equipment is scattered about. An egg scale and several brochures left behind by Edgemar may be used for an "eggs-ibition," Sher said.

Gehry said his imprint will be more noticeable on the new commerical buildings that he will design. He is known for his unconventional style, the use of unusual angles in his designs and industrial materials such as corrugated metal and chain link fence in some of his structures.

In 1978, he caused some local controversy when he built a metal, wood and glass structure around his pink, two-story Santa Monica house. The complaints have died down, Gehry said. He also designed Santa Monica Place, the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro and the aerospace museum in Exposition Park.

Gehry has also left his mark on a number of private homes on the Westside. He built one Venice residence with a lifeguard station in the backyard overlooking the beach as a studio for an author who had longed to write in a lifeguard tower.

The Edgemar project involves a balance between commercial and nonprofit elements, Sher said.

"In the first years, before the museum is well established, the rest of the project will subsidize the museum," she said. "After a certain time, the museum will be required to purchase its property."

Would Have Its Place

The museum, with 10,000 square feet of exhibit space, would be small compared to the space devoted to modern art at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Art Museum. But its creators said the museum would have its place.

"It's really a more-the-merrier feeling," Glicksman said. "If there was a museum on every other block in Los Angeles you couldn't fill them all up."

A few residents were unhappy, however. At Planning Commission meetings, they expressed concern about the continuing changes on Main Street, especially increasing parking problems. But they were outnumbered by a phalanx of local artists and art lovers who testified in favor of the project.

After several hours of public hearings, Sher has agreed to provide more parking space. And the commission has imposed more than 20 conditions on the project. Sher will have to provide a monthly free day at the museum and one-third of the shops will have to serve the neighborhood. She will have to clean the 2nd Street area behind the complex and operate the restaurant with restricted hours.

She has been somewhat frustrated by the process. "Sometimes I wonder," she said. "But I always return to the idea of what (the museum) could be like when it is completed."

Sher never intended to become a developer. She decided to buy the property after a local artist showed her the plant. Indeed, she did not sound like a typical developer.

"From the point of view of a normal development, it (the project) probably wouldn't be considered sufficiently profitable in the short run," she said. "For me, the profit is the successful formation of the museum."

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