On the bluff, just above Main Beach and the Pacific Ocean, the Laguna Beach Museum of Art is closed for expansion. But 22 miles away, it’s running the “Museum in the Mall” at South Coast Plaza shopping center in Costa Mesa.

Next door is a travel agency, and you can hear music from a nearby children’s carrousel. Store windows showcase the museum’s book shop just as they showcase the pots and pans at Piret’s restaurant and cookware store across the way.

Even after the expanded Laguna Beach museum reopens next September, Director William Otton says nobody’s packing at the Costa Mesa site--at least not for a while. It’s just too successful.

As retailers and motion picture exhibitors have been demonstrating for years, malls are today’s town centers. Much as some New York corporations have turned over space in their buildings to the Whitney Museum of American Art and other museums, a growing number of Southern California shopping centers are offering art alongside designer jeans and croissants.

The entire Museum of African American Art is housed at the May Co. Crenshaw, for instance. The museum was seeking permanent housing for its collection of paintings and other artworks when a board member heard at a party that the May Co. Crenshaw was moving out most of its furniture department. Months of discussion later, the museum took over an impressive 7,500 square feet--including 4,000 square feet of exhibition space--for $1 a year.


That’s just the start:

The Children’s Museum of San Diego is currently expanding to nearly 10,000 square feet, most of it donated, in La Jolla Village Square.

USC’s School of Fine Arts runs a small gallery rent-free at the Rouse Co.'s Santa Monica Place shopping center.

Shopping center developer Ernest W. Hahn Inc. in 1978 provided long-term space at La Jolla’s University Towne Centre for the Mingei International Museum of World Folk Art.

San Diego’s new Horton Plaza center, also developed by Hahn, houses the fledgling San Diego Art Center for $1 a year.

The Santa Monica Museum of Art is being launched as part of a new Main Street retail and office project.

The mingling of art and commerce is not a new idea, says developer Abby Sher, founder of the new Santa Monica Museum of Art. “In Italian piazzas dating back to the early Renaissance, all of the commercial, civic and cultural activity was focused around a central square. Rather than making a museum separate from the life of the city, the tendency now is to want cultural resources to be readily accessible.”

And accessible they are. Whole families trek from department stores to museums to fast food outlets. Children’s strollers are common, and shoppers wander into galleries with packages under their arms. Many visitors to one museum stumble in while searching for nearby restrooms, confides an employee.

Santa Monica’s USC Atelier, just a few feet from the Broadway, found 50% of its visitors were people who otherwise attended art exhibitions less than twice a year. “The shopping center is where the people are,” says Sandy Lewis, manager of retail operations at Santa Monica Place, “and art’s got to reach out to the people.”

Merchants like having the USC gallery around, says Lewis, and the Laguna museum’s opening night guests often overflow into Piret’s restaurant across the way. Says Jack Armstrong, director of the Los Angeles Children’s Museum atop the Los Angeles Mall at the Civic Center downtown: “We’re probably the largest attracter of visitors to the mall. . . . (Some) restaurants stay open on Saturday and Sunday just because of the trade they get from people visiting the museum.”

That’s obviously why C. J. Segerstrom & Sons, owner of South Coast Plaza, waives every penny of the Laguna Beach Museum of Art’s $100,000 annual rent. Says Maura Eggan, South Coast Plaza’s director of marketing: “There are dozens of malls for people to choose from, and we want to give them another reason for choosing ours.”

May Centers Inc. apparently felt likewise. That company donated the original 5,400-square-foot site of the Children’s Museum of San Diego in La Jolla Village Square in August, 1983. The Kinney shoe store next door moved out when the museum wanted to expand last year, says museum director Carole Yardley, and Kinney Shoe Corp. agreed to underwrite the major portion of rent costs for the additional 4,400 square feet.

Does the shopping center environment influence programming decisions? Not really, replies USC Atelier Director Noel Korten, who has overseen video, sound, environmental and other non-traditional exhibitions. “I don’t aspire to shock people with things,” says Korten, “but rather to engage them. I also try to not let the public nature of the gallery inhibit what we show.”

The Children’s Museum of San Diego has offered calligraphy and cartooning classes, even a talk on bugs by a local entomologist. Laguna’s docents lead lunchtime tours of exhibits through a program called “Art Sandwiched In.” And at the Mingei museum in La Jolla, Korean dancers have spilled onto the plaza out front.

Not that life in the shopping center is problem-free. A satellite of the Los Angeles Children’s Museum lasted only 15 months at Del Amo Fashion Center. “People went to Del Amo to shop,” says Children’s Museum director Armstrong. “We weren’t on their agenda.”

While rent is usually donated by the mall owners, museums still pay operating costs. The Craft and Folk Art Museum lost about $5,000 a month during the short time it was operating a second space at Santa Monica Place several years ago. Attendance was more than double that at its main site on Wilshire Boulevard, but museum shop sales were about $100 a day as compared with more than $1,000 a day coming in at Wilshire.

Their problem, summarizes museum Director Patrick Ela, was convincing shoppers that a hand-thrown cup at the museum store was worth $12 when the Broadway’s housewares department just across the way was selling machine-made cups at $2.50 apiece.

The Arco Center for Visual Art, begun in 1976, also folded its tent--twice. Although as many as 70,000 people a year attended its shows in the downtown Arco Plaza, Atlantic Richfield decided to close its gallery there in September, 1984, saying it had fulfilled its goal as a local art showcase. The site then reopened a few months later with a satellite of the Southwest Museum, but Southwest closed that space two weeks ago for financial reasons. (An Arco spokesman said there are no plans for the site to remain as an art space, noting that Arco Plaza itself is up for sale.)

“We only had a two-year financial commitment with Arco, an exhibition cancelled and we decided to close four months earlier than we planned,” says Southwest Director Patrick Houlihan.

Houlihan says his museum would be willing to try another shopping center site, and indeed the Laguna plans to maintain its mall site even after the permanent facility reopens in September.

Meanwhile, the Newport Harbor Art Museum hopes within one year to open a Fashion Island shop, probably called Muse, which will sell such things as fine art books, design objects and artist-made clothing. The Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum is talking with a developer about possible mall-based space in that city.

Experts predict more entire museums based in shopping centers or in larger mixed-use developments such as Bunker Hill’s California Plaza, where the Museum of Contemporary Art will soon open. Horton Plaza currently houses temporary quarters for the new San Diego Art Center, a modern art museum specializing in design and architecture, and plans call for the adjacent Balboa Theater to house the Center’s permanent home in a few years.

“The ordinary American sees museums as some people view church--a special occasion and not an everyday affair,” says Samella Lewis, co-founder of the Museum of African American Art. “I think if we’re going to ask people to be interested in the arts and culture and have them as a substantive part of their lives, we must make it available to them.”