Times Staff Writer

Four years after shelving a $17-million plan to expand Bowers Museum, Santa Ana city officials are considering a new expansion proposal that would make Bowers the anchor to a museum-oriented cultural district.

Last week, the idea was presented to the City Council by the Bowers Blue-Ribbon Planning Committee, which recommended that such a district be formed over the next several years to revitalize the North Main Street corridor.

Under the proposal, the district would include a new 10,000-square-foot fine arts gallery and 350-seat auditorium on the city-owned Bowers grounds, plus three additional museums supported by other organizations and situated in the same North Main Street sector.

The panel’s preliminary report did not put a price tag on the recommendations, but the final report to be submitted July 7 is expected to include fiscal projections, according to panel chairman Hector R. Godinez.


Through the cultural district, said Santa Ana City Manager Robert C. Bobb, the city hopes to make up for a loss of momentum suffered by Bowers since 1982, when a plan to triple the size of the 24,000-square-foot museum was dropped in the wake of fund-raising problems and reorganizational disputes. (The city hopes to hire a new Bowers director--one considered a specialist in facilities expansion and fund raising--by the end of June.)

Since 1982, Bowers Museum has suffered from an image of fiscal inertia, while the Laguna Art Museum has mounted a successful drive to reconstruct its main facility and the Newport Harbor Art Museum has embarked on studies to greatly enlarge its present structure.

“We’re back on a fast track for Bowers. We want to get things moving again,” said Bobb, who added that the citizens panel’s final report will be presented four months ahead of the original schedule.

The nine-member panel’s preliminary report, based in part on visits to museums in San Francisco, San Diego and Santa Barbara, recommended construction on the Bowers gallery addition as well as expansion of gift shop operations and food services over the next 18 months. According to Godinez, the city already has set aside $3 million for “immediate improvements” at Bowers.


The city expects to receive a draft of a new Bowers expansion design plan this summer from Hardy, Holzman & Pfeiffer, a New York-based architectural firm that also has done studies for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and other cultural institutions.

Under the citizens panel’s long-range “Orange County Bowers Museum District” proposal, exhibitions at the existing Bowers structure would stress Orange County and California history, while the new Bowers gallery would specialize in fine arts.

The other proposed institutions in the district--a science museum, a children’s museum and a museum on agriculture, transportation and other fields--could be financed by other Orange County cultural organizations and housed in existing buildings in the North Main Street area, according to the panel. Godinez said his panel has had discussions with “interested groups,” but talks are still only exploratory.

In its initial report, the panel did not estimate costs of the multi-museum district or any expansion options for Bowers itself. (Another city consultant, William Baer & Associates of San Francisco, said a full-scaled expansion of the existing Bowers building would cost up to $20 million. The city has discussed the possibility of leasing gallery spaces should a privately developed high-rise office be built next to Bowers.)

The panel urged the city--which built the museum 50 years ago as a memorial to the Charles W. Bowers family--to maintain the annual subsidy level now given the museum. According to William Lee, Bowers Museum director, the city plans to provide $1.3 million in 1986-87 ($750,000 for operations and $280,000 for capital projects)--a 5% increase from the current year.

Meanwhile, Lee, who announced last December he was resigning his $51,000-a-year Bowers post to return to university research, this week said he still plans to leave June 30. A former director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Lee was hired in April, 1982, Santa Ana officials said, chiefly to oversee the museum’s administrative and volunteer reorganizations.

Last July, the City Council formed the Charles W. Bowers Corp. to run the museum under a still-to-be-named community board. The corporation also assumed the fund-raising and arts gift-receiving functions of the now-defunct Bowers Museum Foundation.

The search for Lee’s successor--plus someone to fill the newly created assistant director’s post--is being conducted by Management Consultants for the Arts, based in Greenwich, Conn.